Saturday, July 18, 2015

A tribute to my father, on the day we affirm Christ's resurrection

In loving memory of Glenn Carter
July 18, 2015

On behalf of our family, thank you for coming. Your companionship in our sorrow gives great comfort. Grief is always personal work, but none of us should ever grieve in isolation. We appreciate your support more than you can ever know.

I stand in praise of the tallest man in my world. When I was a little kid, I measured my growth by the next button on his dress shirt. When I surpassed him in altitude, I still kept looking up to my dad. His life has been a witness to the extraordinary grace of God, a grace that invites us to stretch to our fullest potential, while always extending our arms to serve those around us.

Glenn Carter was the fifth of nine children given to Margaret and Norris. We are grateful for the siblings, nephews, and nieces who can be with us today. Since Dad was the kid in the middle, he had to learn how to distinguish himself. His parents lived modestly in a farmhouse in Dempseytown, Pennsylvania. They didn't have much, especially in the Great Depression when dad was born. Brothers shared the same beds. Dinners and clothes were homemade. College seemed impossible. But through a combination of hard work and gracious breaks, my father lived a remarkable life.

He entered the US Navy after graduating high school, which greatly enlarged his world. Returning to marry his prom date, he and Betsy bought a trailer and moved to northeastern Indiana. That was where Dad enrolled in a small engineering college that specialized in educating returning vets. Dad aced the entrance exams and did very well in school while working full time. He was elected president of his senior class, in the same year I was born.

After a short stint for a company in Akron, Ohio, he landed a job with IBM in 1962. Owego has been his home ever since. He always kept his small town roots and community commitments, although his world was never small.

Dad’s work at IBM was brilliant and impressive. He was a smart manager, a tough negotiator, and largely responsible for winning contracts that brought hundreds of jobs to this county. Much of his work was highly classified, and my siblings and I rarely knew why he flew to Wichita, Seattle, and a few undisclosed locations. Once in a while, an unclassified story would leak from his lips. He told us how he met Presidents Reagan and Bush, and once traded conversational bullets with Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.

At age 52, when IBM wanted to lower the average age of its employees, Dad stunned a lot of people by taking an early retirement. He said he had enough of the corporate life. With that, he tried his hand at consulting and did very well. He split three years between Owego and Washington DC, but the time came when he was done with working on the road.

So that is when he began his third career: economic development for Tioga County. "It is time to give something back to my community," he told me. "I have a closet full of suits and I know how to talk with companies about jobs. I will do this until my current neckties go out of style." Well, this is Owego. You can wear the same necktie forever. Dad gave many years of his life to enhancing the employment of the community where he lived.

Dad was intellectually restless. He was enormously curious about the world. He never thought in small or limited terms. Privately he confessed he had little time for fools, but he had the rare ability to make the smallest person feel like a giant. When you were around him, you always wanted to be a better person.

Once he called me from a phone booth to say he was coming through my town. "Let's have coffee." After playing me along, he revealed he was returning from Manhattan from a meeting with Governor Mario Cuomo. Then he showed me an enormous check in his breast pocket. "Want to touch it?" he asked. "But you can't hold onto it. It belongs to the people of Tioga."

This man from modest circumstances became a mentor for many. My classmates who considered careers in engineering were invited to stop by and chat.  He was our scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop 38, and it was his encouragement that pushed me to become an Eagle Scout. The scouting council honored him for decades of leadership by bestowing on him the rare Silver Beaver award. Likewise he enjoyed his longtime membership in the Rotary Club of Owego, believing strongly in its motto of Service Above Self.

A childhood Methodist, Dad became a venerable Presbyterian through marriage. He served repeated terms as a ruling elder in his congregation, and was totally incapable of sitting on his hands or being quiet when leadership was needed. He was elected moderator of the Presbytery of Susquehanna Valley and served with great distinction. Leadership was his lifetime vocation, and he believed his leadership should benefit as many people as possible.

He believed the highest good is the public good. One time we went together to a church conference on faith and economics. Sitting in a small group for discussion, he barked, “There is too much greed in this country. Don’t the robber barons realize we rise and fall together?” He looked at me and asked, “Do you ever tell your people something like that in your sermons?”

Yet he knew how to focus on the people right in front of him. His love and devotion for Mom built an extraordinary 58-year partnership. My brother and sisters and I experienced his love as a certainty in our lives. And he adored his grandchildren, reading Dr. Seuss stories, taking them for rides on a larger-than-necessary lawn tractor, toasting s’mores and drinking root beer floats.

There are a lot of memories: I recall vacations in the paneled station wagon, the constant stops to read every historical marker along the highway, and the endless leveling of the pop-up camper (don’t ever go camping with an engineer!). He took us along when he went spotlighting deer. For all of his office intensity, Dad loved to get outdoors. You can take the man out of Dempseytown, but you can’t take the Dempseytown out of the man.

It would never occur to Dad to spend money on a Caribbean cruise. IBM had rewarded him with many trips, but he and Mom chose to putter around a family cottage near where he raised. It kept him in touch with his family and his roots. The cottage became a temporary hunting camp for his brothers and his nephews, but it was also a playground, first for his four children, and then his grandchildren, who enjoyed a number of Cousin Camps where their parents were not allowed to attend.

I remember a father who was emotionally present for every baseball game and school concert, even if he was traveling for work. If he went to Seattle to consult with Boeing, he might bring back a goose down sleeping bag from REI for one of his sons. If he had to work long hours, he still took each of his daughters out to swanky restaurants for birthday dates.  

In later years, Dad was my traveling companion. We walked the footsteps of Jesus in Israel, and then the footsteps of the apostle Paul in Greece and Turkey. In fact, we almost lost him one day in Palestinian territory when he pointed a camera at an Israeli soldier who pointed an Uzi at him. Dad decided to take his seat on the tour bus and later admitted, “Well, that made me feel alive.” He lived the words of St. Irenaeus: “The glory of God is a person fully alive.”

It is indeed Glenn’s faith, lived in the real world and nurtured in this sanctuary, which prompts us to praise God for the gift of Dad's life and to celebrate his home-going. He heard the Gospel preached here and he believed it. He knew in his bones that the deep grace of Jesus covers our brokenness, and all of us are held in a greater love than we can imagine. My greatest faith memory was sitting in a pew on the center aisle, with Dad singing, "Holy, Holy, Holy" in a morning voice so low that it could crack concrete. Glenn Carter believed the hymns he sang, and it made all the difference in his life.

We offer him to God today. We thank God for the gift of his life. We praise God for how God carried him and commissioned him to be a servant.  Years ago, a heart valve replacement first reminded Dad of his vulnerability; his response was to keep giving his heart away for the benefit of others.

God is so good. When illness made Dad forgetful, God remembered him – and God proved it by surrounding our father with people who loved him. At the center was our devoted Mom who never left his side; David has been the brilliant problem-solver; Mary has been the hands and heart of Jesus; and daughter Debbie will always be the one who most resembles our father. Even when Dad faced weakness, as all of us shall, he claimed the grace and dignity that comes from knowing he was a child of God. Maybe that is his final lesson for all of us.

Thank you for loving our Dad. It is now that we give Glenn Carter back to the God who loves him even more than we do. With deep gratitude, we commend this very tall man to the eternal joy of Jesus Christ, our savior.

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

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Keeping the Preacher Locked Up

Mark 6:14-29
July 12, 2015
William G. Carter

"When Herod heard John the Baptist, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him."

From time to time, our worship committee talks about ways to bring the scripture alive. We want people to engage with the scripture passages, and on occasion, we have even acted them out. But tell me: how would this Bible passage do as a chancel drama? What do you think?

Today’s text alternates between the dungeon and the banquet hall. It tells of an enticing dancer and an obedient executioner. There is a nasty king, with a terrible reputation for partying too much. There is an evil queen, possessed by jealousy and retribution. And in the center of it all, there is a preacher, a preacher that they have kept locked up.  

For some people, it’s a good idea to keep the preacher locked up.  Many preachers find it awkward to attend a king’s birthday party. Preachers often don’t do well around kings. They don’t own a tuxedo. They don’t know when to use the proper salad fork at state dinners. They are unaccustomed to spending time with the wealthy and the manipulative. And when the party cranks up, most preachers cannot dance.

It’s good to keep the preacher locked up, especially if his name is John the Baptist. He doesn’t do well in social circumstances. When people draw near to him, he yells at them and calls them names. John may take a lot of baths, but he still smells pretty bad. There are locust legs stuck between his teeth. See the fire in his eyes. Just as you and I excuse him from our Christmas preparations, the king thinks it is a good idea to keep him locked up and out of sight.

Originally it was his wife’s idea, his most recent wife. That was a story right out of the tabloids. According to one version of the story, King Herod Agrippa went to visit his half-brother Philip on the way to Rome. His eye fell up on Philip’s wife Herodias, so he decided to get rid of his own wife. Herodias decided to dump her husband. It was a scandal, but kings tend to do whatever they want. Herod Agrippa and Herodias got married, ignoring the fact she was his half-brother’s wife and also his niece. It was a twisted tale.

And John the Baptist began to yell. He stepped out of the Jordan River and started yelling at the palace. That desert preacher normally raised his voice at the scorpions and the sand lizards, but now he started yelling at the king. The king could hear the criticism. He still had a memory of Jewish faith somewhere in his family background. He was the kind of king who might import a rabbi for an occasional worship service, rather than trek into Jerusalem and go to the temple like the common people. Security concerns, you know.

So when John’s yelling got into one ear, and his wife saying “You’ve got to shut that guy up” in the other ear, King Herod send soldiers to bring in John and toss him into the dungeon. Sometimes it is best to keep the preacher locked up, especially if you are the king.

But that is when the story gets a little weird. Herod put John in the castle dungeon and he protected him. He knew John was “a righteous and holy man.” All the time, John kept preaching. What did he say? Well, we know how his favorite sermon goes: “Repent!” That is, “Come home to God.” But I am going to guess that John was also preaching a sermon on Leviticus 18, a passage where God says, “It is wrong to marry your brother’s wife” (18:6), especially if he’s still alive.

You could keep the preacher locked up, but you couldn’t shut his mouth – especially if he was speaking for God.

I think of the closing scene of a movie from a few years back called “The Apostle,” featuring Robert Duvall as a Pentecostal preacher. He is a wild man and does some wild things. He ends up in jail, right where he belongs. At the end of the film, as the closing credits roll, he is out with the chain gang of other prisoners. Under the watchful eye of prison guards, he is still preaching the Gospel. There is no shutting him down.

The apostle Paul had his own run-ins with the law. According to the New Testament, he was often in prison. He wrote to the Christians in Philippi (1:12) and said, “I want you to know that what happened to me has advanced the Gospel.” All the guards and prisoners knew he was there for the sake of Jesus. Nobody could keep him quiet when it came to the Gospel.

And Jesus himself – Jesus was a prisoner. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is arrested and taken before the religious authorities. They ask him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” He stares them down and says, “Yahweh – I am! And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power” (14:62). They wanted him to be quiet, but he would not be quiet … even if they had him locked up.

This is an amazing story, you know. It keeps happening. The Catholic parish next door had a priest some years ago who has taken on mythical significance to the local clergy. It seems he received a lot of invitations for high school graduation parties. With this being the Abingtons, a lot of those parties served a great deal of alcohol, since alcohol is the drug of choice in our town. It troubled the priest, particularly since the parents were absent or hobnobbing out by the pool, while the teens were getting loaded.

So he stood one Sunday in June and addressed his congregation. “I love our kids,” he began, “but I have to say how troubled I am by the amount of drinking at these parties. Not only is it illegal, it’s completely out of hand. So if I am invited to a graduation party and alcohol is freely served to kids, I will leave. I cannot be part of that. I won’t make a spectacle of my departure, not is it my role to call the police, but I will leave.”

That year, the number of his invitations dropped from seventy-five to two. Nobody attended those two parties. He received outraged phone calls and anonymous hate mail, all asking, “Who do you think you are?” He said, “I think I am a minister of God’s Gospel,” he said.            

So John the Baptist kept preaching, even the king had him locked up, even when the queen carried a grudge against him. John answered to a Higher Authority. He would not be silenced about the truth of God even if he suffered for it. And in the detail of the story that is both most curious and revealing, “Herod liked to listen to John preach.” Just imagine him creeping down the back stairwell, staying just out of sight, with John railing away against his sins and excesses. There was a power in the Word that John spoke. It appealed to something in the king’s soul.

What was it? A reminder that God is the true ruler over all the world’s rules? Was it what one theologian once called “a faint recollection of the Garden of Eden” – and he could remember when all the world was in communion with God? Could it be a dim memory of right and wrong, an innate sense of moral law, or a twinge of guilt that he had done something wrong, that he had done a lot of things that were wrong? The storyteller doesn’t specify, but I can believe him. “King Herod liked to hear John preach.” When people hear the Gospel of God, even for the first time, they can hear it for what it is.

Even Herodias, Herod’s new wife, could identify it - - and she had the freedom to decide that it wasn’t for her. If she took the preacher seriously, she could lose that nice place in the palace. She could lose the velvet curtains and the cushioned chairs. She could lose the protected distance between her and all the people in the kingdom who knew what she had done. She and her daughter could be thrown out of the palace and into the Dead Sea.

So she knows what she wants to do. When Herod and the boys are losing their minds at the big birthday bash that he threw for himself, she decides it’s time for John to lose his head. Her daughter dances for the crowd, and is offered whatever she wants by her stepfather. Asking her mother what that might be, Herodias decides to silence the preacher. She could have had half of Herod’s kingdom. Instead she chooses to silence the preacher.

But once again, there is another unusual detail to this story, and it’s the detail that prompts the telling of this whole story. King Herod has heard about Jesus, and how he, too, is preaching – and how Jesus is sending his followers out to preach. Everybody is trying to figure out who this Jesus is. Herod says, “It is John, whom I beheaded. John is raised from the dead.” That is an ironic statement for all kinds of reasons, especially for those of us who live after Easter. And it is a recognition that the same powers at work in John are also at work in Jesus.

What are these powers? They are the powers of God’s speech, the powers of God’s truthful declaration of life and how life is intended to be. “The voice of the Lord is powerful,” says the Psalmist (29:4). “The voice of the Lord is full of majesty.” And should God speak, there is no shutting down of the voice. Maybe like Herodias somebody may choose to rid ourselves of the messenger. Perhaps like Herod the listener does not have the depth of character to understand what is being said. But God is a God who speaks.

God says, “Let there be a planet Earth,” and it is so. God says, “Let my Word take flesh," and Jesus is born. And when that Word Incarnate is arrested, condemned, and pushed out of the world, God says, “Let the New Creation be born," and Jesus Christ is raised from the dead.

So there may be no more important work for us than to listen to what God might be saying. When Sunday rolls around, and the scriptures are opened in public, we listen for the Voice which Herod, Herodias, and Pontius Pilate could not silence. It is the Voice that gives life, the Voice that sets us free from the powers of human destruction, the Voice that purifies and redeems what God loves.

Throughout the ages, God’s Voice has been recorded in the scriptures, but God’s Voice is bigger than the scriptures. When one of God’s servants says, “Slaves, obey your masters,” it was an appropriate Word for that time and situation, but it must be held in tension to another time when God said to the slave masters, “Let my people go.”  For God is greater than whatever our holiest human words can ever capture. Greater than the words on the page is the one true God, God of Gods, light of light. The Words of scripture are recorded in order that they will point beyond themselves to the God who is creating, judging, and redeeming life.

Through the dimness and bleary eyes, King Herod could sense this Power. Through a deep grudge and desire for revenge, Queen Herodias thought she could silence this Power. What both of them missed is God still speaks and calls all of his children into a holy and life-giving fellowship with the very Power that gives us birth.

Nothing is going to shut down that Voice – not an embarrassed King, not a mean-hearted Queen, not a dungeon, not even a crucifixion.

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

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Sermons Nobody Wants to Hear

Mark 6:1-6
July 5, 2015
William G. Carter

Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

I don’t know what Jesus expected. He went back to his hometown and began to preach, and they tuned him out. Of course they did. What did he expect?

Up until now, he has been spending a lot of time on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, on the boundary between Jews and Gentiles. The village of Capernaum has been his home base as he goes about his work. Jesus teaches in the synagogues and preaches to the open-air crowds. He throws out the demons and gives bread to the multitudes. He is a busy guy.

Back and forth, he goes across the sea. He touches down in a Gentile graveyard and straightens out a crazy man while getting rid of a lot of unclean pigs. Then he gets back in the boat and lands in Capernaum. A bleeding woman is healed and a little girl is raised from the dead. Jesus is making a name for himself. Everywhere he goes, life is restored, faith is nourished, hope comes alive.

… everywhere except his home town. They know you in your home town. They remember you.

Whenever I visit my hometown church in upstate New York, I am disqualified before I even open my mouth. Everybody remembers the kid who became a preacher. There’s the lady who had a spat with my mother at the last Women’s Association dinner. There’s the retired usher who was there when I made a paper airplane out of a worship bulletin and accidentally threw it out of the balcony. There’s the Sunday School teacher who still can’t figure out what God did to my heart.

Just last Sunday, I went to a graduation party for a classmate’s kid, and there was my pretty prom date. We sat at a picnic table and talked, and then she said in a low voice, “I still can’t believe you are a minister.” Familiarity breeds dismissal. They know you; therefore they don’t have to listen to you.

If you are a preacher, you don’t even have to go home to experience that phenomenon. Just stay in the same church for twenty-five years. Somebody will say, “Sorry I’m going to miss the next forty-nine Sundays, but I know you will be here whenever I drift back.” Familiarity. Same old, some old.

When Will Willimon was the chaplain at Duke University Chapel, he says the phone rang at lunchtime one day. Nobody else was around, so he answered it. A voice said, “Who is preaching this week?” Will cleared this throat and said, “The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon, dean of the chapel.”

The woman said, “Is that the short, fat man with the high squeaky voice?” No, he said, that’s the other guy. Nothing special. Same old thing. He’s here every week, so you don’t have to come.

Jesus goes home to the hilltop city of Nazareth. His family is still living in that town. He goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath, as was his custom. He opens the scroll and begins to speak. The crowd murmurs, “Ah, Jesus. We know Jesus. We know his four younger brothers. His sisters are sitting up in the balcony with their mom.” He’s the same woodcutter’s kid who left here a few years ago. Sure, he’s done a lot of things. He has made a name for himself. We have low expectations. Nothing good ever comes from Nazareth. Isn’t that what they say?

… Except that this time, he’s pretty good.  No, actually he’s better than that, he’s really good. And he doesn’t use footnotes like the rabbi. He tells it straight. There is an uncommon depth to his message. He’s not stealing little rinky-dinky stories out of Reader’s Digest. He certainly isn’t telling any jokes. No, there is substance and significance to his instruction. His words are drenched in insight.

Pretty soon, they are saying, “Isn’t this Jesus, the neighbor kid who grew up down the street? What is this wisdom given to him from heaven? Where did he get all of this?”

And because of that, they really took offense at him. The reason for the refusal was once described by my preaching professor Fred Craddock. Fred said, “There are two kinds of sermons that nobody was to hear: bad sermons and good sermons.”

What he means by that is, within each of us, there is the desire to push God away. To keep God at arm’s length … or further. We know what God wants to say to us, but we don’t want to hear it. We have a deep hunger that can be satisfied only by the healing love and abundant mercy of God, but we are really not sure we are ready for it. And we will come up with any reason to keep God away and disqualify all God’s messengers. It is the human predicament.

A man I knew was listening to a graduate student pour out his broken heart. The tough story was told in tears and confession. He had gotten to the end of his tale of woe, and the older man said, “Tony, I hold all this weight that you have unburdened. Why don’t we pray? Let’s give it to God.” Tony nodded, they both bowed their heads. My friend put his hands on Tony’s shoulders and began to pray. Suddenly Tony sprang up and said, “I’m not ready for this yet,” and ran away.

Imagine if that was Jesus, and not merely one of his messengers. Imagine if he came to you, spoke with you, asked you, “What is the deepest desire of your heart?” And he invited you to this communion table and said, “I’m going to break my own body and put it in your hands. I’m offering you the cup so you can take my life into your life.” Would you do it? Or would you push him away?

In this brief story, Mark repeats what other New Testament writers have said about God’s mission in Jesus Christ. The gospel of John says it most directly: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (1:11). John doesn’t specify if he means the hometown congregation in Nazareth or the church full of Gentiles in his own time.

There is no need to specify, for there is something profoundly within us that pushes away the presence and power of God. We can gather any Sunday to draw near to the very thing that could heal us and fill us with peace and holiness, but in every person there is the all-too-human tendency to skip out and go for brunch, or go for a boat ride, or do anything we possibly can to avoid the presence and power that can make us well.

Mark says, “Jesus couldn’t do any deeds of power in Nazareth.” It wasn’t merely because he was the home town boy back for a visit. It wasn’t merely because he stunned them by speaking with the clarity and precision of grace. He couldn’t do any deeds of power because they were humanly anxious about him getting too close. And they didn’t have the courage to trust him, to listen to him, because that would mean they would be changed.

Anybody here want to be changed? Or are you content to stay the way you are? That’s a good question to ask of synagogue dwellers like the likes of us. We show up at the same time every week. We sit in the same pews, we talk to the same people. We like to sing the same songs and grumble if one of them is new. We expect to have our opinions confirmed and our habits reinforced. We hear the same old preacher, say the same greeting at the back door. Faith goes on autopilot. Hearts are slowly coated with Teflon, ready to deflect any act of God.

But what if it happened? What if Jesus got through to any of us? What if we were awakened or interrupted? What if we were shaken or disrupted? What if the living word of Christ cracked through our defenses, and we suddenly perceived the immensity of God’s grace? Could we stay the way we are – or would God do something astounding within us, among us, and beyond us?

Tell me: does God-in-Christ have the power to change us – or are we going to squelch it? I guess it depends on what we do with what we hear.

Did you hear what happened in Charleston, South Carolina, after Dylann Roof shot up the A.M.E. church and killed nine people? After he was arrested and arraigned on charges, the authorities brought him before the families of the victims. They were invited to say whatever they wanted to say.

The daughter of Ethel Lance looked him in the eye and said, “I just want everybody to know I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never be able to hold her again but I forgive you. You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people, but God forgive(s) you, and I forgive you.”

The husband of Myra Thompson spoke. “I forgive you, and my family forgives you, but we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so he can change it.”

The granddaughter of the Rev. Daniel Simmons said, “Although my grandfather died at the hands of hate, this is proof … that hate won’t win.” Hate won’t win.

The sister of the Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor said, “I’m very angry… but one thing my sister taught me is that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hate so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul… May God bless you.”[1]

It was astounding. The world was stunned. Where these people get all of this?

They must have been listening to Jesus.

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

[1] “Charleston Church Shootings: What victims of church shooting said to Dylann Roof,” 19 June 2015,