Saturday, May 30, 2015

God Has No Grandchildren

Romans 8:12-17
Trinity Sunday
May 31, 2015
William G. Carter

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ - if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Today is Trinity Sunday. It is a day when we talk about God. What is God like? How do we describe the Lord whom we have not seen?

Isaiah describes his vision. In the temple, he is stunned to see God on a throne, surrounded by heavenly creatures. They are singing the hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,” and it scares him to death. Who is he to see the holy God? He feels unworthy because God is so great and so pure. But then one of the heavenly angels puts a hot burning coal on his unclean lips, and burns the sin away. God is holy, we are not, but God bridges the distance with mercy and forgiveness.

The psalm is one loud blast of thunder after another. God thunders over the roar of the sea. God thunders in the storm that snaps thick trees as if they are toothpicks. God governs the world with awesome power, so when we see nature shaking, when we hear the thunder, it is a sign of God’s power. Except that God is much greater than any thunder, lightning, or storm. And this is the God who gives strength to his people, who blesses his people with peace.

If you know anything about the letter to the Romans, you might expect a bit of holiness and thunder. In the beginning of this very thick letter, Paul says God is holy and righteous. We are not. “None of us have any excuse,” he says (2:1), not when we stand before a holy, holy, holy God. You can almost hear the thunder in the beginning of the book.

Yet while we might quiver in fear and inadequacy, here is what God does: God steps over all our impurities, and, in the death of Jesus, takes all the sins away. “God shows his love for us, that while  we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8). It’s the same script as Isaiah’s vision, only larger, wider, greater, even more fantastic.

If we welcome this grace, we don’t have to be slaves to our own passions any more. We don’t have to be enslaved by anything or anybody, he says. Oh no, because we’ve been adopted. That’s the word he uses. That’s the way he describes the love of God that claims us. We have been adopted.

Now that’s a remarkable word, an unexpected word. Paul is writing to a mixed house of Jews and Gentiles. I’m sure his words cut both ways. To the Gentiles, it was good news – they are included in the promises of God. Thanks to the faithfulness of Jesus, thanks to their faith in him, the Gentiles are adopted. They are included. They will inherit all the riches of God, just like their Jewish brothers and sisters. It’s good news.

Well, how about the Jews? Keeping covenant, living by the Torah, hoping for the Messiah – do they have to share the blessings of heaven with those newcomers? Didn’t all the centuries of faithfulness count for something? And now, at the eleventh hour, the non-Jewish people are included too?  

When I was eight years old, my parents announced I was getting a little brother. I didn’t think I needed a little brother. I already had a sister and that was enough. But we were getting a little brother. He was going to be adopted. I didn’t know what that mean, but it didn’t seem fair. Why should I have to share my toys with him? I was eight years older; by the time he would be old enough to be interesting, I would be halfway out the door.

And then we went to get him, just a tiny little peanut. My parents held him, they let me hold him, and maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. I looked at him and he smiled at me; later they told me it was only a gas bubble, but no matter. Ever since I discovered there was enough love for all of us. There was even enough love for another sister to be adopted three years later. The family was bigger than I wanted it to be, and that was fine.

Now, Paul is a Jew. In the next chapter, chapter nine, he will go on for a while about God’s love for his people Israel. Yes, they were loved first, and that love cannot be canceled, he said. Those of us who were not born Jews – and presumably that’s most of us – we were included later. And the truth of the matter is, this whole business of being “the children of God” is a metaphor anyway. It’s a way of talking about how we belong to our Creator. Push the metaphor to its extreme, and we are a blended family of a Single Parent in heaven. God wants us all, and the word for that claim on our lives is adoption. All of God’s children are adopted children.

It has always been that way.  Six months ago, we heard John the Baptist, out in the desert sands, announcing how the Messiah will come. Everybody went to hear him. Even the religious people went to hear him, and he gave them a hard time about it. John yelled at them, “Don’t you holy rollers presume for a minute that you get in the kingdom automatically. Don’t you dare say, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ as if that gives you an advantage. God can raise up children from the stones in this desert.” (Matt. 3:7-10).

Do you know what I think that means? I think it means that in the kingdom of God, it doesn’t matter who your earthly parents are. God welcomes us one person at a time, one generation at a time. It has nothing to do with position  or privilege. Nobody gets into the kingdom because Momma used to sing in the choir or Daddy was the head usher. Nobody gets into the kingdom because Grandpa was a generous giver or Grandma commanded the Women’s Association. No, it’s one generation at a time, with these people right here, who discover that God loves them, that God wants them, that God invites them to live generous and holy lives.

So I call this sermon, “God Has No Grandchildren.” I believe that to be true. God has no grandchildren, only children, and every single one of them is adopted. It happens at the baptismal font, when we announce that the household of God has just gotten larger. There is enough love for one more, and then some. Every one is wanted. Every one is loved. Every one is called and commissioned to live the life of Christ in a broken world.

Elders of the church, this is the message of your ministry. These are the people of your flock, the sheep of God’s hand. They are here because something in them wishes to know that they matter. They are here because they are hungry for the grace of the Gospel. Some may be here out of habit, others out of curiosity, others because we serve a good cup of coffee. So elders, welcome them to the household of God, provide a good worship service for them, give them Christian Education that they would grow in their knowledge and love of God, and challenge them to hear God’s invitation to serve this corner of the world and beyond.

Deacons of the church, this is the message of your ministry. These are the people of your flock, the sheep of God’s hand. Look into their faces: they are strong and they are fragile. Every one of them has known pain and difficulty at one point or another, but most of them dress up for church and don’t let it show. What they really want is to know that they are loved. So learn their names. Get to know them. Take each one seriously. Serve them when they are strong, hold them when they are vulnerable. In all things, help them to stand in their full dignity as children of God, and never let anybody put them down. They are God’s adopted children.

This is a day for talking about God.  God is holy, but never aloof. God comes to the likes of us to say, “You are precious and you are mine.” In that relationship, we begin the journey that will change our lives, enlarge our hearts, and change the world. And we take our place among the great company of witnesses that love and serve the Lord.

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

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Pregnant Prayer

Romans 8:15-27
May 24, 2015
William G. Carter

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen. But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Pentecost is a noisy day. The last of the fifty days of Easter, we call this the birthday of the church. And we remember: the early band of Christians gathered in the upper room in Jerusalem. As they hid from the outside world, God blew in through the windows. The Spirit of God came upon them like the sound of a mighty wind. Everybody in the room started preaching the resurrection of Jesus, in all the known languages of the world. It was a noisy day.

From the Psalm, Psalm 104, we have a poem about how the world was made. It has seven stanzas, one for each day of creation, and the psalm is full of noise. Listen to the thunder in the clouds, the roar of the waterfalls, the symphony of the birdsong, the mooing of the cattle, the roaring of the lions, the splashing of the sea monsters. Psalm 104 says the world is full of noise because the Spirit of God gives life.

In Romans we hear another noise. It’s the sound of a groan … hhhhhh.  It is a belly groan, like a woman who is ten months pregnant and the baby isn’t here yet… hhhhhh. Paul says all of creation is groaning… hhhhhh.

He does say all creation. Paul doesn’t think small. All creation, he says.

That makes sense if you read the Bible. Whenever anything big happens in the Bible, all creation is affected. Adam and Eve disobey God, and the garden becomes a field with thistles and thorns and snakes that bite. When Israel was in Egyptian slavery, God spoke to Moses; and there was a bush blazing with fire yet not consumed. When God gave the law to Israel, there was thunder and lightning, fire and smoke, and a thick cloud covered the mountain.

And it continues into the Christian scriptures. When Jesus was born, Matthew said there was a strange star in the sky.  When Jesus died, Matthew there was darkness and a great earthquake, and the tombs opened and dead people got up and walked into Jerusalem. At dawn on Easter, there was another earthquake and the stone was rolled away. And when the Spirit came on Pentecost, there was wind and fire.

Life affects life. Everything we do - and everything that happens to us - has some impact on nature, because all of life is connected. That’s why Paul speaks of “all creation.” And if there is a single sound at the heart of it all, it’s a groan. Hhhhhh.

Some of the scholars say he is using mythological language here. Maybe so, but you know where those scholars say that? From their desks indoors.  If they only closed their books, shut down their computers, and went outside to listen, they might hear the groan.

My wife and I went to the Canadian Rockies two summers ago. It’s one of my favorite places on the planet. I would go there every summer if I could. We flew to Calgary, drove over to an inn in Canmore, threw our suitcases inside, and then drove an hour up the road to Lake Louise. Ever been there? It’s one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, surrounded by ten thousand foot peaks. We had canoed on the lake on our honey moon, and we couldn’t wait to get back. There was no way to even get within two miles of the parking lot. The road was jammed with tourists, people parking sideways, Canadian Mounties turning away the excess throngs. I didn’t realize that Canada had a Labour Day, too. For them, like us, it’s the last hurrah of summer.

We waited in line, couldn’t get in, turned around and came back two days later. When we got there, we noticed the Victoria Glacier was a third the size that it was ten years before. It’s melting from the warmer climate. The trash cans were full, and a lot of the tourists didn’t bother to throw anything in the trash. They threw it on the ground. And off in the distance, I heard creation groan.

This isn’t mythological language. It’s real. Paul says it is a form of prayer. When you don’t have the words, when you don’t know how to pray or what to pray, the Spirit groans. Hhhhhh. That is one of the noises of Pentecost, in sighs too deep for words. Have you ever prayed like that?

I stood beside a hospital bed this week. In the bed was a man I love as much as I have ever loved anybody. He’s been having problems swallowing. Apparently the disease that is affecting his reasoning has affected his memory of how to swallow. I stood there, and I didn’t know how to pray. The words didn’t come. Here is the sound that my heart made: hhhhhh. Is that a prayer? You bet it’s a prayer – a request for him and for all things to be made well.

Frankly, some of the prayers that I hear are a lot smaller than that. If we lived in Atlanta, we could tune in to  see that sparkly TV preacher. His name will tell you everything: Creflo Dollar. Apparently his given name was Michael Smith, but he changed it to Creflo Dollar. And he’s all about the dollar. His private jet is getting old, so he says the Lord has told him to pray that 200,000 of his followers will each give $300 or more, so he can buy a new $6.5 million dollar jet.[1] If you ask me, that’s a really small prayer.

Or there’s that football coach that we had in high school. Before we played a game, he led us in a prayer. He didn’t care if he got caught, and he didn’t care if any of the kids actually went to church. One time we were playing a Catholic high school in Binghamton. It was a small team in height and weight and numbers, and our coach prayed, “Lord, let our lions devour those Christians.” I am not making this up. In the grand scheme of things, it was a very small prayer.

Small prayers are not worthy of the eighth chapter of Romans. We are talking about bigger needs than football games and private jets. Paul speaks of the redemption of the universe. Not merely the individual soul or our little corner of it, but the entire created order. It has been broken. Back in chapter five, Paul affirms that “sin came into the world through one man” (Adam), and “the power of death spread to all because all have sinned” (5: 12). All things have been damaged by self-centered thoughts and actions. The power of death has threatened to consume us.

But thanks to the loving heart of God, one man has broken the power of death, and it’s Jesus Christ. In his death and resurrection, death has been broken. And in Paul’s words, “Just as (Adam’s) trespass led to condemnation for all, so (Jesus’) act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (5:18).

That’s why he says the whole creation is groaning, and that we who have the Spirit groan along. It’s because we are waiting for God to fix everything, to forgive everything, to renew everything. The groans are labor pains for a whole new world. That is what God is promising. And while we wait, we groan.

This is the evidence of Pentecost: that the Spirit of God within us is praying with sighs too deep for words. And the universal message of Pentecost, that Christ is crucified and risen, is slowly working itself out in those who wish for what God wants to do with the world and all those within it. It is God’s wish to make all things new, not some things but all things. And it begins with those of us who profess that Jesus is alive and that he is the Father’s agent to redeem the whole creation. This is God's mission.

Without a mission, Easter is merely an oddity of nature, a tomb declared to be empty, and that’s it. The greater mission of God is to make all things well, and all manner of things well. It began on Easter and it’s still going on.

Sadly, to hear some Christians talk, their mission is so much smaller than that. I’ve heard some fundamentalists say they are only interested in making more fundamentalists, and let the world go to hell. Hhhhhh…  It's so much more than that. Let's read the Bible, all of it, beginning with the eighth chapter of Romans. God is interested in so much more than our little corners of turf. God loves the whole world – the entire world - and wills it to become whole.

God shows this by sending Jesus to preach and heal and feed, to take the world’s destructive tendencies upon himself on the cross, and then God raises him from the dead, announcing the power of death is broken. This is the heart of all hope, that God is redeeming the world.

In the meantime, what about us? We have to put our hope into action, and take part in God’s great work of healing and restoring. We must live our prayers, for what does it matter to pray for things that we don’t also do? Pentecost means the church must be the church, witnessing to the abundant life of God in Christ through deeds and words. We live at peace. We offer our lives in love. We pray special attention to those the world rejects. In the words of one of the great critics of Christian faith, “I might believe in the Redeemer if his followers looked more redeemed” (Friedrich Nietzsche).

We live the Gospel. We speak the Gospel. We serve the Gospel. And if the cause is great and the matter is enormous, we trust God will do through us what must be done, and God will finish what we cannot.

And in the face of the world’s enormous hurts, if we don’t know how to pray, we groan ... hhhhhh … for in our wordless sighs, that’s the Spirit of God praying in us and for us, inviting us to do what we can, promising to finish God’s own New Heaven and Earth.

Today is Pentecost. The Spirit of God has come among us to continue what God has begun in Jesus. And among the noises of Pentecost is the prayerful sound of a new creation being born. Can you say it with me?  Hhhhhh.

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

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Filling the Chair

Acts 1:15-26
Easter 7
May 17, 2015
William G. Carter

Here is a page out the scrapbook of the early church. The author of the Gospel of Luke has begun a second book. We call it the Acts of the Apostles. Volume One tells the story of Jesus, from the shepherds at the manger to the angels at the empty tomb, with a little bit before and little bit after. Volume Two picks up where Volume One leaves off, with Jesus going up to heaven and the disciples wondering, “Now what?”

All the razzle-dazzle is over. Crucifixion is over, Easter is past, Jesus is now out of sight. It’s back to business. They return to the familiar upper room, and Mary his mother is with them. They spend a good bit of time in prayer. They share meals together, and then Simon Peter banged .the table with his goblet and began to speak.

“I know we are all missing Jesus,” he said, “but we are missing more than that. Judas Iscariot leaves behind an empty chair. What he did was terrible, and that sad episode has shaken us all. But it’s time to move on. There’s a verse in Psalm 109 – ‘Let someone take his place of leadership’ (109:8).” The room buzzed, people nodded their heads.

It was the first significant decision before a church that had no visible Lord. So how did they handle it? I’ll tell you how they handled it: they formed a committee.

Oh, I know. Luke says nothing about a committee. The text does not mention a nominating committee. But let me assure you: that was an inadvertent omission. I mean, you know they must have formed a committee. They had 120 voices, each chiming in their two cents. That's too much advice and too much confusion. I don’t know how you get a large group of people to agree on anything, especially if they are nominating candidates for office.

And so, they hand the work over to a committee, somewhere between verse 22 and verse 23. They appointed eight committee members, gave them a room and two ground rules. The first: the nominee must have followed Jesus for at least three years; no fly-by-nighters in our leadership. The second: we need a decision by tomorrow morning. So they put on the coffee pot, elected a moderator, and began their work. From the beginning, there was no small debate. No sooner had they started, and hands shot into the air.

The moderator recognizes member number three. "Yes sir. I've been thinking about this, and we need a young person. When I look around and see how old the apostles are, it bothers me. Look at Matthew, James, and Bartholomew! Each of them has one sandal in the tar pit. They're not going to last long, and it’s time to get the next generation involved. God knows, I'm no spring chicken. That's what I wanted to say.  Thank you."

The moderator recognizes member number four. "I'm from Caesarea. My name is Eliezer. I agree it might be good to have someone young, but let's remember we really need is someone who can handle money. Judas was good about that. He knew how to hang on to the purse-strings.  I haven't been a Christian long, but I see us giving away our money to all the wrong people. It makes me nervous. That's all."

Member number two. "I'm Bob, from Bethany. I have a bakery. I saw a lot of Jesus that last week. I think we should pick someone with a thick skin. I saw that no matter what they do, church leaders always get hammered with criticism. We can't choose someone with a tender heart, who takes everything personally."

Member number six. "I beg to differ with Bethany Bob the Baker. Sure, there's criticism, but must we nominate some insensitive fool? Jesus cared for the weak and vulnerable, and so must we. There is no room in the church for some fool who bulldozes over other people's feelings. I don’t want a leader like that. Thank you."

 Member number seven. "As always, I'm the only woman on this committee. I want to point out that none of the eleven are women. Jesus always cared about women. He treated us like real human beings. He taught us.  He included us in his work. And Mary, Joanna and the others raised money for his journeys. I think we have an excellent opportunity to take a prophetic stand. The Church can be different! We must not pass it up. Let's elect a woman to be the next apostle!  Thank you."

Member number one. "Well, it's no secret to anybody that I wasn't happy with all of Jesus' choices. I don't think he should have picked Thomas. It's wrong having someone with so many doubts. Christians have to be strong. They need to have a strong faith, not a lot of questions. We need a strong believer, not some namby-pamby curiosity seeker. That's all I want to say."

Member numbereight. "I'm from here in Jerusalem. I wasn't happy with Jesus' choices either. I want to choose someone to be proud of, someone who can stand before the crowds and preach with a silver tongue.  Personally, I'm tired of those foul-mouthed fishermen from Galilee. They are sloppy, smell of tilapia, and have no class."

Member number five. "I've been sitting here listening to all of you rattle on. None of you are facing facts. We should sign up the first sucker we can find. This is a big job we want them to do. The less we tell them, the better. Jesus never told the twelve what they were getting into. Why should we? Let’s be practical. No one is going to take the job if they discover how much it involves. Wake up, people! We are trying to fill a slot."

On and on, the committee continued their work through the night. They worked. They argued. They drank coffee. When Peter arrived in the morning, the committee said, “We’ve done what we can.” Peter said, “Great! Who do you have?” They had two candidates, equally qualified: Joseph Barsabbas with four votes, and Matthias with four votes. “We can't decide," said the moderator. "How about if we have thirteen apostles instead of twelve? There is plenty of work to do. What is one more?"

"No,” said Peter, “that can't be. Jesus picked twelve. There are twelve tribes of Israel. Twelve is the number, no more, no less."

The moderator said, “We did what we could. We have two candidates for one position. We are unable to decide. Something else must be done."

 “Yes," said Peter, nodding slowly. "Something will be done."

With that, what follows may be the oddest scene in the entire New Testament. The whole church prays, hands over the whole matter to God. Then Luke says they cast lots and Matthias is chosen.

Now wait a second. The nominating committee had worked carefully. They had reviewed every possible option. The lives of two men were at stake. The future of the Jesus Movement was at stake. But when the committee reaches a stalemate, the situation is simply tossed into God’s lap. Whatever will be, will be. Is that how the story goes?

Perhaps, but perhaps not. For one thing, the committee did its work. They weren’t looking for merely anybody. They were looking for a witness to the resurrection of Jesus, searching for someone who knows Christ is alive and rules over all. It couldn’t be just anybody to fill the empty chair. It had to be the right person.

That’s what our own nominating team has been doing. These days, when we look for an elder or deacon, our nominating team asks first, “What does the church need to get done?” The next question follows logically: “Who would be the best person to do that kind of work?” When they spend some time upfront, asking those kind of questions, we have more of a sense that God is leading us to the right people. And it is far more satisfying and affirming for the people we ask.

So the early church gave some prayerful thought about who their leaders could be. It wasn’t sloppy or quick. They didn’t hand off the task to a headhunting firm and say, “Get us an apostle.” No, they looked around the room – who has the ability? Who could do the work with the right encouragement? Who is God working in at the present time? And they came up with two – Joseph, who some called Barsabbas, and others called Justus; he must have been widely known by a lot of people; - and Matthias, about whom we don’t know very much at all.

They came up with two, two possibilities for one position. Because it’s generally true that two or more people can do the job that somebody has to do. And to decide which one, they “cast lots.”

What does that mean? At various times in history, to cast lots was to put a number of stones in a small cup. They stones would be marked or colored. The cup would be shaken until one of the stones would jump out. It was widely believed that this was a fair way to decide, like flipping a quarter and calling heads or tails. As the book of Proverbs said, “Casting the lot puts an end to disputes and decides between powerful contenders” (18:18).

More than that, it leaves the matter in God’s hands. The church has done its part in discerning the right people. Ultimately the final decision is God’s decision – so it is possible to say, the first little stone to pop out of the cup is the stone God selects. So the church could look back on the decision and declare, “The Lord chose Matthias, from the two that we carefully selected.”

It’s a different way of thinking about decisions, you know. We will cast our votes in local elections this week. Some believe the candidate with the most signs will win. Or it will be the candidate with the biggest financial war chest. Or the candidate with the biggest promises to repay. Or the candidate that some anonymous business man has in his pocket. Imagine if we were to spend more time reflecting on who is the best person for the good of the whole group, the leader that God would choose?

How is it that God makes these kind of choices, untainted by manipulative hands? The story from the early church suggests that the church folks did the upfront work, but they all agreed to hand it over to God.

Years ago, I heard about a church that was looking for elders to govern the congregation. They had six available seats, and they went to the congregation with eight names. The pastor was new. She said, “Why did you come up with eight when you were looking for six?” The committee leader said, “We may get a couple more nominations from the floor.” This was curious, and indeed, two people were nominated at the meeting when the vote was taken. Ten people for six positions. What are we going to do?

And they passed out ballots and instructed them all to vote for only six people out of the ten. If you voted for seven, only the first six would count. Then they had a hymn sing while the counters tallied up the votes, and declared the six next leaders of the church.

The pastor said, “Don’t you worry about hurting someone’s feelings?” “Oh no,” replied one of the losers, “we believe God speaks through the majority of the people who love God. It’s never about any of us. It’s about doing the work of God.” Then she added, “Frankly, I’m glad God didn’t pick me this time.”

What an amazing thing: a blend of human discernment and Divine selection.

I have a friend who grew up as a Mennonite in Lancaster County. She told me her father was chosen as a minister by casting lots. The last minister moved on. The people looked around the church, took notice who was there, who was paying attention to the sermons, who was living the Christian life, and who was available. They saw a number of possibilities, took stock of the consensus of the group, wrote the candidates’ names on slips of paper, and placed the slips in a Bible. Sylvia’s father was one of the names written down.

The whole congregation knelt in silent prayer. After a few minutes, the Bible was shaken. The first name to fall out was God's choice as their next minister. It was Sylvia’s father. “I accept this as the will of God,” he said with a shaky voice, and everybody applauded. Then the congregation passed the plate and collected enough money to send him to Bible school, so he would have some idea what he was doing.

Human discernment and Divine decision – that’s what we seek in the Christian church. Today, in a church not far from here, the congregation is voting on a new pastor. The pulpit has been vacant for two years. The search committee has looked through two-hundred-thirty dossiers. They have met every week or two to pray for God’s guidance, to talk about what their church needs, to look diligently, and to wait for the Holy Spirit to make it happen. Today may be the day. If so, there will be a presbytery meeting right here at 11:00 tomorrow to confirm what God has done.

I was talking with the chair of the search committee. “You’ve been at it a long time,” I said. “Yes,” he said, “but some things happen only when God wants them to happen.”

I said, “How are you feeling after 230 applications and a hundred weekly meetings?” He replied, “This has been one of the most spiritual seasons of my life. God has not been in a hurry, but God has prepared us for the right person at the right time. Our meeting room has become holy ground.”

Maybe the selection of Matthias isn’t so unusual after all. He was not picked as one of the original twelve, but he was the next one that God wanted. He didn’t have to campaign to get the position, because he knew the decision wasn’t ultimately up to him. And when he was selected, he did not gloat or boast or strut around like a champion – no, he got to work for the people of God.

You know, there are these moments in our lives, yours and mine, when the stars align, when the angels sing, when the heart is confirmed, and it is as clear as anything is clear that God is ruling over us. There are moments, even seasons, when the work we do feels like the work that God wants to get done. Praise God for when those moments come, because they declare that every one of us has a purpose, that every one of us has something we can do for God and his rule over earth.

As for the other moments, the moments when the vision is foggy and the way is not clear, I leave you with one of the best things one of our own church members ever said to me. I saw the lights go on in her eyes as she declared, “So what you’re saying is this: we are the only people that God has to use.”  Uh huh -- all of us.

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

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Love, Obedience, and Mom

1 John 4:16(b) – 5:6
Easter 6
May 10, 2015
William G. Carter 

Well, she told us not to go next door. So I am certain my mother was angry when she looked outside and my sister and I weren’t where we were supposed to be.

When I was a kid, there was no such thing as a fenced-in yard, especially on our little acre on Day Hollow Road. We were free to roam and encouraged to do so. The creek across the road was a laboratory for aquatic life. The small hill going down to the creek provided our mountain climbing experience. We were raised as free-range children, and for the most part, turned out pretty well.

There were only two stipulations: be home for supper and don’t go next door. Supper was a no-brainer; the food was the portal to the rest of the evening activities: usually a bath, a story to settle down, and if we were lucky, a fresh episode of the Beverly Hillbillies. But I could never understand why we couldn’t go next door.

The people were nice enough. Polish, I think. The mama seemed ancient, even though she was only a few years older than our mom. As I recall, she smoked hand-rolled cigarettes in a kitchen that always seemed a little dark. Maybe my mother didn’t want us over there. I don’t know.

But I will never forget the day my sister Debbie said, “Did you see that they are growing grapes next door?” Well, those neighbors were Catholics. Of course, they were growing grapes. Two little uptight Presbyterian kids didn’t know the multiple uses for grapes. All we knew is that grapes are tasty. And those grapes were big and purple, dripping with the succulent morning dew. They were ripe for the picking.

Now, as the first-born Model Child, I believe I quoted my mother: “Mom said, ‘You may eat from any of the fruit from our garden, but not from the vineyard of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” My sister retorted, “But did Mom say we couldn’t eat those grapes right over there.” Like Adam in the Garden of Eden, I stood there silent. She stepped over the invisible property line and then looked over her shoulder, as if to say, “Aren’t you coming?”

The vines were just thirty feet away. We reached them at exactly the same time. We stretched our arms in choreographed motion. Each of us had fingers touching huge, succulent grapes – and then she saw us. Years later our mom confessed she was afraid we had wandered somewhere dangerous. But any fear was now transformed into fury. “I told you to stay in our yard, and not go over there,” she bellowed. Her voice froze us in our tracks. We knew what was coming next. Within a flash, she had leapt thirty feet in a single bound, grabbed each one of us by the ear, yanked us back home, and provided a high volume soundtrack for our return journey.

We had been bold – but clearly it was the day of judgment. She had given us the commandment but we had done the opposite. Now there would be punishment. Those were the days before kids were allowed to get away with things. We expected and received the necessary swat, which my sister totally deserved, although Mom never believed in discrimination. Then we sat on chairs pointed into different corners, while the kitchen timer kept track of our penalty time.

I don’t tell you this episode as a form of therapy, although it does feel good to get it off my chest. No, I tell you this sad tale because it intersects with our scripture texts. As one of his last charges, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will obey me.” That’s the essence of the second half of John 15. And then we have this longer section from the First Letter of John, a passage full of “love” and “obedience,” while touching also on fear, punishment, and judgment.

The early church hung onto these words because they offered a path for making a way through the world. Jesus was risen, which meant he had gone back to heaven. At any moment, he promised to return and be with us, especially if we were in trouble. But the church has largely experienced his presence as an invisible presence. We hear the echo of his voice, which he described as the Holy Spirit still speaking on his behalf. Jesus speaks through the preaching and the teaching of his words. It’s another proof for his resurrection that he continues to address women and men with his living words.

But words aren’t always enough. They must be joined to actions. Sounds and syllables may sooth the ear, but it is the good deed in which the words take flesh.

Maybe you heard about the young college student who was running behind on getting home for Mother’s Day. The semester was winding up, time was short. So he went into the Hallmark store and said, “Show me your best Mother’s Day card.” The clerk behind the counter said, “I know the very card.” Indeed it was beautiful. The words flowed from the heart. The card said everything he wanted to say. This is the card. Even though it was $8.99, he bought it. And his mother broke into tears when she opened the envelope and read the card.

A year later, in early May, he was running behind again. Classes were hard, final exams were brutal, so he stopped in the same store and made the same request. He paid for the card, signed his name, put it in the envelope, and gave it to his Mom. She was not pleased. She looked at the card, looked up at him, looked back down, and said, “You gave me the same card as last year.” He hadn’t noticed. Never paid attention! Because to him, they were only words. Empty words.

So she looked at him with sad eyes and said, “If you really love me, you’ll clean your room.” In every generation of Christian people, the words must be embodied in our actions. You can’t talk about love without actually loving somebody.

In fact, here’s the thing about the Gospel of John, and the First Letter of John. Both speak of the “commandment of Jesus” (singular). He says, “If you love me, you will do my commandment” (singular). And what is his commandment? What is the gravitational center of everything he teaches, according to John? “This is my commandment,” says Jesus, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” (15:12, 13:34)

“If you love me, you will love one another as I have loved you.” This is his “commandment.” This is the way the Gospel becomes real in every generation. This is the fundamental obedience that sets every Christian free: to act for the well-being of those around us, as an expression of the love first shown to us by God in Jesus Christ. This is the love that can be commanded. It is an act of self-giving grace for the benefit of somebody else, as an expression of the grace given to us by Jesus. And this commandment is not burdensome.

Well, I can say that now. But let me take you back to the family kitchen on the day when sister Debbie and I were busted for disobeying our mom. There we were, on separate chairs, pointed into different corners. And even though I was a young lad, a new emotion began to well up from the dungeon of my soul. I hated my sister. She got me into trouble. It was all her fault (never mind that I didn’t stand up to her). She led me into temptation. I could have probably sneaked over by myself and got some grapes, and actually ate a few, but it was her idea to go – and that’s how we got caught.

I despised my sister. Even when the kitchen timer finally dinged, and she sprang off like a shot, I sat in the chair and sulked for a while. I was not going to budge, especially if it meant going off with her on another costly adventure. She may have been ready to move on, but I was not. So I sat in my dark cloud. I pouted. It felt really good. Well, not “good” in any liberating way, but in a self-righteous way, I felt like a victim – as far as I cared, she was completely to blame. It was all her fault. And I never wanted to see her again. Ever. At least, not until supper time.

Again, my Mother intervened. Years later, she would buy two copies of a poster that she found at a Christian book store, the same poster for each of us. It was the picture of two kids bickering, and beneath was the scripture verse that comes from our text: “Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). That’s the poster she installed on both of our bedroom walls when we were teenagers.

But on that fateful day, she did something far more significant. She called for my sister, who returned nervously. She looked at me with my dark, sullen face. She said to me, “So you’re in a bad mood?” I scowled.

So she asked me to stand up. Then she turned my little chair out of the corner, and turned my sister’s little chair to face it. Then she said, “I’m going to set the timer again. And you are both going to sit here, and glare at one another, and you are not allowed to smile. You can’t turn away, you have to make ugly faces at one another, and you cannot smile until the timer goes off.”

Well, that worked for about ten seconds. My frown began to melt and she said, “Stop it! I told you to make an ugly face.” My sister giggled and Mom ignored her. “You have to stare at another,” she said. It was terrible. It was such hard work. It took forever for the timer to ding, even though she had set it for a lot less time. It was so hard to hate my sister when I was forced to look at her. Oh, that was hard work.

Do you know why my Mom did that? Because she is a good Mom, and because she knows the heart of the Gospel is the commandment of Jesus to love, to love one another, to look one in the face and to take each other seriously.

And I was thinking about it: we are having a family cookout at my parent’s house at four this afternoon. My sister will be there. I never know what to get any of them for Mother’s Day. So this year, I believe I will stop by the supermarket and pick up a large cluster of grapes. Maybe I’ll take a bottle of fermented grape juice, too. We’ll pop it open and retell the family story.

“This is my commandment,” says Jesus, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” The quality of our love is in direct proportion to the maturity of our faith. It’s all of the same piece. As someone has said, this is “the logic of Christian morality: we love, because he first loved us.”[1]

Someone was telling me about a new set of words that they are using when a child is baptized. Actually it’s an old set of words from the French Reformed Church, dusted off for a new day. I like it very much, and sometime I’m going to say it when a child is baptized here. This is how it goes: the minister splashes the child with water, in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. And then the minister says:

Little one, for you Jesus Christ came into the world:
for you he lived and showed God’s love;
for you he suffered the darkness of Calvary
and cried at the last, “It is accomplished”;
for you he triumphed over death and rose in newness of life;

for you he ascended to reign at God’s right hand.
All this he did for you, little one, though you do not know it yet.
And so the word of Scripture is fulfilled: “We love because God loved us first.”[2] 

You heard what he says. “This is my commandment…”

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

[1] D. Moody Smith: Interpretation: First, Second, and Third John (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1991) p. 115.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Pruned or Removed?

John 15:1-8
Easter 5
May 3, 2015
William G. Carter

”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 

I love this passage. It comes up with regularity at the communion table. As Jesus prepares to depart his disciples, he speaks in a figure of speech: “I am the Vine, you all are the branches.”

This is how he speaks of our relationship to him. It is Christ who sustains us and gives us life, and I take that to mean “the Risen Christ.” This is a text that only makes sense after Easter, as Jesus is raised and available to all. He is our Life, the Life of God given for us. When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we receive Christ through our own imperfect faith. The life that goes out through the Vine is extended to all the branches.

And this is how he speaks of our relationship to one another. The branches are connected through the Vine. The same mercy Christ showed in the flesh when he was among us is the mercy we show to one another. We refuse to take advantage of those to whom we are connected. We will not insult or abuse or refuse to forgive, for we are connected through Christ, who holds us in the love of God. This love is patient and kind, never insisting on its own way. Such love what bears all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. It never ends.

Mmm… it would be enough to simply pause and take all of this in. Feels good, doesn’t it? Just breathe in the warm glow of God’s Spirit and know that we are loved.

The only problem is that’s only half the passage. The other half is troubling. God loves the Vineyard,[1] but some of the branches wither and die. Some of the branches are gathered as kindling for the fireplace. Some of the branches have born no fruit and are no good to anybody.

Jesus is the Real Vine, but his Father is the Vine Dresser. And do you know what the Vine Dresser does? He goes after the Vine with a big hooked knife.

Yesterday my wife was the Rose Bush Dresser. She took her snips to the rose bush by our front sidewalk and trimmed away all the dead stalks. She cut it down to almost nothing. At one point, I heard that rose bush cry out. She snipped and the rose bush said, “Ouch! That hurts!” Of course it does. It always hurts when God comes with a big hooked knife.

And it’s difficult to regard God in this way. Maybe it fits, maybe it doesn't. I went to the funeral home to pay my respects. He was 34 years old, three little kids and a bad heart valve. Nobody knew about the heart. His mother gripped the hand of his young widow and wailed, “I don’t know why God took him away from us.” Nobody knew what to say. Some people tried to make sense of it, and they couldn’t. It was a terrible thing, a severe thing, so God got most of the blame. Everybody felt like God cut him away.

Or that little country church by the crossroads. The cemetery out back has long had more occupants than the pews. Once it was filled with the sound of children. There were never very many of them, but they were there until most of them grew up and moved away. They didn’t stay on the dairy farms that circled the little church. The new highway directed newcomers in another direction. So the people in the church decided to have one last reunion, invited everybody back one last time, made plans for a final worship service, and then called a realtor. A small crowd sang, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past, Our Hope for Years to Come.”

Then the guest preacher gave the last benediction and said, “Let’s have one last potluck meal.” They shuffled out, all but one of them. Her legs wouldn’t budge. She didn’t want to leave. Closing that church felt just like dying. Ouch! The knife hurts.

I know there are some people who believe that faith is supposed to make you successful, that every year will bring an increase, that we will continue endlessly to reach further and stretch taller. In rational moments, we know that isn’t true, and a text like this offers a corrective. “My Father is the Vine Dresser,” says Jesus. You know what that means? He cuts away every branch that bears no fruit. And he cuts every branch that does bear fruit, to prune it, to make it bear more fruit. The branches that bear fruit, the branches that bear no fruit – both of them experience the knife of God.

When Jesus says this, he is playing with the verbs. In Greek, the word for "cutting" has the same root as the word for "pruning." They sound the same.  "Every branch that bears no fruit, airei (he cuts away).  Every branch that does bear fruit, athairei (he prunes)." Airei. He cuts. Athairei.  He prunes.  They sound the same. They look the same. And, the truth is, they feel the same. Cutting or pruning, the experience feels the same.

It is hard to like this text. It speaks of a hard truth, which is why we avoid it. We really don’t want anybody to cut us or trim us. We certainly don’t want to be hemmed in, much less criticized. There is the illusion that comes to all of us, that maybe we ought to let things slide, leave them alone, let them work themselves out over time. Do you prefer think that’s going to work?

I remember serving on a committee one time, not here, somewhere else. None of our committees are like this. We had a committee member who wouldn’t shut up. Always the expert on everything. Always the critic to point out what everybody else was doing beneath his standard. The chair of the committee never did anything about it, and figured it would work itself out. Well, it did. People got tired of that guy blathering on, so some of them stopped trying to speak. Others refused to volunteer, saying, “Why bother?” One by one, we all drifted away. Finally the loud mouth alone was left, so he went home.

And the committee was determined to be non-essential, and was eliminated. Talk about fruitless – have you ever been involved in something fruitless?

When John Calvin comments on this verse, he says the crop needs “incessant culture.” That is, it needs continuing care from the Vine Dresser. So God expresses love by staying involved with the crop, that he would trim here, cut there, all to make the Vine abound in fruit. The picture of God here is not an absentee land owner, but an attentive farmer, constantly involved, regularly paying attention, knowing right where to cut and when. Calvin says we need this; otherwise “our flesh abounds in superfluities and destructive vices.” So we need to be pruned, which is what the living God will do, provided we are still alive, and Christ is still somehow connected to us.

One of the blessings of this church is the group of people who gather here every morning of the week. They unlock and let themselves in, and they talk about how alcohol has been ruining their lives. Under the influence, they have smashed up cars, demolished relationships, lost their jobs, even gotten arrested. Every one of them comes here because of they got in trouble with alcohol. One of them said to me, “God had to slap me awake. I had lost everything – my wife, my kids, my house – and then I came here and realized God still had a hold of me. I had everything taken away, but God still had me.”

“Man, it hurt to realize the truth, but that’s when life began to turn around. It was God’s doing.”

I think the point is we cannot grow if we don’t allow God to trim away. We cannot live abundantly unless we are regularly pruned. As my wife did her surgery on the rose bush, she pointed to all the new shoots of life down below. “If I don’t cut the winter burn away, the new blooms won’t have a chance.” There is a lot of human wisdom in horticulture.

“I am the Vine, you are the branches, and my Father is the Vine dresser.” It is a promise to all who are connected to Jesus Christ. Life comes with a good bit of trimming. Growth comes when we let God trim away the old stuff, the futile stuff, the extraneous stuff.

Sometimes it is a closely held belief, something we have trusted, something we have clung to. I think of the other text today, of the apostle Philip out on the Christian frontier. And here is a eunuch from Ethiopia, reading out of the prophet Isaiah, and wondering how it applies to him. He is an Ethiopian, so he doesn’t look like Philip. He is a eunuch, a sexual minority, so the book of Deuteronomy (23:1) doesn’t want him around. And he is a Gentile – three strikes!

… except that God is working in his life, and he wishes to be baptized. If God has said “yes,” who is Philip to say no? So Philip baptizes him as a Christ follower, and then he has to go back and explain to the church why he has done a pastoral act for a person that, up until now, the Old Testament excluded. Do you think that was easy? Philip has to let go of a long-held belief because the Spirit of God said, “Go talk to that man.”

Sometimes it is the dreams we carry around in our imagination. If I take the promotion, I can make more money, I can move up the ladder, I can better myself. Perhaps, but if you take the promotion it might destroy your family life. So what are going to do? Maybe it’s our vain dreams that must be pruned in order for something else to grow.

What needs to be pruned? Is it the persistent grudge that we hold against the person we once loved? Or is it some kind of pride that has overgrown the garden and choking out the good crop?  Or it is something even more sinister, like the long-established patterns of hatred or indifference?

When Baltimore erupted on Tuesday night, I was telling our Deacons not to believe everything they see on television. Some of the news stations are lazy; they find a clip of a burning car and keep playing it over and over. Apparently one network found footage of last year’s riots in Venezuela and played it with the caption, “Baltimore is on fire.” (I heard that on the internet, so it’s probably not true.)

I said, “Don’t believe everything the world tells you.” Here’s the truth: most of the Baltimore protests were peaceful. And when they weren’t, over a hundred church leaders marched into one of the worst areas.[2] Unarmed, they confronted the rioters one by one. They put their lives on the line by moving between the rioters and the police, and then kneeling in prayer.

Somebody shouted, “You people are crazy.” One replied, “No, we believe in Jesus. The craziness is believing that violence will ever solve anything or that racism will go unaddressed. Neither form of craziness is worthy of God.”[3]

What is it that needs to be pruned? For those who abide in Christ, it will anything that keeps us from growing in Christ.  That’s the promise of the Gospel in this text. God will come to those who are committed, to those who are connected to Christ, and God will keep working to make them more like Jesus.

So what is it, for you? Consider this to be God’s invitation for you to grow and flourish. Maybe it’s time to undergo that change that you haven’t had the courage to make. Maybe it is time to commit to whatever you have been postponing. Maybe it is time to ask God to trim away the persistent sin or the self-destructive impulse. Maybe it is time to stop hating and start giving. Maybe it’s time to ask God to crucify your pride and to welcome God’s cleansing, renewing love. I certainly have my issues, and you probably have yours.

But the one thing I know: if we stay connected Jesus, we will be changed, and it will be for a greater good than mere self-improvement. It will be for the glory of God that we flourish and bear fruit. And we will have to let go of all the vain things that charm us most, if only because they simply aren’t fruitful in God’s vineyard.

Kind of reminds me of what C.S. Lewis once said about another one of the teachings of Jesus. He said, “It is possible for the camel to go through the eye of the needle. All things are possible with God. The camel can go through the eye of the needle. But it’s very hard on the camel.”[4]

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

[1] Undoubtedly Jesus remembers the “Song of the Vineyard” in Isaiah 5. And he speaks frequently of “vineyards,” especially in the Gospel of Matthew.
[3] An anonymous report from the street.
[4] Adapted from C.S. Lewis, Epigrams and Epitaphs