Saturday, February 21, 2015

And If God Forgets

Genesis 9:8-17
Lent 1
February 22, 2015
William G. Carter

God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’

I’m sure you noticed: God is doing all the talking. Noah can’t get a word in edgewise, and he doesn’t dare interrupt. After forty days and nights of rain, after the terrible washing-away of sin and sinful people, God gives a speech to the handpicked family that survived his flood. The speech can be summed up in one word, a word God uses seven times in nine verses. The word is “covenant.”

“Covenant” begins as God’s word. That’s the word we are going to live with during Lent. A covenant is an agreement. When God makes a covenant, it is usually pretty one-sided.

As we’ve heard today, the very first covenant is given to Noah and his children. That means it’s a covenant with us, an agreement with the whole human family. Every person alive today is not only a child of Adam and Eve, but also a child of Noah and his wife. All of us are great-grandchildren of the flood. All of us are survivors of God’s terrible judgment.

That’s not always obvious. The story of Noah and the ark is usually treated as a children’s story. It’s the subject of VBS lessons and youth group musicals. Kermit the Frog sang a rainbow song. Before he sank in deep water, Bill Cosby asked, “Hey Noah, how long can your tread water?” And you can go over to Toys-R-Us and buy the Fisher-Price version of Noah and the ark. For only $19.99, you get two zebras, two giraffes, two toucans, two old humans, and a big plastic boat that will float in your bathtub. Additional animals are available in pairs at an additional price. You might think this is a story about a big floating zoo…

… Except that it’s really a story about how God intended to get rid of all the people of the world. Like the cartoon that appeared in The New Yorker. God is standing on a cloud, looks down the earth, and says, “What was I thinking?” The Bible begins with abundance and joy and heavenly delight, but by the sixth chapter of Genesis, it has become a dark story, a terrible story. What God called “good” on the day of creation is now saturated by evil. And God regrets the whole mess.

Certainly God had his reasons. It was his world, and God made it, but it was turning out poorly. One day, God looked around and saw the cruelty and the violence that people inflict on one another. And God said, “All these people think about is evil. All they do is hurt and destroy.” So God decided to destroy all of them. God didn’t need these people to feel complete. God wasn’t very happy about making an imperfect world. So God decided to wipe the slate clean. Wash everything away. That would set God free to go other places and do other things.

The only kink in the plan is that God looked down and saw Noah. God remembered him, and said, “Well, Noah isn’t so bad.” And that’s the only reason that you and I are here today. If it weren’t for Noah, the human race would be extinct. But God remembered Noah, and God said, “I think I can work with him.”

When we read this story as grown-ups, we hear all kinds of legendary touches. Noah was five hundred years old when he became a parent. He was six hundred years old when the rain started to fall. At that advanced age, he was able to build a boat to hold two of every known species. He was able to line up two crocodiles and two elephants and two mosquitoes without getting hurt.

It sounds to a lot of people like an ancient legend. Just for the record, I think we can believe all of this without having to take it literally, because there is the deeper truth, and what it teaches us about God: that God had every intention of wiping out the human race until he looked down and remembered Noah.

It must make God very sad to create a world that doesn’t turn out very well. You create people with the capacity to love, and their hearts are bent on destruction. You give them seeds so they can plant gardens, and next thing you know some of them are hoarding the bread while others are going hungry. You give them hands to work with metal, and they start building spears. You give them beautiful acres of land to enjoy, and they start selling tickets for admission and strip-mining every available mineral.

God made the humans good, but they turned out worse than the animals. In the jungle, at least, animals survive by being fit. Human beings, on the other hand, manipulate, exploit, scheme, and plunder. They don’t have to sink their claws into one another, but they do. Unlike the wild animals, grown-up people torture one another, teenagers play mind games, and grade-school children humiliate other kids. No doubt, God has always had every reason to be very sad. In the words of one rabbi, “The great flood was supplied by God’s tears.”

But through the tears, God looked down and saw Noah. And God saw Noah’s wife (whatever her name was). And God saw Noah’s three sons, and Noah’s three daughters in law. Something softened in the Creator’s heart, and God thought, “Maybe I can work with them after all. Maybe I can make something of them without having to start over from scratch.”

A number of years ago, Bill Moyers brought together a lot of different people to talk about the stories of Genesis. It is a text in common for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Moyers thought it would be fruitful to host some conversations around the ancient texts, and he was right. On one of the television shows based on those conversations, he asked the members of his panel what kind of headline each one would write to describe the Noah story. A newspaper editor responded with something predictable, like “God Destroys World.”

One of the other panelists was the Rev. Dr. Samuel Proctor, for many years the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the leading church in Harlem. Dr. Proctor suggested an alternative headline: “God Gives Humans Second Chance.” Proctor went on to say he learned the Noah story from his father, a Sunday school teacher. “Sometimes we laughed at the ridiculous aspects of it,” he said with a smile, “but we didn’t try to rewrite it. We drew from it what it said right then to the people and went on.”

He said, “Every Wednesday, my daddy would press his trousers and go down to the Philharmonic Glee Club rehearsal. These sixty black guys – table waiters, coal trimmers, truck drivers – would give one big concert a year to the white population. We couldn’t sit where we wanted to, even though our daddy was singing – we had to sit in the back. But in the midst of all that rejection, hate, and spite, they went. And do you know the song they sang at the close of the concert? They sang. ‘Yesterday the skies were grey, but look this morning they are blue. The world is singing the son of the dawn.” Noah! Sixty black guys in tuxedos in the 1920s, with lynching everywhere and hatred. But they had something we need to recover right now. I can’t turn loose this story of Noah and the flood because after all of the devastation, there’s a rainbow. I can’t take that bow and the cloud out of my universe. I’m not going to live without that kind of hope. That’s what that story means to me.”[1]

Here is the hope: after every rainfall, there is a rainbow somewhere. God takes his bow, his very weapon of war, and puts it up in the sky. The point is there will be no more arrows from heaven to earth. God is going to live by another way. God will influence us without resorting to intimidating us. The next time a flood comes, we can be absolutely sure that it isn’t coming out of judgment or wrath. God tried that once, and decided never to try it again. There’s always Noah, that interesting 600-year-old man whose very presence suggests that the human race is worthy of a second chance.

The first covenant that God makes is a self-imposed restraining order. God says, “I won’t use nature to wipe out the human race.” Of course, if we choose to poison the environment or stir up storms through global warming, that is the result of our own stupidity, further evidence of our self-destructive tendencies. But God chooses to stick with us, with steadfast love and self-restraint.

The rainbow is God’s eternal Post-It note, a continuing reminder that the Creator of every person is in favor of the human race. And if God forgets about mercy, God has that rainbow in the sky. When God has a bad day, when God is disgusted with the manipulations and machinations of the human animal, God sees the rainbow, a wide spectrum of different colors each blended together to make the light of the world, and God decides once again that destroying all of us is no way  forward.

Elie Wiesel once said, “God created us because God loves good stories.” The story of the human family continues and moves forward. We can be sure that God is regularly disappointed with some of our plot twists. As God knows all too well, flooding the world never did wash away the human tendency to sin, and some of our stories still get stuck in the mud. But we can be even more certain that God chooses to keep living with the human story, if only because God is the beginning and end of it. God looks at the rainbow and remembers us, and the world is given another chance.

God remembers, and we shall remember. We can pray with Psalmist, “God, remember not the sins of my youth; Lord, according to your steadfast love, remember me” (Psalm 25:7). And maybe we will find in that prayer the strength to turn from all that is cruel and destructive within ourselves.

In the final word, it is entirely up to God, who creates us with good will, who judges us in complete fairness, who calls us to live holy and joyful lives. We may be genetically disposed to resist the God who loved us even before we were born. But our future is entirely up to God. We remember that, too.

So let us turn away from sin and turn to the One who can save us, praying ‘til the last possible moment, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”

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

[1] Bill Moyers, Genesis: A Living Conversation (New York: Doubleday, 1996) 133.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Don't Let Your Left Hand See Your Right

Matthew 6:1-4, Deuteronomy 15
Ash Wednesday
February 18, 2015

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

A friend of mine visits a lot of churches as a guest preacher. In one Tennessee congregation, he was greeting church members at the back door one Sunday. Meanwhile, the pastor’s son was running around in the sanctuary. He ran up and down the aisles, jumped up and down on one of the pews, and then scrambled into the pulpit. Suddenly he discovered, to his great delight, that the sound system was still on. He pulled down the microphone and yelled, “Is this thing on?” Sure enough it was, as everybody snapped around to look. Discovering he had an audience, he said, “Hey everybody, I’m up in front. Look at me, look at me!”

At the back of the church, the next person in line said to the visiting preacher, “Unfortunately, we’ve heard that sermon way too many times.”

I suppose all of us have. And not only as it’s been preached in this pulpit. All of us have heard people who talked too much about themselves, those who make every situation a personal stage, those who seek attention and will do anything to get it.

Jesus warns the church about this. You are the light of the world, he says, and your light is not to be hidden under a basket – but at the same time, don’t blast your spotlight into the eyes of others. Our spiritual behavior is never about our superiority. It is about giving ourselves to God and the needs of the world.

The example he gives is the giving of alms, the offering of our money for the needs of others. “Don’t blast your trumpet,” he warns. “Don’t stand before others and say, ‘Look at how generous I am!’” Others will be turned off, and God will not be impressed. No, whenever you give alms, do so quietly. It’s good advice.

Almsgiving is not mentioned very much in the New Testament. That’s not because the early church was stingy, but because the practice was assumed. Jesus says, “Whenever you give alms,” not “If you give alms.” Christians, like the Jews before them, are known by the ability to put themselves out for their neighbors. We cannot live together as a spiritual community if we don’t pay attention to one another’s needs. And if we blow the trumpet to say, “Look at me, look at me,” we obviously aren’t looking at the neighbor who needs our help.

As we begin the season of Lent together, we hear Jesus suggest a healthy kind of forgetfulness. “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Don’t hover over how generous you are – that will only lead to pride and self-centered attitudes. Rather, focus on those who need the gift. Forget about yourself, forget about your importance, forget about your ability to help – and sink into the practice of generous of love. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said of this teaching, “”Genuine love is always self-forgetful.” (The Cost of Discipleship, p. 178)

Or as one wise old sage said to me, “Get in the practice of giving so much that you no longer keep track  of much you have given.” Don’t let the left hand know what the right hand has given.

The word for “almsgiving” comes from the same word as “mercy.” When we give our money or our attention to somebody in need, we are extending mercy. We are making it real. The same mercy shown to us by Christ is what we offer to one another. In this sense we remember the Beatitude of Jesus: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” It’s not a strategy for getting in God’s good favor. Rather it’s a promise that our own hearts will be transformed as we try to make a difference in the lives of others. Mercy breeds more mercy, unless we forget that it begins with God’s mercy for all of us.

That is the mercy that gathers us here. God has come to a broken world because God has mercy on us. We can choose to remain broken, to remain indifferent. We can look at a hungry child and say, “He’s not my kid,” or look from a distance at hurricane victims and say, “Glad that didn’t happen to us,” or we can view victims of violence and abuse and declare, “There but for the mercy of God…” Listen: if we know anything about mercy, we know that mercy doesn’t make us any better than anybody else. Mercy only makes sense when we share it with others.

That is the invitation for us. We remember tonight we are dust, nothing more than dust - and it is only by the mercy of Jesus Christ that we get rescued in the middle of the mess of this world. In our lostness, God found us, in order that we may find those who remain in need.

So when you give alms, when you care for another, do not blow your trumpet for attention. No, save all your attention for those around you. And let them know in tangible ways that all of us are precious to God.

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

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Dazzled For Now

Mark 9:2-9
Day of Transfiguration
February 15, 2015
William G. Carter

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.

It’s a dazzling story. What can we say about it? Years ago, when I worked with an associate pastor, she accused me of always assigning her to preach on Transfiguration Sunday, the Sunday when this story is appointed to be read. Guilty as charged!

She said, “Every year, you have me preach on the story of Jesus climbing the mountain and glowing like the sun.” I replied, “Well, by now, you ought to have figured out something to say about it.” The fact is I didn’t know what to say about it. Still don’t!

Peter, James and John didn’t know what to say. Mark says they were terrified. They were everyday fishermen. They didn’t deal with mystical experiences. They dealt with the specifics of hard reality: where are the fish lurking today, how many did we catch. So when this mountain moment comes, the words in their mouths don’t work.

Ever the extrovert, Peter opens his mouth to see what he’s thinking. He calls Jesus “rabbi,” though it’s clear he is something more. “It’s good to be here,” he stammers, but he is too scared to be serious about it. And then, in the grand tradition of religious people who feel the need to capture a moment in a monument, he says, “Let’s put up a few tabernacles.” Mark says he was clueless and shaking in his boots.

It’s happened before. Peter, James, and John have been traveling with Jesus for eight chapters. They have been places and seen things that scared them half to death. Right after he called them to follow along, they went with him into the hometown synagogue. He started saying all this amazing stuff, then got into a shouting match with the crazy man in the fifth pew – and then Jesus cast away an evil spirit, and they said, “Whoa! What’s this? This never happens in church. Usually we let the evil spirits sit in the pews with the rest of us.” (1:21-28)

Peter, James, and John went with him on the day he healed the leper. They saw him touch the man that their Bible said you should never touch. The ancient book of Leviticus was clear: don’t ever get close to a leper. Make the leper yell to you as a warning so you never cross the invisible boundary. But Jesus steps right over that boundary. He refuses to let an old rule constrain him from doing the right thing, the holy thing. He touches the leper and heals him. I’ll bet Peter, James, and John were scared. (1:40-45)

Or there was that night on the boat. Jesus was tired out from teaching, and took a nap while the fishermen headed across the water. Suddenly a storm came out of nowhere, swirling around that punchbowl lake. They were hardy fishermen, but they grew nervous. Then they got really frightened, and shook him awake. “Don’t you care that we are going to perish!” He looked up and said, “Shut up!” And the storm stopped. Then they were really scared, and whispered, “Who is this?” (4:35-41).

Maybe we would like to think that life with Jesus would be pleasant and fun. It wasn’t at all. The disciples often looked sideways at one another. Like when that little boat ride was over, and they landed on the Gentile of the lake. When they got out of the boat, there was a cemetery there – that’s unclean if you’re a Jew – and another wild man was there, screaming at them. He was bad news. He lived among the tombs, Mark said, and bruised himself with stones. He was the first person Jesus met when he stepped ashore on Gentile land. There was another screaming match, and whatever was in that man jumped into some Gentile pigs and dashed them into the sea. This time, the whole town was scared of Jesus and asked him to leave (5:1-20).

Walking with Jesus was not a walk in a park. A woman who had been bleeding for years touched Jesus, and it made her well. Immediately he took Peter, James, and John into the bedroom of a dead little girl. And while people laughed at him, Jesus said, “Get up!” And the little girl was alive again. Sounds great, but I’m sure they were scared (5:32-42).

Even more frightening: now Jesus starts talking about the cross. It is inevitable. God sends Jesus into a broken, self-destructive world. He shows God’s mercy by fixing what he can – but there’s evil in the world, and it reacts, smacks him back, and resists – and evil will conspire to kill Jesus in order to stop him. Jesus says it is going to happen.

If you confront evil, it will talk back. If you feed the hungry, the tyrants will try to starve you. If you raise the dead, the zombies will attack you. There will be a cross for anybody who does the life-giving work of God in a world like this. Jesus says, “Watch what the world what the world does to me, because it’s going to happen to you, too.” Peter and the others were frightened. They didn’t know what to say.

And that’s exactly when the Transfiguration happens. “Six days later,” says Mark, they go up the mountain. It’s just the inner circle, Peter, James, and John. As they catch their breath from the climb, Jesus suddenly changes. He begins to shine like the sun. He had just been talking about death, but he’s so thoroughly alive. And not only him, but Moses the great lawgiver is alive, and Elijah, the greatest of the prophets, is alive. When Jesus shines, he stands among the Law and the Prophets, who are talking with him.

Mark will not separate this dazzling moment from what comes before or what comes after. There will be no sidestepping of the cross. Jesus will still be beaten and humiliated. You know the story: he will suffer and he will die. In this gospel, there is no question about that. Somebody once referred to the Gospel of Mark as “the passion story of Jesus’ death with a long introduction.” God’s Son will die.

Yet there is also the moment on the mountain: where there is power beyond all we know, where there is light beyond the thick darkness. It is Mark’s way of saying there is more holiness than we ever realize, and it’s close at hand. When Mark tells about the transfiguration, he gives the moment a time stamp: “six days later.”  It’s his way of saying suffering isn’t all there is. There is something more beyond it, through it, in spite of it.

“Why does God appear on high mountains, in barren deserts, and other fierce landscapes?” That is the question that Belden Lane asks in one of his books. You can probably guess some of the answers. In an extreme place, like a mountain, there are no other distractions. You see clearly what you don’t see at easier locations. And frankly, that’s when we most need God – when the going is really tough. The good news in the Transfiguration story is God is present all the time, in all power and glory, even if it mostly seems that God has blended in and remains out of sight.

Sometimes the veil drops and we see the truth, even if we don’t quite have the words to describe it. Like the funeral that I attended some time back. Cancer took a dear friend away after months of struggle. But in the last stretches of illness, my friend was gracious with everybody she met. Face to face, she would say, “I’m not afraid.” Before she ended each phone conversation, she declared, “I love you, honey.” She revealed the grace and glory of God even when she was worn out, and you should have heard us sing God’s praises at her funeral. For the moment, we knew death has no hold over those who trust God with everything.

Sometimes we see that the work of Jesus continues, long after he stood on the mountain. He fed the hungry and cared for those who have nowhere else to turn. That’s why people in our church are providing for the people in the city who have nowhere else to sleep or eat. There is no more room at the AME homeless shelter on these cold nights, yet when somebody knocks on the door, they are not turned away. That is precisely why we are working with our partners in that place. Housing the homeless, providing a hundred packets of oatmeal every morning, that is Kingdom work. It points to the glory of God in extreme human circumstances. It testifies that God really does care about everybody, beginning with those the world doesn’t notice.

I saw it last Sunday morning, when a friend introduced me to a woman named Daphne. He said, “Come here a second, there’s somebody I want you to meet.” Daphne runs a care program in the Methodist church I was visiting. She began by noticing two things: some people in the church were isolated by Alzheimer’s and other forms of decline, and the church had some empty space during the week. She said, “What if we invited those folks here and gave their families a break?” It’s the only program like that in their city. The church people started it without any budget. They cooked a hot lunch each day, volunteered to lead activities, and provided transportation.

“See that painting above my desk?” Daphne asked. “It was painted by a former five-star general who cannot remember his own name.” She paused, composed herself, wiped away a tear and said, “He’s so precious.”

This is what Christian people do: they step beyond their fear, they walk through human wreckage, they refuse to accept that suffering and pain shall define or constrain human life, and they point to the bright shining glory of a God who makes and loves us all. Just like Jesus they carry the cross of service and compassion, testifying to the holy power both in the midst of difficulty and far beyond it.

And if nothing else, that’s why we invite a Dixieland band to play on the coldest day of the year. This is a fun day, to be sure, but it is much more than that. Let the joyful music be a Gospel sign that there is far more to life than brutal weather. In the thick of bleak winter, we point to the abundant life given by God, even if we cannot see it yet.

That’s the way it has always been. Even before he moves toward the cross, Jesus reveals the life-giving power of God. We see it, too, and it beckons us to follow wherever Jesus goes, to serve wherever he serves, and to love all those he loves.   

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

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Words That Linger

Deuteronomy 18:9-22 / Mark 1:21-28
February 1, 2015
Ordinary 4
William G. Carter

When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord; it is because of such abhorrent practices that the Lord your God is driving them out before you. You must remain completely loyal to the Lord your God. Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so.

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophetThis is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” Then the Lord replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.” You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?” If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.

One summer, I had a great invitation for a week of vacation. A good friend in the Adirondack Mountains called to say, “I have a deal for you. There’s a small church in Inlet, NY, and it’s only open in the summer. I need a preacher for the second week in July. If you can come, we’ll pay your mileage, put some money in your pocket, and let you stay for free in the house next door. And maybe we can get you to preach a second sermon in the chapel at Raquette Lake, about fifteen miles down the road.”

Well, it sounded like a great deal to me. At the time, I was a single parent of two little girls. I had no other plans for a summer vacation, so we packed up the car, threw in a slightly used sermon, and drove into the north words for a week-long adventure. We had a great time, did some hiking in the High Peaks, went out in a canoe on Fourth Lake, splashed at a water park in Old Forge, and made a lot of pancakes.

We arrived on a Friday afternoon, as I recall, and threw our duffle bags in the small house that the church owned. We explored the grocery store, the pizza shop across the street, and then I took the key off the eyehook and unlocked the church. It’s a small sanctuary, maybe six pews on either side of a center aisle. My girls ran off giggling, and I went downstairs to check out the fellowship hall. When I came back upstairs, my older daughter, then six years old, was in the pulpit, while her three-year-old sister sat upright in the front pew.

Katie spotted me at the back door, and said, “It’s time to preach. Blah, blah, blah!” Then she pointed to me, and said to her sister, “Now it’s time for the offering. Go get his money.” With that, Meg ran down the aisle and shoved an empty offering plate into my belly.

I can probably figure out where they learned what the offering is all about. The puzzling part for me is understanding how they came to describe my preaching: “Blah, blah, blah.” And if that wasn’t harsh enough, there was the uniform look on the faces of that ten-member congregation on Sunday. It looked like the only sermons they ever heard were blah, blah, blah.

I reflect on that story from time to time. For one thing, it’s a funny memory from what turned out to be a great family vacation. In a deeper sense, it reminds me of the perils and possibilities of preaching.

When the good people of Inlet, New York, open up their church every summer, they call up the local association and say, “Send us a preacher” – or send us one vacationing preacher after another. They pretty much get whatever they get, like a guy with two little girls who takes a used sermon. I would imagine it’s an annual routine. A church member named Rose calls the presbytery office and declares, “We are going to open again,” and then the presbytery staff member looks at the clipboard to see who they have. That’s about as deeply as it goes. No wonder it often comes off as “blah, blah, blah.”

But what about those occasions when God actually wants to say something, those occasions when God wishes to communicate a life-giving message from headquarters? It will never be a “blah, blah, blah.” No, there’s going to be some fire in it. There might be some sparkles of holiness. Something could be said by the preacher up front that actually has an effect on the people who were expecting the same old thing.

That’s what happened in the story Mark tells. Jesus goes into the synagogue at Capernaum. He had recently been baptized, recently took on the devil in the wilderness, recently started a movement and has four fishermen on his team. And when he goes into the synagogue and starts to speak, there’s a buzz in the crowd.

People started whispering sideways, “We never have heard a message like this.” They were accustomed to scribes, those professional scholars who dribbled on about the original Hebrew text and quoted all the experts. And here comes Jesus and he doesn’t use footnotes!

Not only that, when he speaks, he provokes a reaction. Old Eliezer, that half-crazy man in the congregation who always bothers the guest preachers, starts talking back to Jesus. It accelerates, and pretty much he is screaming at the preacher. Jesus says, “Be muzzled – and come out of him!” There’s a short commotion, and then Eliezer is talking sense for the first time in years. Whatever else they said about that day in Capernaum, it was not the same old blah, blah, blah.

At the center of the biblical faith is the proposition that God speaks. The Bible begins with God declaring, “Let there be a world!” and it is so. Whatever God speaks shall happen. That’s how it is, in a cosmic sense, in a heavenly sense. The Word of God is not a text, it’s an action. In Hebrew (oh, there he goes again!), the verb “to speak” is an action word. God speaks and it is a cosmic event.

But human ears cannot hear a heavenly Voice without getting the ear drums punctured. So God chooses to speak by putting his Voice in a human voice. Call it a preacher – or in Old Testament talk, call it a prophet. All those books from the Hebrew prophets, do you know what they are? They are collections of sermons, many of them transcriptions of sermons, or memories of sermons. God never sends an e-mail in the Bible; God sends sound waves, by way of an awakened human heart and the vocal cords of a human messenger. It has been that way from the very beginning.

Back in my student days, as I prepared to take up the tasks of ministry, I came across a sentence in a book that scared me to death. It was from the Second Helvetic Confession, an old Swiss document that the Presbyterians believe to tell the truth. Here is the sentence: “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”[1] It gave me pause. I had heard plenty of jolly preachers who thought sermons should be full of jokes and happy little stories, but to think for a minute that God might speak through me – through you – it can be a terrifying business.

Like the crusty old Methodist chaplain who preached in a university cathedral every week. “Scares me to death,” he said to a group of young ministers. “That’s why I stop at the rest room one last time before I step into the sanctuary. I am dealing with the Word of God, and if that doesn’t upset your stomach, nothing will.”

As Moses gives one of his farewell speeches in the book of Deuteronomy, he speaks about speaking – specifically, about God speaking. “You will live in a world where words are cheap,” he says. “When they speak of the mysteries of heaven, they are interested in fortune telling and magic.”

Fortune telling, as in knowing what happens tomorrow, so you can get on the right side of how events will turn. For instance, if you know which team wins the big game today, you can visit Leo the bookie, lay down a $10,000 bet, and make a lot of money. That’s fortune telling, wanting to know what the eternal God knows, so it works out to your advantage. Moses says that is a terrible distortion of words.

Or magic, here in Deuteronomy referred to “sorcery” and “divination.” That’s bad news too, especially as people who belong to the Most High God. Magic is the attempt to manipulate the forces of nature, again to work it for your advantage, to try to gain power over God and God’s world by hidden spells and mysterious incantations. If you believe in the one God, what do you need magic for? It’s a terrible waste of words.

No, God speaks what is true. God speaks what it necessary. God speaks to create life, to order life so it flourishes, to judge life, to renew and restore life. And God will always offer his Word to God’s own people. The Holy One who speaks will never leave his people without a Word – and someone to speak it. That is the promise that Moses gives, first to the Jews, and then to all who are adopted by God in the covenant of Jesus Christ.

It is a remarkable promise. I think of those ten weary faces in the little Adirondack church, wondering who the preacher of the week will be, but after a while, not caring very much. It didn’t seem so much they wanted a Word from God as much as they wanted some young preacher who could change the light bulbs in Fellowship Hall that they couldn’t reach. In return, they would endure the steady blah, blah, blah of whoever showed up.

But it that all there is?  No. What if God should speak? What if the One Voice that we hear, in the human words, is the same Voice who declared, “Let there be life!” What if the same God who spoke through Jesus in synagogue at Capernaum should speak to us? We could not remain the same.

I grew up listening to sermons. Well, actually I didn’t listen very much, and it’s arguable whether I ever grew up.  But in our family, my parents gave no other options on Sunday morning than to go to church.  That’s what we did, and truth be told, blah, blah, blah was often the order of the day. I would often take a pencil and fill in the zeros and the O’s in the worship bulletin. That’s how I got through the service.

But then there was that sermon, the first sermon I ever remember. I was eight years old. I don’t remember what the preacher said, but I remember the sermon. It had been quite a week. That Friday morning, our teacher came into the elementary school and started to teach. Suddenly she broke down and began to sob. Through the tears she said Dr. Martin Luther King had been shot and killed. As a second grader, I wasn’t really sure who Dr. King was, but I could tell by her tears that he was important.

The next Sunday, our minister stood up and spoke. He was different. His name was Sheldon Seibel. I couldn’t tell you what he said. Maybe he told us that God loves every single person, that God commands us to love each other. I don’t know what it was, but I will never forget the sound of his voice. He didn’t shout or scream or wave his arms. No, he quietly laid his life on the line by telling the truth as he heard it from the Lord. I have never forgotten the power of that hour. I can’t remember the words, but I will never forget the sermon.

Years later, my father told me that Rev. Seibel had marched in Selma, Alabama. He was in the crowd when Dr. King led the march for human dignity. He came back from Alabama to speak the truth, but the Yankees in our little town weren’t sure they wanted to hear it. Rev. Seibel was never our church’s favorite preacher. He had graduated from Yale, for Pete’s sake; we didn’t always understand what he was talking about.

But on Sunday, April 7, 1968, I was there. I heard the sermon. I don’t remember a word of what he said. The only thing I remember is that God was in the room. There was absolutely no doubt about that. On a day when we most needed it, God’s Word was in our preacher’s words. It was exactly what we needed.

Here is the first and greatest truth of the faith in which we stand: God speaks. For those with ears to hear, God finds a way to communicate to us. We can shrug it off, we can ignore it, we can qualify it or dismiss it.

Perhaps we might even listen . . . and be healed.

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

[1] Full text of the section: THE PREACHING OF THE WORD OF GOD IS THE WORD OF GOD. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if (s)he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good. (2nd Helvetic Confession)