Sunday, September 27, 2015

What Jesus Chastises

Mark 9:38-41
Fall Theme: Discipleship Camp
September 27, 2015
William G. Carter

The middle of the Gospel of Mark has two stories of Jesus healing a blind person.[1] In between those stories, the twelve disciples can’t see a thing. It’s my opinion that Mark sets up his Gospel this way to offer a manual of discipleship. It’s almost as if he points to the first disciples of Jesus and says, “Don’t be like those guys. Don’t do what they do, don’t say what they say, don’t think how they think.”

In other words, this section of the Gospel of Mark that we will hear for the next six weeks offers instruction on how not to follow Jesus. Welcome to Discipleship Camp! And one of those stories goes this way:

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.”

When I moved to town, my friend Bob London gave me a word of orientation. He said, “When you read the morning paper, don’t be surprised to see the Bishop of Scranton on page one or page three. Every day you will read an article or see a photo. Here is the Bishop running in the 5K run. Here is the Bishop flying an airplane. Here is the Bishop enjoying a popsicle with the kids from the parochial school.” I asked Bob why this was so. He said, “A lot of people think the Roman Catholics are the only show in town.”

Some would say that’s why it is front page news that the Diocese of Scranton sent 54 buses to the papal mass this weekend in Philadelphia, although if the truth be told, I think I would have liked to have gone too. And maybe it was simply an honest mistake that, the last time the national moderator of the Presbyterians came to town, the newspaper forgot to run the article. Who knows? One of my Presbyterian buddies was so offended. He thought we were the only show in town.

But it’s the notion of exclusivity that Jesus takes on. Today we overhear John the disciple, one of the inner circle from Galilee. He is reporting to the Boss with pride about what he has done. “Teacher,” he says, “we saw an exorcist who didn’t have a union card. He was casting out demons in your name, but he wasn’t following us. So we told him to stop!” In other words, John thinks he himself belongs to the only show in town.

Now, we know Jesus is going to take him on. I think about how I might do. I would probably react like Leroy Jethro Gibbs when one of his NCIS workers says something stupid – just pop him on the head. Redirect him. But Jesus is as gracious as Pope Francis addressing the United States Congress. He chastises the opinion by speaking to the best capacity within his own misguided followers. The Lord says, “Don’t stop him. Anybody who does a deed of power in my name will be unable to speak evil of me.”

Then he cuts to the chase: “Who’s not against us is for us.” That unnamed exorcist wandering around out there by himself is really part of a bigger work. Imagine that: that there might be people out there who are doing the same work and pursuing the same purposes. In fact, we are already on the same team. Call it “Team Jesus.”

I like that word “team.” I am old enough to remember when churches worked together on matters of common concern. The two high rise apartments in our town began when religious leaders agreed that our senior citizens on limited incomes needed affordable housing in this community. The pastors worked together, the churches worked together. Can you imagine everybody working together?

These days, so many churches are struggling even to keep their doors open, so they find themselves only with survival. They grow only by stealing sheep from other flocks, and call it “evangelism.” Or they continue to stand apart from others, as if they are the only true believers, declaring in word and deed, “We are the only show in town.”

There is an alternative, of course. Jesus hints at it. You know what it is. It’s called team work. What do you know about team work?

Somebody asked me the other day about team work. What was my experience of sports, and being on a team? Well, I played high school football for three seasons. Actually I sat on the bench for two and a half season, while the superstars were out on the field. The coach put me in for a game in the third season. He had to be desperate. First play of the game, I was triple-teamed and they carried me off the field with a busted knee. That was my sports career.

But I thought about it: team work. What is that like? I stepped outside the church for a minute, and realized for the past twenty-three years I have played piano with a jazz quartet. In that kind of situation, you don’t have a front line blocking for you. No, you have to work hard to keep up with one another. It requires trusting one another, which takes a leap of faith. The work is collaborative, and collaboration always takes time and communication. That’s why some people prefer doing everything by themselves.

But if you are part of a band, you have responsibilities to the other members. You have to be honest with your fellow musicians, yet willing to accept their criticism. When one of you is in trouble, the rest of you offer all the support you can. When somebody does something well, you bless what he or she does and encourage more of it.

All of this shared work is in service of the greater purpose. It’s in service to what you are here to do. If you are in the band, your purpose is to make music together. If you play a sport, you play the sport together as competitively as you can. And if you follow Jesus, you do the very things that he does, both together with him, and with the others who are doing his work.

“Teacher, we saw somebody casting out demons in your name, and we told him to stop because he wasn’t following us.” Sounds kind of hollow, doesn’t it?

That’s especially hollow in the Gospel of Mark! In this Gospel, the predominant image for the work of Jesus is exorcism. The very first thing Jesus does, after his baptism and a retreat in the wilderness, is to cast out a demon. It’s not a Hollywood stunt. No, he takes on some wild, unruly force that is damaging a human being.

The first time it happens, it’s in a synagogue, in a holy space, where a man starts yelling at the Lord. He hollers, “Jesus, I know who you are. Have you come out to destroy us?” The Lord stares him down and says, “Get out of him! Go away!” In that confrontation, the tormented man is made well. That’s the ministry of Jesus. It is the active force of God’s Spirit in him, repairing what is broken, healing what is ill.

One page after another, Mark wants us to know that this is why God sends his strong Son into our midst: to do an exorcism on the world, to heal one person at a time.  That’s what Jesus has come to do: to make all things well. He confronts the evil that destroys, and he ushers in the healing power of God. The Jews have a phrase for that: “tikkun olam.” It means “to take the world in for repairs.” It is to restore all that is broken and to build shalom . . . peace, balance, integration, wholeness.

This is the work of the Christ. If you’re not against it – and who would be against it? You would have to be out of your right mind to be against it, and that suggests Jesus will be coming to you, to make you well. – If you are not against it, you are for it.

And if we’re not entirely for it yet, I do believe the work of Christ is powerful enough and enticing enough to invite all of us into the deep gladness of his well-being. A world that was ill enough to crucify Jesus has to contend with him returning again in his resurrection, working persistently to heal and restore everything that belongs to God. If you are not against it, you will be for it.

“Do not stop him,” says Jesus. Do not impede the counselor who cures souls but does not belong to your church. Do not stop the physician who replaces broken knees or the deacon who brings prayers and floral arrangements to heal your broken spirit. They are all part of God’s salvage operation.

Don’t stand in the way of any church or community of faith that welcomes people into the embrace of God. And for God’s sake – for God’s sake – don’t insist that you are the only one who does it right. Do not deny the outcasts who can’t believe that anybody might love them. Don’t turn away the person whom you might lift higher. Put a muzzle on your superiority and replace it with encouragement. Love requires us to put others first, to tend to their wounds before our own. This is how we drive out evil, and welcome the Christ who wishes to heal all.

And maybe that’s why Jesus says what he does: “Truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.” Imagine that – you are not only one of the healers, you are the recipient. The truth is all of us drink from the water of Christ’s mercy. All of us. That’s why we need to work together.

Did you hear the story that John Boehner told about last Thursday night? It was the night before he quit as Speaker of the House of Representatives, and he describes a brief moment that gave him the peace and courage to move ahead with his decision. Mr. Boehner is a Roman Catholic, and it was largely his invitation that brought the Pope to address our elected representatives in Washington.

“He came right here, right here,” said Mr. Boehner. “We had a quiet moment together, just the two of us. He said kind words about my commitment to education and my concern for kids. Then the pope puts his arm around my left arm. The pope says to me, ‘Please pray for me.’ He said, ‘Please pray for me.’ The pope wants me to pray for him.’ Who am I, to pray for the pope?” He paused for a minute, wiped a tear, and said, “But I did.”[2]

It’s a powerful story. Because all of us need prayer. Because all of us need a cup of water to drink. Because all of us are invited to join Jesus in his resurrection work of healing and restoration. All of us. There is something every one of us can do to carry the love and joy of Christ into his beloved world.

There’s something every one of us can do. And it’s too important to do it alone.

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

[1] Mark 8:22-26 and Mark 10:46-52

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Watch Your Words

James 3:1-12
Ordinary 24 (B)
September 13, 2015
William G. Carter

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue — a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 

The Christian faith is a talking faith. Jesus taught by speaking. He preached the grace and truth of God from the center of his heart. When the angel announces Easter, he says, “Go and tell.”

Yet here, Brother James adds an additional word: “Watch what you say.”

In a loose collection of teachings in chapter 3, James speaks about words. “Anybody who speaks will make mistakes,” he says. Just listen to what is said when somebody doesn’t know the microphone is on.  James says, “A little tongue will boast of great things.” It might inflate the resume or make promises that will not be kept. “A mouth can set a forest on fire;” if you don’t believe that is true, make up a salacious story about the person who is sitting next to you and whisper it to someone else. James knows the possibilities and perils of speaking. He says, “From the same mouth, we can bless God and curse the neighbor.”

Now, there is nothing new or unusual about this lesson. James is a Wisdom book of the Bible, much like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. These are observations on life by somebody who has gone around the track a number of times. The wise sage observes what is generally true about human life. Few of these observations are specifically Christian at all.

In fact, the book of James hardly mentions Jesus at all. There is one mention when the writer signs the letter in the beginning, and a second time in chapter two, when he declares how wrong it is to discriminate among the people God has made. We might think this book assumes Jesus… but a closer look reveals that James has paraphrased some of what Jesus has said. The warning about words is among them.

Here is how Jesus puts it: “On the day of judgment, you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37). It matters eternally what we say.

So let’s spend a few minutes talking about words, because James is all about words. We can re-read this whole letter and see it as a commentary on how we use our words.

I think of chapter four. James says, “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters.” Why does he say that? Because James has summarized the law of God as this: “You shall love the neighbor as yourself” (2:8). So James declares, “Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; and if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law… so who are you to judge your neighbor?” (4:11-12). Who, indeed.

Maybe we have all heard people speak with imperial clarity, as if they alone are the ones who can perfectly size up another person. From their high perch, they declare who is wrong and who is falling short. How do they do this? With their words.

Like the Peanuts strip where Lucy says, “I have a knack for pointing out other people’s faults.” Her brother Linus says, “What about your faults?” Lucy says, “I have a knack for overlooking them.”

When we judge somebody, that judgment comes with an artificial superiority, as if that person thinks they are better, so then they could look down on you. It is nonsense, of course, for as James says, “For all of us make many mistakes” (2:2). I looked it up in the original Greek language, and he does say, “all of us.” So we have to watch out if we are feeling high and mighty, because that is precisely the moment when we can fall down.

Or I think of chapter two. We don’t know much about the congregation where Brother James was connected, but it seems there was some bad ushering going on. It was divisive. It caused a great deal of pain. And James says in chapter two, “A person comes into the worship service with gold rings and fine clothing, and you bow down and say, ‘Oh, let me take you to a wonderful seat.’ And when you get there to see a person in rags in that seat, you say, ‘Get out of here, move over there!’”

People in the church were sorted by how they looked or what they wore. It reminds me of the Presbyterian Church in a high-priced  town in California. For a while, they had deacons outside telling the people where to park their cars. The Rolls-Royces went in front, then the Bentleys, and then a line for the Mercedes. A mere Lexus had to go down the block, and the dinged-up Fords were at the wrong church. True story!

James says, “If you speak to people with favoritism, do you really believe in Jesus?” Jesus has come for everybody.

Or what about chapter five? (I really hope you read the letter of James this week. It’s not long - the whole letter will take about fifteen minutes to read.)  In chapter five, James quotes Jesus again. There was a passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “Do not swear!” (Matt. 5:33-37). Oh, I know. You are thinking of words, filthy words, dirty and profane words. But no, that’s not what neither Jesus nor James were talking about.

They were talking about making an oath: “I swear on a stack of Bibles that I will stop at the store to pick up bread and milk.” Ever hear somebody talk like that? An oath is calling in some other authority, in case your word cannot be trusted. So, are you going to stop and get the bread and milk, or not? And what does a stack of Bibles have to do about it? James quotes Jesus, and says, “Let your ‘yes’ be yes, let your ‘no’ be no.” (James 5:12). If you have no intention of picking up the bread and milk, then a stack of Bibles isn’t going to help.

We are talking about words. Words, words, words. Words are expressions of our souls. Puffs of air are shaped into syllables. Whatever is inside of us is expressed in our words. And this is why we get into so much trouble: by what we say. Our ability to speak is what makes us different from every other one of God’s critters. And Brother James takes a cynical view of human nature. “No one can tame the tongue,” he says. “It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” And yet our words don’t have to be destructive.

A number of years ago, writer Kathleen Norris moved from New York City to the small town of Lemmon, South Dakota. She had inherited her grandmother’s house, and without much going in her favor in New York, she said her husband, “Let’s go.” After a few years of that, she wrote an essay, and she said,

Allowing yourself to be a subject of gossip is one of the sacrifices you make, living in a small town. And the pain caused by the loose talk of ignorant people is undeniable. One couple I know, having lost their only child to virulent pneumonia had to endure rumors that he had died of suicide, AIDS, and even anthrax. But it's also true that the gossips don't know all that they think they know, and often misread things in a comical way. My husband was once told that he was having an affair with a woman he hadn't met, and I still treasure the day I was encountered by three people who said, "Have you sold your house yet?" "When's the baby due?" and, "I'm sorry to hear your mother died."

I could trace the sources of the first two rumors: we'd helped a friend move into a rented house, and I'd bought baby clothes downtown when I learned that I would soon become an aunt. The third rumor was easy enough to check; I called my mother on the phone.[1]

Kathleen knows what all of us know: words have great potential for harm or for health. Our words are spoken from either the poverty of the heart or the surplus of the soul. When the truth is told, relationships can be built. When love and concern are expressed, they spread enormous good will. From this summer, for instance, I keep a stack of sympathy cards that I received from so many of you after my father’s death. That stack is eleven inches thick, and each card spoke words of consolation. It will be a long time before I toss them away.

So James goes on to say in the rest of chapter three, there is a wisdom from heaven which "is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy." The promise of the gospel is that there is "a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace." And all of this is provided as we pay attention to every syllable that comes out of our mouths. Because it matters what we say. It always matters.

May I suggest we spend a moment in silence?   . . .

The next words out of our mouths will either build up the kingdom of God or destroy it into rubble. Which will it be for you?

Be careful what you say, for God is listening.

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

[1] Kathleen Norris, “The Holy Use of Gossip,” Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1993), 74-75. 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

A Risky and Worthy Venture

John 3:14-21
Jazz Communion 2015
Vince Guaraldi Jazz Mass
September 6, 2015

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

The first time jazz was ever welcomed into a worship service, Rev. Charles Gompertz decided to hedge his bets. He picked some hymns that Episcopalians would know. He selected a musical setting of the communion liturgy that Episcopalians sang every week. He invited a Grammy-award winning jazz pianist whose music would delight most people. And he put into the worship service a Bible passage that children memorize in Sunday School: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16.

That verse is sometimes called the “End Zone verse.” If you watch a pro football game and there is a touchdown, you will probably see some guy holding up a poster board in the stands. He is going to try and proclaim the Gospel by holding up his sign. John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…”

Rev. Gompertz had the verse in his Episcopalian prayer book. It was one of the texts appointed in the lectionary for May 21, 1965. Everybody knew it. If you are going to bring jazz into a worship service for the very first time, you might as well start with material that everybody knows. Because he already knew it was going to be risky.

These were Episcopalians, after all. They can be as proper and traditional as you get. Maybe you know the old joke about the Episcopalian who didn’t get into heaven because he used the wrong dinner fork. These are Christians who are well-established. That led somebody to quip, “Episcopalians are Presbyterians whose investments turned out well.” And jazz was coming into their cathedral, their brand new cathedral. Some feared the music would tarnish the brass.

And it was 1965, a year bubbling in ferment. Two months before the first jazz mass, Martin Luther King Jr. had marched in Selma, and by May, the date of the mass, voting rights for African Americans were not settled yet. Many in the country felt a profound dis-ease about the Vietnam war. There were generational fault-lines developing between the World War 2 generation and their upstart children.

If that wasn’t enough, the preacher for that first jazz mass was the Rev. Malcolm Boyd, a highly controversial preacher who had been one of the Freedom Riders for civil rights. He had marched in Selma with King. A number of years later, he would come out as gay, one of the first prominent church leaders to do so. He would preach a sermon that day that would not back off from the divisive issues of the day.

It was 1965, the first jazz mass in America. We can stand fifty years later and say, “How hip! How cool!” But even Chuck Gompertz, the priest who commissioned the whole thing, would go to the mail box one day, open an unsigned letter, and read an anonymous death threat against his daughter. Somebody wrote, “I hate what you are doing to church music!”

Life comes with a share of risks. Have you noticed that? There are the little risks, like waking up in the morning and not knowing how the day will unfold. There could be a car accident, or a medical emergency, or an irrational expression of evil. We never know. And there could be larger risks too. Twenty-four years later, I’ll tell you that I had second thoughts the first time I brought jazz into this room. Before the service, my stomach was terribly upset and I said, “Am I out of my mind?”

Life comes with risks. The fullness of life that God intends for all people comes with risks. That is the shape of the Christian Gospel. God risks everything by sending Jesus into a self-destructive world. That’s the truth of John 3:16 and the sentences around it. God will go into the world as the human being Jesus. He will go to his own people and they will misunderstand him. His incarnation will be so complete that he will be overlooked, if not rejected and refused.

And why is this? Because it is a human tendency to resist the very things that make us well. The Gospel of John says, “Light came into the darkness, and darkness yelled, ‘Turn out the lights!’” Ah, that’s the story of Good Friday.

As Easter People, we can declare, though, that this is what God risks, because God loves the whole world. Not one little corner of it, but the whole thing. God comes in Jesus to feed every hungry soul, to heal every broken heart, to hold every wobbly spirit, and to re-create for us the fullness of life. At the center of God’s heart is a joy that will risk self-sacrifice, if there is the slightest possibility that someone might turn from the darkness and step into the light.

What I have learned about jazz in the church is that people really want it. Even if they sit scowling with their arms crossed, they really want it. They want to be in the presence of the energy and imagination. They want the passion to kiss them alive. They want their own frozen hearts to defrost. And it’s not the jazz per se; it is what’s behind the jazz. They want to know there is a deep joy at the center of the universe that has the power to make all things well.

The joy has come in Jesus. That is the risk God has taken, knowing fair well that the people who want this joy will resist it, that those who desire this fullness of life will try to snuff out that life. The very mission of God to rescue the human race from its darkness can be crucified – that is the enormous risk God takes! Yet even then, God comes back to once again invite us to the dance. Because whatever else we declare about God, God is a jazz musician with the ability to create light out of darkness, joy out of despair, love out of fear, power out of weakness, a Holy Way when it seems there is no way.

I have seen people affected by the music of God in ways that they cannot describe with words. Yesterday, I got a note from a man named David. He was just a little kid when his Episcopalian boys choir was invited to sing today’s mass music for the very first time. He writes, “Being involved with that back in 1965 was one of the most significant occurrences in my life. Thanks for keeping it alive.”

Or I think of Ruthie Post, a woman who sat right down front when we worshiped with jazz. Ruth left us for heaven a year ago. She would arrive an hour early, get a good seat, and say, “I love this! It makes me feel alive.” And she would tell everybody she knew about the effect it had on her life. I’d like to think it was a worthy rehearsal for heaven, a little bit of heaven here on earth.

God invites us to resist our resistance, to welcome the grace and truth of heaven with open arms. And if today there is a crack in our defenses, perhaps the crack will be wide enough for the light to enter in. The good news is that God comes to us in the joy of Jesus. It is God’s enormous risk, and if only one soul is awakened, enlivened, and redeemed, it would be worth the risk.

May that soul be your soul.

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