Saturday, March 28, 2015

Courage

Isaiah 50:4-9(a)
Palm Sunday
March 29, 2015
William G. Carter

The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. 
The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. 
I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. 
It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?


Have you ever had to do something that you knew was going to be difficult?

The mother looks at her son. He is getting ready for high school. Woke up late, like usual. Skipping breakfast, like always. He pulls shut the bedroom door, and she is certain his bed is unmade, but she’s not going to take a look. He’s old enough to know better. As he trots down the staircase and goes out the door, she yells goodbye, and then realizes she didn’t ask if he would be home for supper. Mother sighs, and says out loud what she doesn’t want to believe: in five months, he will be gone. It’s time for him to go, time for her to let him go. And she doesn’t look forward to dropping him off at college and driving back to an empty house.

The man sits in his car for a minute before he goes into his office. On his lap is a folder of carefully notated information. The worst fears have confirmed. He can trace why his company is in trouble. A good deal of money has gone where it shouldn’t have. He will need to confront those responsible. He doesn’t want to do. He regrets it has come to this. But the evidence is inescapable and nobody is going to do it for him. So he exhales sadly and reaches to for the door handle.

Have you had to do something that you knew was going to be difficult?

The boy with pimples says, “Should I tell my teacher what my friend has stashed in his locker?” The pregnant woman says, “Honey, my water just broke.” The cancer survivor take a big breath to declare, “I must tell the oncologist that I found another lump.” The neighbor says, “I have to tell the authorities what I really did see.”

Everyday life bring one moment after another that requires a great deal of courage. Maybe you didn’t want to do something, but you had to do it. Maybe you postponed it for a while, but it was still waiting for you. Maybe you considered a detour, but the destination was inevitable. And courage will reveal who we are and what we are made of.

Can you see one more example? A young man on a donkey, heading downhill. He pauses for a moment to survey the city spread out before him. Does he know what lies ahead? It depends which version of the story you read.  Mark doesn’t say very much. The people are singing Psalm 118, a Passover psalm, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Matthew says he will confuse everybody’s expectations. Everybody asks, “Who is this?” (21:10), and the response is partly right: “Jesus is a prophet.”

John says the crowds expect a military hero when Jesus comes to town. They wave palm branches, a nearly two-hundred year old symbol of guerrilla warfare and liberation (1 Maccabees 13:51).

The Gospel of Luke is most poignant and most revealing. Halfway down the hill, Jesus begins to weep. He knows how God’s people treat their own prophets. The very people who ought to know better do not, themselves, know the things that make for peace.

And Jesus rides downhill, right into the middle of it all. Today it would be enough for us to honor him for his courage. For his courage.

The Bible doesn’t speak directly of his courage. It does speak of his commitment. In the Gospel of Matthew, for instance, Jesus announced to his disciples, “I must go to Jerusalem, and undergo great suffering, and be killed.” He must go.  This was not optional for him. He didn’t get his mother to write him an excuse.  It was his calling, it was his destiny. He had to do it, so his commitment drove him to Jerusalem.

Not only was it his commitment, the Bible speaks also of his joy. In the early sermon that is now called the Letter to the Hebrews, the preacher says, “Let’s look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (Hebrews 12:2). That’s what it says – his joy. Not his happiness; there’s no happiness in a crucifixion. But his joy – that is, his deep freedom of knowing that he was doing exactly what God wanted him to do. If you have that sense of purpose, that spiritual knowledge that you are in the right place, doing the right thing, it frees you to get it done.

But what I find so striking today is not merely commitment, not only his abiding sense of God’s will, but his courage. His bravery. That is a rare trait of character. We don’t see enough courage.

I recall the epic tale from my generation, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” In a deeply skewed version of the King Arthur legend, the knights of the round table out in search of fame and fortune. One of the knights is Brave Sir Robin, who wasn’t so brave at all. Everywhere he rides, accompanied by the sound of galloping coconuts, a balladeer sings of this dashing knight. The song begins:

     Bravely bold Sir Robin rode forth from Camelot.
     He was not afraid to die, Oh brave Sir Robin.
     He was not at all afraid to be killed in nasty ways.
     Brave, brave, brave, brave Sir Robin.

We laughed out loud in the darkened theater, because he wasn’t brave at all. As the balladeer sang on of terrible dangers in front of the knight, brave Sir Robin ran away. He protested at how terrible it made him look, to flee danger, but the troubadour sang:

     When danger reared its ugly head, 
     he bravely turned his tail and fled.
     Yes, brave Sir Robin tuned about 
     and gallantly he chickened out.

We laughed, because everybody knows what it is like to chicken out. Everybody knows – don’t you know? Even the twelve disciples knew. When danger drew near with a kiss in Gethsemane, “all of them deserted him and fled” (Mark 14:50).  All of them chickened out, all of them . . . except Jesus.

Courage is a trait of character. We don’t talk it about it enough. We don’t hold it up as a trait to be admired. And God knows, we fall short of living brave and courageous lives. A lot of us can talk a good game, just as long as we don’t have to back it up with our actions. It is easy to be an armchair activist, without ever putting any of our own skin in the game.  

But then the moment comes - the decisive moment - and we have to decide if we are the people that God calls us to be.

In August 2013, Kayla Jean Mueller was kidnapped after leaving a hospital in Aleppo, Syria. She was a humanitarian worker, a 26-year old aid worker from Prescott, Arizona. Kayla had traveled the world, working with refugees, teaching English, and feeding the hungry. She had worked in women’s shelters, accompanied Palestinian kids who wanted to go to school, and wrote letters to advocate for the environment. We would have been proud to have her as one of our own – and her compassion sounds like she could have been one of our own. Time Magazine said it simply: her life was dedicated to eradicating human suffering.[1]

Kayla was held captive for eighteen months by ISIS. A U.S. mission to rescue her failed. A possible prisoner swap did not work out.  Last month, the rumor came she had been killed in a Jordanian airstrike. For a while, her fate was not known, and then, sadly her death was confirmed.

Kayla’s final gift was a letter she wrote to her parents. Here is some of what she has to say to us all:

I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God.  I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our Creator because literally there was no else…. By God (and) by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.  I have been shown in darkness, light, (and ) have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful.  I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it.

Then she concluded:

Please be patient, give your pain to God.  I know you would want me to remain strong. That is exactly what I am doing.  Do not fear for me, continue to pray as will I, and by God’s will we will be together soon.   All my everything, Kayla[2]

She said, “I know you would want me to remain strong. That is exactly what I am doing.” Can you see why we have to talk about courage?

As we go through Holy Week this year, I invite you to read the conclusion of any of the four Gospels. Read the last few chapters, and pay attention to Jesus. He never swerves from the path God sets before him. He rides into the city, trusting God the Father is strong enough to see him through. The story of his courage suddenly brings to life the spunky poem that we heard from the prophet Isaiah. Do you remember how some of it goes?

The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. 
I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.
The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. 
It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?

I don’t know what burdens you carry today. But whatever you face, have courage. Jesus has faced it before you. Because he has “set his face like flint,” he shall not be put to shame. Trusting in God, neither shall we.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Falling and Flourishing

John 12:20-33
Lent 5
March 22, 2015
William G. Carter

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor."

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.


We continue on the road to the cross. That is what our journey for the season of Lent. It’s an unusual journey, as we heard a couple of weeks ago. The world regards it as foolish and weak. Last week we heard the word from Ephesians, that God works grace in the cross by saving us from our sin. We prayed for the faith to believe it, to trust it.

Today we have another unusual word, this time from the mouth of Jesus himself: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” And the writer makes sure we understand what he is saying, “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”

John understands the cross in light of the resurrection and ascension. Good Friday and Easter are one long weekend, and all of it marks the journey by which Jesus returns to heaven. Jesus comes down from the Father, speaking the truth and doing many signs. The cross is how he begins his return. He is “lifted up,” says John – lifted up on the cross, lifted up from the grave, lifted up into heaven. This is the way that this Gospel writer talks. The cross is Jesus’ “glory, his “hour.” It will draw all people to Jesus.

What a curious thing to say. He does say “all people.” Not a selected few, but all people. Not only the obvious ones, the ones who trust and believe and say the right words, but “all people.”

John has no problem parsing people into different groups. Throughout his Gospel, he calls one of the groups “the Jews.” He often gives them a little kick of judgment, as a sign he didn’t like them.  Sadly that little kick became full scale anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages, even though that was never the intended purpose.

When John speaks of “the Jews,” it is verbal shorthand for “the Jews within the Jews,” that is, those who refused to acknowledge that Jesus is the Messiah. In his John’s day, near the end of the first century, the church had endured a painful split from Judaism. The evangelist acknowledges this by referring to Jesus’ opponents as “the Jews.” He doesn’t mean a universal statement of “all Jews everywhere,” but only those who opposed Jesus in his earthly ministry.

And yet he quotes Jesus as saying, “I will draw all people to myself.”

In the passage for today, he tells of an unusual moment when some Greeks are drawn to Jesus. It is Passover week, and Jesus has just dismounted his Palm Sunday donkey. Some strangers went to Philip, Philip went to Andrew, and the two of them went to Jesus. They said, “Some Greeks are looking for you.” We don’t know who they are. Were they Jews from out of town who spoke the Greek language? Were they Gentiles from the wider culture who wondered what the fuss was about? We don’t know.

We do know that by the time this story got written down, John’s church was full of all kinds of people who were drawn to the Christ. Tradition puts John in the Turkish city of Ephesus, a major center for Jews and Gentiles, Turks and Greeks, centurions and slaves, business owners and single parents, widows and refugees – and it’s a good bet a smattering of them all were in John’s church.

Perhaps he saw in the diversity of his congregation a sign of what God wants for the world: a church that draws all kinds of people. Imagine that! As Jesus said, “When I am lifted up, I will all people to myself.”

In the Gospel of John, Jesus has said this kind of thing before. In chapter 10, the Good Shepherd says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). Again, he doesn’t declare who those outsiders are. Maybe they are Greeks, maybe they are Jews, maybe they are somebody else. The Gospel of John keeps this open, so must we. We cannot restrict what Jesus himself does not specify.

And please notice  it is Jesus who is lifted up. It is Jesus who is central. It is Jesus who draws all the people, and Jesus through whom all people will pass. “No one is going to come to the Father,” he says, “unless they pass through me” (14:6). He is the tunnel, he is the conduit. Or as he says in chapter ten, he is “the gate” (10:9) through which all the varied flocks will pass. They don’t pass through the Presbyterian church, or the Baptist church, or the Catholic church – they pass through Jesus.

In fact, lambs in another flock may have lived their entire lives as Buddhists. That may be all they know. Perhaps their only exposure to Christians is some of the hateful and divisive words they have heard some of the Christians who speak on the evening news. And when they pass through, Jesus is so great he is the One they are passing through. Because the Lord is greater than some of the people who claim to represent him.  

Or there might be in lambs in another flock, and these would be the people who burned out on the church. Maybe they tried it years ago and it didn’t work for them. Or they prayed and didn’t get what they wanted. Or they got stuck in a committee meeting and couldn’t get out. Or they grew up and discovered that nobody really wanted them, and everywhere they turned, the door was locked. Imagine them being drawn to Jesus, to the real Jesus – not the dashboard Jesus or a cartoon caricature, but to the One who says at the end of our chapter, “I came not to judge the world but to save the world” (12:47). Imagine a love that deep, a mercy that wide!

In the language of the Gospel of John, I believe this is what it means when he says, “I will draw all people to myself.” All will come to him. All will pass through him. That is what is inevitable for every one of us. Our hope is in the words of a favorite Christmas carol: “And our eyes at last shall see Him / through His own redeeming love / for that Child so dear and gentle / is our Lord in heaven above.”[1]

But here’s the thing. Those whose “eyes at last shall see Him,” shall see him only through the eyes of humility. It won’t be through their strength or their power or their correctness on matters spiritual or otherwise. They will see him in their moment of need and the disposition of their hearts. As the teen choir sings for us, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus.” You can’t sing that from the altitude of arrogance. You can only truly sing it

If Jesus comes to draw all people to himself and save them, it is in the universality of our need. And we see this when we see our need for Someone in heaven greater than ourselves, Someone who knows what it is like to be us.

Perhaps that’s why, when Jesus speaks of glory, he speaks of emptying. That is the paradox of the Christian life. Tucked in the middle of this passage about the universal attraction of the cross, Jesus gives three brief teachings:  

  • The first is a law from nature: the grain of wheat that falls into the ground will flourish. Death is essential for the increase of life.
  • Second is a law of discipleship: dying to yourself is the pre-condition of having a full life.
  • Third, the law of nature and the law of discipleship are shaped by Jesus himself: his death is an act of self-giving service, and those who follow him will give their lives in service.  
To see Jesus involves setting ourselves aside. He has “emptied” himself by coming down from heaven in complete vulnerability.[2] So he has set the pattern for those who follow him, and for all who will sooner or later see him. The cross-shaped life is not about me and what I want. It is about emptying ourselves into the love of God and the love of our neighbors. It means setting aside all the vain things that charm us most, and serving like Christ, who gave up the throne in heaven to come down here and to give his life to the world.

This is a move worthy of our Lenten reflection. One of my friends has wrapped it up in a story:

In a hospital chaplain training program, a new student chaplain was requested to visit Marie, a patient with terminal cancer who had requested a visit. This seminarian’s first real encounter with death, he was overwhelmed with the smell of the hospital room. As he entered the room and saw Marie’s ashen color, he felt sick to his stomach. But then remembered from somewhere that it helps to sit down and put your head in your hands. He sat that way for four or five minutes, and the sickness did lessen..

But when he looked at the woman, instantly he felt so embarrassed that he just got up and left the room. Feeling that he had failed, he went to the meditation room to sort things out. He decided he would tell his supervisor the next day that was resigning from the program. It was too difficult. But the next morning before he had the chance, the supervisor found him. Marie had called again. Oh ho, he thought.

“Well, this time she wanted to say thanks. After she called yesterday, she wished she hadn’t. She was so sick that she didn’t feel like talking and surely didn’t want any minister preaching to her. She said, ‘The chaplain who came must have sensed that. He sat down, bowed his head, and prayed for maybe five minutes. And then he gave me the most loving glance and left. Of all my visits at this hospital, this is the most meaningful visit I ever received.’”

Somebody said, “But he wasn’t really praying, was he?” Well, yes. He was yearning for health, wholeness, some relief. And that’s just how she experienced his prayer.[3]

Jesus says, “Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies it bears much fruit.” Jesus says this about himself. He says it also as an invitation for us who would follow him, an invitation for us to flourish in our falling. And one thing more: he says it for anyone who wishes to see him . . . because sooner or later, everyone shall see him.



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

[1] Cecil F. Alexander, “Once in Royal David’s City,” stanza 5
[2] Philippians 2:7
[3] Kent Ira Groff, Active Spirituality (Washington, D.C: The Alban Institute, 1993) 113-114.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Give It Up

Ephesians 2:1-10
Lent 4
March 15, 2015
William G. Carter

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.


One Sunday morning in her house in South Dakota, Kathleen Norris cooked breakfast for a house guest. Her husband David had brought him home from the bar he tended. He was in no condition to drive, and spent the night on their living room couch. Now the bacon and eggs were sizzling, and their guest Willie was in a talkative mood.

He was between jobs, he said, having done a number of jobs on the oil fields. He made a lot of money, blown most of it, and schemed about making some more. Somewhere in Wyoming, he met up with some drug dealers. The possibility of making some really big money emerged, and Willie found himself hanging around some colorful new acquaintances. One of his colleagues had disappeared, he said, only to be found tied up and full of bullet holes on the Gulf of Mexico. Kathleen poked the bacon and turned down the burner.

He and his main partner were doing pretty well, he said. They had a lot of contacts, the network was building, and Willie felt good to connect with somebody who had a lot of experience. Then one day, as they were riding down the road in a small city, his partner pulled off onto the shoulder and came to a stop. He had just passed somebody driving in the opposite direction and thought about turning around to follow him.

Reaching under the seat to pull out a gun Willie did not know was there, the man said matter-of-factly, “I need to kill him, but he’s with someone, and I don’t know who. So it will have to wait.” Kathleen listened to this, and flipped the eggs with a spatula.

Willie said, “It was right then I decided to get out. It was over my head.” Kathleen said she looked out the window, saw the neighbors walking to church, and said, “Well, Willie, I think you did the right thing.”[1]

It’s a wild story, but maybe not so wild for people in church, because it’s a story of salvation. Christian people, like the Jewish people before them, have plenty of stories about being saved, about getting rescued from danger or delivered from a terrifying threat. That’s what the word “salvation” is all about. Life is full of situations that are over our heads. We might have been wiped out or lost, but God came to help at the appropriate time.

In the Jewish scriptures, the verb “to save” (yasha) occurs in military battles, as God or someone God appoints intervenes to rescue the people. Moses raises his arms or God sends a great wind, and the people are saved.

The New Testament word is “sozo,” which has connotations for health. Remember what Jesus says to countless people? “Your faith has made you well” – which can also be translated, “Your faith has saved you.”[2] Saving is a kind of healing. It is a restoration of the whole person, a setting-right of what has been damaged and broken.

God comes to save. That’s the theme announced in our scripture texts. From Psalm 107, “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble” (107:2). And the Psalm remembers all kinds of trouble: wandering in the desert, stumbling in the dark, at risk at sea, and sick to the stomach from the effects of sin. God saves one person after another, so “let the redeemed say so.”

From the third chapter of John: God sent the Son into the world to turn on the lights, and the world shouted back, “Turn out the lights!” We can understand that. I remember checking into a hotel room, unlocking the door, and turning on the lights. There was a lot of motion along the floor. If I had not turned on the lights, I would not have seen the cockroaches. That’s what happens when Jesus comes as the light of the world: you see all the disgusting stuff that has been flourishing in the dark. Jesus comes, not to condemn, but to save us from it.

And then, the second chapter of Ephesians, one of those passages that ignited the Protestant Reformation: “You have been saved by grace through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” It is one of the clearest statements of truth in the entire Bible. God is the One who does the saving. God is the One who is gracious to those who really don’t deserve it. Out of the richness of God’s mercy, out of the great love with which God loves us, even in the midst of the great disasters we create for ourselves and others, God shows us “grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus.”

Somebody paraphrased those words at the church door last Sunday. Those of us who were here heard Paul’s description of the cross in First Corinthians, as “God’s weakness, stronger than human strength,” and “God’s foolishness, greater than human wisdom.” And one of you said to me, “I suppose if we could have saved the world through human strength and human wisdom, it would have already gotten done. So God had to save the world through Jesus.” Bingo, that’s right.

Here in the second chapter of Ephesians, it’s pretty clear the world is a mess. You think that’s a new diagnosis? No, it’s the same old mess it always was, except now we have cable TV, video games, and other complications from technology. It’s pretty much the same old mess. In our text, the early church preacher describes it a number of ways:

Following the course of the world,
Following the ruler of the power of the air,
Living in the passions of our flesh,
Following the desires of flesh and senses,
We are by nature children of wrath, like everyone else

I wanted to say, “Wait, that’s pretty cruel,” but then I drove downtown after yesterday’s parade. There were still a few glimpses of human wreckage on Lackawanna Avenue. Some bare-chested kid was covered in green paint. A blond co-ed was weaving on her feet, propped up by a couple of friends. A bar bouncer was escorting a guy with a black eye. I suppose they all went there to have a good time. I saw it as evidence of what the New Testament calls “the desires of the flesh.” That’s code language of doing whatever you want, whether it’s tossing down a gallon of Guinness or riding in the front seat with a murderous drug dealer.   

Once again, I return to the insight of last week’s back door theologian. If the world could get saved by our strength or wisdom, it would have been done. If only we could save the world by educating everybody, or organizing everybody, or spreading the wealth around, or spreading democracy around, or getting the money out of politics, or reducing carbon emissions, or whatever else is going to be proposed . . . if only, if only…

The letter to the Ephesians knows we are pretty much helpless to improve our lot. Oh, there are things we can do: “give up malice,” “tell the truth,” “work a honest day’s work,” “share what you have with the needy,” “use words to build up and not tear down,” “honor your parents,” “love your loved ones,” and “be kind to one another.”[3] All of this is good advice from Ephesians.

But the world’s struggle is a cosmic struggle. We are not merely contending with human frailty but with evil that has turned loose in the cosmos, with the powers and principalities (6:12). So the God of heaven has had to deal with this through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In a supreme act of rebellion, the world put the Son of God on a cross, but God used that event to kill off the final power of all that is evil. Evil still sputters, but in heaven it has been defeated.

And in the raising of Jesus from the dead, God has shown us where everything is headed. Here is how Ephesians puts it: “We have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us” (1:7-8). Faith is trusting this is true.

I have never made breakfast for a former drug dealer in my kitchen. At least, I don’t think so. But I had a moment in high school where a friend asked me to do him a favor. He was a basketball player, a really great guy. I admired him. He was good looking, friendly, as athletic as I wanted to be.

One day, I was visiting at his house and he said, “Can you take this shoebox and keep it for me?” It was a size 13 Converse box, wrapped tightly in masking tape. I said, “What is it?” He replied, “I’m not going to tell you, because it’s better if you don’t know.” He was secretive about it, and lowered his voice: “My parents have gotten nosy and I don’t want them to find out about this. Keep it for a while.”

So I did. I put it on the top shelf of my bedroom closet, way in the back, right next to my box of Boy Scout merit badge pamphlets. That night, I didn’t sleep a wink. Every creak in the hallway, I was sure my parents were going to bust in and bust me – and whatever was in that shoebox wasn’t even mine. Next night, I slept a little better, and then the week went on and I didn’t think about it.

A couple days later, I got home from school, went up to my bedroom, and my mom is poking around in the closet. I just about died. It was all I could do to keep from looking suspicious, which meant, of course, that I looked guilty as hell. Mom looked up at me and said, “What did you do?” I stammered out, “Nothing…” She replied, “I’m getting rid of your some old shoes.” She stood with an armful, and I helped her out the door.

When I recovered from my near-heart attack, and when the coast was clear, I took the shoebox back to my friend and said, “I can’t have this in my house.” He looked at me, somewhat sorrowful, and said, “I don’t want it either. It was a really big mistake.” So we walked down his street, saw a garbage can outside somebody’s garage, and dropped the box inside. I never learned what was inside it, although I have a few ideas.

I tell you the story because of three particular emotions that touched my soul that afternoon.  The first was relief, profound relief. I could have been caught, I could have been found out,  I could have been grounded until I was thirty-five – but I got off without so much as an accusation. The second emotion was guilt, dark, heavy guilt. I was sure I was doing something wrong, that my friend had been wrong, that we were part of some nasty business that had to be covered up.

But here is the third emotion, the one that counts the most: I was feeling freedom. By some heavenly protection, I was steered away from a situation that could have turned out badly. I could have been punished – perhaps my guilt was my punishment – but the guilt was now lifted, the bad business was cancelled, the evil shoebox was gone, and I was free. Completely free. That’s the first time I can remember what the grace of God is all about. And I knew that grace so strongly that I decided, then and there, to never get tangled up in a mess like that ever again. Instead I have gotten tangled up in hundreds, thousands, of other messes, many of my own making.

Here’s the thing: God saves us an act of grace. Not because we are good, but because God is good. “Rich in mercy” is how our scripture text says it. Spend a little Sabbath time this afternoon remembering all the moments in your life that could have gone a lot worse than they did. Breathe a sigh of relief, let go of the guilt, and take the freedom to start anew.  

This is what it’s like to let go of our sins and become alive in Christ. We drop the crazy lie that we have done everything right. We turn away from the things that are killing us and killing other people.  We ask for forgiveness and make whatever amends we can. And then we give it up to God - we give all of it up - and say, “Lord, you are so rich in mercy; let’s begin again.”

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)



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


[1] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998) 18-20.
[2] See, for instance, Mark 5:34.
[3] See Ephesians 4 and 5.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Ugly Beauty

1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Lent 3
March 8, 2015
William G. Carter

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.


It is the season of Lent, the season of forty days before Easter. From the early days, the church wisely decided we cannot get to Easter without some time for preparation. Resurrection is going to happen, with or without our consent, so why not prepare? We can pray, we can fast from the world’s goods,  we can give alms. But the best preparation is to speak of the cross.

The heart of the Christian faith is that Jesus died and was raised from the dead. Everything we do and say is funneled through that truth. When springtime finally thaws, when the birds sing their doxologies and the daffodils explode in yellow glory, it is easy to speak of resurrection. Life begins again, especially after a long cruel winter.

In our office, we have been shopping for worship bulletins for Easter. Most of them have scenes from spring time, happy and colorful glimpses of nature in its Northern Hemisphere glory, even though Easter has nothing to do with nature. Easter is the breaking of the laws of nature. It is the raising of the dead, not the recycling of the seasons. Resurrection is strange and odd and unprecedented. It runs counter to everything we observe about life – that we are born, that we grow, that we mature, and that we die.

But the cross is no less difficult to comprehend. Jesus was born, and he grew. Sometime in his early thirties, he was put to death. The stories say he did nothing wrong. To the contrary, he did everything right: He healed the sick, he fed the hungry crowds. He lifted up the lowly. He exposed the superficial and cracked open the calcified. He told the truth about God, he told the truth about us. And for that, he was put to death. 

What are we going to say about this?

The apostle Paul said, “This is what I preach. This is all I know. This is all I want to know: Christ crucified.” His detractors said, “Don’t you have a new sermon?” But Paul replied, “This is my only sermon.” Everything he lived for was subject to the cross. His years of study to  learn the laws of God, his earnestness for living a holy life, his zeal for keeping God’s people pure – all of it was placed at the foot of the cross. And he knew from practical experience what many marketing experts have long since decreed: you can’t grow a church by talking about the cross.   

People want success and the cross is one man’s failure. People want life and the cross is a death. People want to win and the cross is a loss. And Paul says, “This is what I preach.” Such an unusual thing to preach.

Tomorrow night at 8:00, millions of hopeful romantics will tune in to see an Iowa farmer named Chris select the woman who will free him from being The Bachelor. Who’s going to win? Who’s going to lose? Speculation is high. People we know talk about it every day. They have watched “The Women Tell All” episode and formed their opinions. Tomorrow they will give up three hours of their evening to see who alone shall win and discuss who deserves to lose. And they will do this because they live in a world that says winning is the only thing that matters. Even though there is only one person who will win, it’s all about winning.

And Paul says, “I talk about the cross.” No wonder he says it’s pretty foolish. He calls it a scandal, a stumbling block. In a world of me-first, survival of the fittest, winning at all costs, it is something the world at large cannot comprehend. But the cross is the heart of the Christian mystery, and so we talk about it.

But why? Why the cross? A number of reasons, I suppose. Here is the first: because the cross exposes the way the world is. God sends Jesus into the world, to teach and heal, to reveal God’s grace and truth, and the world kills him for it. We live in a world that resists its own healing. That’s what the cross reveals. This is not a world that can save itself. The whole world needs God.

If we ask a lot of Christians what they believe about the cross, they will quickly say, “Jesus died for our sins.” True enough, but let’s hear that for what it is- that is a statement of faith. It is an affirmation, it is a proposition. Yet before we rush to say it and move on, let’s take the crucifixion as the people saw it day: a young man who did nothing wrong, nailed on wood between two thieves, surrounded by onlookers who jeered him, soldiers who spat upon him, abandoned by his friends, piercing the heart of his mother who watched all this, in excruciating pain, left to suffocate by his own weight.

There was no obvious atonement visible to those people who surrounded Jesus on the cross. On that Friday afternoon, regardless of what the preachers have told you, it was not obvious that Jesus died for our sins – but it was crystal clear that he was dying because of our sins. As the centurion says who presided over the execution says in the Gospel of Luke, “Truly, this man is innocent.” (Luke 23:47).

Call it sin, call it sickness, call it a rebelliousness that pushes away God. As Paul says in his writings, “We have no excuse” (Romans 2:1).

Fifty years ago yesterday, American citizens who were denied the right to vote marched across a bridge in Selma, Alabama. They were confronted by Alabama state troops, who had been ordered by Governor George Wallace to stop them. Joined by a quickly deputized posse of white men, these unarmed people were beaten by clubs, dragged by horses, and chased back across a bridge that was named after a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.

Here’s the thing: that march happened on a Sunday afternoon in Alabama, at a time and place where every Christian church had probably been full that morning. In fact, it is not a stretch at all to believe that some of the same people who beat the marchers had gone to church that morning, sang the hymns, heard the scriptures, and threw a few bucks in the offering plate. Of course, it was Alabama, 1965.

The cross teaches us that we should never be surprised when people do terrible things to one another. That’s the kind of world we are in, and it’s the kind of world that gets into us. Paul says, “I have to preach that.”

Not only does the cross show us what the world is like, the cross also reveals what the Christian life is like. We follow Jesus. We care about the things that he cares about. We do the daily deeds that he has done. That means we get involved in other people’s lives. We dress wounds and promote healing. We spend time with people that the world rejects. We do not back off from the call to service. We do not ignore deep human need. We go to those who are most vulnerable and we stand with them.

This is hard work, but there’s no reason we should expect otherwise. There are a lot of religious con artists who will see you a bill of goods. They promise achievement and success and simple two-calorie answers to life’s persistent problems. And so enticing to think that faith will live you about difficulty, that prayer will always be answered, and that God will always give you whatever you want. 

That’s not the truth. Sometimes faith pushes you deeper, stretches you wider, or cracks your heart open to love those you don’t want to love. And the hardest prayer to say is the one that Jesus prayed on the night before he died, “Not my will, but Yours be done.” It is our desires that end up crucified, our willfulness that must be set aside, our schemes that must give way to God’s way.

In this sense, the Christian life is never about getting ahead of others or improving our lot in life. It’s about following Jesus. It’s about doing what he calls us to do. The Christian life is a cross-shaped life. The dog-eat-dog world doesn’t understand that, the rich and famous are confused by it. It simply doesn’t make sense that the way of the cross is the way of self-sacrifice, non-violence, and persistent, purifying love.

“But this is the Word I speak,” says Paul, “the word of the cross.” That’s the word made flesh in Jesus the Christ, the word that becomes enfleshed in those who follow him. It exposes the world for what it is, it maps ot the road of discipleship.

But there is an even bigger reason why we speak about the cross: because this is where we see God. Not high up on a cloud, not detached and indifferent like the small deities of Greece and Rome, not immovable, inflexible, and unemotional like all the legends that people tell about God – but God who comes to us in Jesus, willing to enter our suffering, willing to live among the likes of us, willing to risk everything to claim us and win us back, willing to cancel the sin and evil that nailed him to a tree. That’s the most amazing thing of all.

God is in the crucified servant Jesus – and what looks like an all-too-visible weakness is the holy power that will save us. This doesn’t compute for those who are logical. It doesn’t impress those who hope for a miracle. But in the cross God reaches right down into the grime of our lives and declares, “I have found you, I am with you, I will redeem you.”

And if you know how it feels to be found, you know the saving power of God. God comes to us in a simple woodcutter from Galilee. God comes in a man who knew what it’s like to get a splinter in your hand or dirt between your toes. God comes in a peasant who was not born in great privilege, who never had a lot of money, who never stepped into a palace until the last day of his life.

God comes to us, hidden in a man who was rejected, condemned, and crucified – and God says, “”You are mine, nothing can separate you from my love. If you are broken, I will rebuild you. If you have failed or lost, I will give you a new beginning. If you have no purpose, I will give you work to do.” Do you see why Paul speaks of the cross? Because this is how Paul speaks of God – a God who sets aside his power to catch us when we fall, a God who holds us together, then declares, “Let’s get about the work of a new creation.”

God turns it all upside down. The world looks at the cross and sees only weakness. For those of us who know what God is like, we see the power to save the world.

Paul says, “This is what I preach: the crucified Christ as the wisdom of God.”  Me too.[1]




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

[1] Thanks to Fred Craddock, beloved teacher, now a saint in God’s eternity. He ended a sermon on this text this way.