Saturday, January 30, 2016

You Want Me to Do What?

Jeremiah 1:4-10 / Luke 4:16-30
Ordinary 4
January 31, 2016
William G. Carter

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Know what kind of conversation I enjoy? When somebody tells you how they got into their life’s work.

Garret Keizer was finishing up a masters degree in English degree. He was thinking about going for a Ph.D., or perhaps law school. But the door that opened before him was a high school teaching job in northern Vermont, so he signed a contract and prepared to move. He was from New Jersey, so the move to a little town about ten miles south of the Canadian border was going to be a huge adjustment.

For some reason, not entirely obvious to himself, he stopped on the way for a few days in an Anglican monastery. The peace and quiet haunted him, and a couple of chance conversations seemed to get under his skin. At the end of his stay, he drove up to the part of Vermont that they call the Northeast Kingdom, and began to teach.

It went well enough. He and his wife settled into the community. Garret started going to a small Episcopal church, where he befriended the priest, Father Castle. Father Castle was a sixties radical. He marched with Dr. King, took part in an anti-war mass at the Pentagon, and got arrested standing by the Baby Jesus at the crèche of the National Cathedral. Now he was the part-time pastor of two little churches in towns that nobody could find. He coached the high school football team, and he became Garret Keizer’s friend.

At one point, Father Castle said, “You’re a good writer. Why don’t you write a sermon and preach it?” It was northern Vermont. They don’t have a lot of comparison shopping up there. Garret said, “Sure, why not?” He set out to write a sermon, then preached it, and thought, “I love doing this.” One thing led to another, and he became the part-time lay priest in Island Pond, Vermont, an old railroad crossroads town of six hundred souls.

In fact, the Episcopalians eventually had to create a job title for him, over some argument. They didn’t have part-time lay priests, but they did have a little congregation that they couldn’t find anybody else to serve, so that’s what he did. He taught high school English on the weekdays, preached and led worship on Sundays.

His story is now many years old, but it’s a story that we hear more and more. It’s difficult for little churches out in the country to pay their bills, much less find a preacher or priest. Churches that have wanted to continue into the future have had to find fresh ways to make it work, even when the officials in their denominations have blanched. Along comes a guy like Garret Keizer, who wrote a master’s thesis on the poetry of George Herbert, and somehow God connects him to Christ Episcopal Church of Island Pond, Vermont.

As he said, it was the furthest thing from his mind and it made all the sense in the world.

In the opening chapter of Jeremiah’s book, the prophet remembers how he became a prophet. God spoke to him somehow.  We don’t know if it was a big dramatic vision or the growing sense of what he would be doing with his life. I know, this is a Bible story, and we would like to think it was a big dramatic vision, but believe me when I tell you that big dramatic visions are often short on details. They don’t map everything out.

What Jeremiah recounts is a series of moves that are typical of most people who are trying to sort out what they must do with their lives. They get a sense that God knows who they are, what they are good at doing and what they are capable of doing. Then they get a sense that life has prepared them somehow for the task set out before them. And then when it hits them, they say, “No way! Lord, you have the wrong person.” Then somehow God overcomes the resistance and gives them the work to do.

That basic plot repeats itself over and over in the stories of the Bible. God says to ancient Abraham and Sarah, “I’m going to make you parents of a great multitude,” both of them laughed (Genesis 17:17, 18:12), and the baby came anyway. It was the first time they realized God was going to get his own way.

Moses heard God calling out from a burning bush. God said, “I have heard the cries of my people suffering in slavery, so I am sending you to lead them out.” Moses said, “Lord, I don’t talk pretty enough.”

Isaiah had a vision of God calling him preach and said, “Woe is me!” (6:1-8).Apparently he knew what was involved. Simon Peter talked back to Jesus in a fishing boat, and ended up saying, “Get away from me, Lord, I’m a sinful man” (Luke 5:1-11).

The apostle Paul writes from his prison cell to a young man named Timothy. He’s at the end of his time, and has been trying to nurture Timothy as a leader. He says, “Don’t let anybody put you down because of your youth, but set an example for believers in speech and conduct, in love, faith, and purity.” (1 Tim. 4:12). It is the same thing God says to Jeremiah in our text: “Don’t say you’re only a kid. I have work for you.” Apparently God never hears any new excuses.

What we encounter today is the mystery of God’s call. Somehow God may get through to us, grasp our attention, remind us how completely we are known, and then God calls us to serve in a way that intersects with our identity, our experience, our abilities, and the preparation that has been coming our whole life. The call God has for you is different from the call God has for the person next to you. All of us are different, but the call can come.

I like how Garret Keizer says it, from the pulpit of his Vermont church. “By being a lay minister, I can remind my parishioners that the practice of our religion will take place, for the most part, outside the church building. This is an obvious truth… but it is a truth that can be obscured by clerical professionalism. Fell-time ordained clergy often tend to remake parishioners in their own image… (We can’t) ignore the vital work people do in their own homes, communities, and places of employment.”[1]

He is exactly right. The purpose of our baptism is not merely to serve on a church committee or tidy up the pews when the service is over, even though these tasks are important too. In the largest sense, God’s call is living out the Gospel in the world. It’s living with faith, home, and love in the real world where we live and shop and work and babysit and make meals and clean them up and try to get along with our neighbors and loved ones.

It is often the case that’s where the real challenges are. When we take faith into the real world and out of the comfort of the sanctuary, that’s when we stumble over our words, or grumble that we are too young, or too old, or that we don’t know what to say and we feel totally inadequate. Jeremiah says it for us. God calls us to serve a world where the needs are a lot bigger than we are.

In fact, if you think the tasks on your plate are difficult, consider what Jeremiah is called to do. He is called to speak to his country of Judah of how God will send them into exile. For forty years, he’s going to tell the truth about God’s people serving false idols. The rich have ignored the poor in the name of greed. The powerful flourish on a network of lies, and everybody in the nation, he says, “have forgotten how to blush.” God called Jeremiah to say all of that.

You can imagine how it turned out. The prophet was attacked by his own brothers. He was beaten up by a priest, imprisoned by a king, thrown into an muddy well by politicians, and denounced by the happy preachers who said, “We have to shut that guy up and get everybody to look on the bright side of life.” If you ever think you have a lot about your life to complain about, read the book of Jeremiah.

And it’s Jeremiah who said, “God, you got me into this! I can’t even get out of it.”

But it is God, in the midst of our real feelings of fear and inadequacy, who touches our lips and gives us the words, and declares, “I am with you. This is my work. I’ll get you through this.”

There’s a woman who found herself taking care of her next door neighbor. It didn’t start that way, but Mary needed some small repairs done in her kitchen. She was getting forgetful. So Janet started stopping by. They built a strong friendship, and Janet helped out Mary however she could.

But then Mary got very sick. The doctor said she didn’t have a lot of time. Janet was bringing her meals, sometimes even spending the night on the couch and getting up whenever Mary needed her. It was wearing her out, and to make matters worse, Mary’s son wasn’t paying any attention to his mother. Janet knew him, but didn’t like him.  He seemed self-absorbed, unable to express any care for his mom. He would drive in  once a month, stay for an hour and look awkward, and drive home, while Janet took care of his mother.

One day, she said, “I let him have it.” She had prepared Sunday dinner for Mary and her son. Mary couldn’t keep the food down. Her son looked up from the New York Times while Janet was cleaning up the mess. “You know, I can’t do this anymore,” she said to him. “She’s not my mother, and this is not my responsibility.” He looked at her, stunned, and then he pulled on his coat and left.

Janet apologized to Mary and helped her get into bed. Then Mary clasped the wrists of her friend, looked into her eyes, and said, “I couldn’t do this without you.”

As Mary slept, Janet sat in the living room, sobbing. The lights were out, it was dark, and she was all by herself. She exhaled a deep breath, and said, “God, I guess you are telling me that this is the work I have to do right now. So you have to give me the strength to do it.”  

A month later, at Mary’s funeral, she stood and said, “What a privilege it was to love my friend and care for her until the end.” What made all the difference? You know what made the difference.

If God is going to set important work before us, then God must give us the strength and tenacity to do it. I think we can expect that of our Lord.  Life is not going to be easy much of the time. Speaking the truth, working for justice, loving our neighbors – none of that is easy, but it is some of the work God calls us to do.

Look at Jesus. His first sermon was a failure. He goes to the hometown synagogue, opens the scroll, reads the ancient words, sits down, and says, “It’s coming true today.” Everybody smiles and says, “We love our Jesus.” 

Then he tells them two stories out of their own Bible, of how God showed compassion to people who were not like themselves. Suddenly the air turns scarlet and they want to kill him. They drag him out of the synagogue, down the street, down to the steep hill on the edge of their town, and they get ready to dash him over the side.

Luke says that was his first sermon. And Jesus slipped out of their grip so he could keep preaching more of those sermons. Was he a failure? No. Because he did what God wanted him to do.

It is a mystery how God calls people like you and I to serve. Maybe we started teaching because the teacher didn’t show up. Maybe we offered somebody a ride and a whole new world of need presented itself. Maybe we spoke to the teenage whose name we didn’t know, and discover she needs a grownup friend. Maybe you deliver flowers to a hospital room and discover somebody needs you. Maybe, to your surprise, you learned that you were going to become a parent. Maybe in a time of crisis, others want you to speak up for them.

These are the matters that God sets before people every day. In the need, we hear the Voice. In the task, we are strengthened by the Hands we cannot see. That’s how the call of God can come.

And that’s how the work of God gets done.  

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

[1] Garret Keizer, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees: The Finding of a Ministry (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1991) 67-68.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Blowing the Dust Off the Bible

Nehemiah 8:1-12
Luke 4:14-21
Ordinary 3
January 24, 2016

All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel . . . So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. (8:1, 8)

It had been a long time since anybody there had heard the Bible. That is the premise of a recent movie called “The Book of Eli.” It takes place thirty years after a nuclear war. A loner by the name of Eli has the last existing copy of the Bible. A Voice in his head has directed him to take it to a place where it will be safe.

Well, if you have seen any of those post-apocalyptic movies, you know what is going to happen. Eli will have a difficult time of it. He will be confronted and attacked by any number of bad guys. And when one of those bad guys discovers Eli has a Bible, when that bad guy believes the Bible can be used to manipulate the remaining people of the civilization, he’s going to do whatever he can to get it.

Eli is well-equipped to guard the book. It’s almost as if he is supernaturally protected. But alas, the bad guy gets the book. When he opens it in his lair, he discovers it is written in Braille. To everybody’s surprise, Eli is blind! Meanwhile our hero has made his way to Alcatraz Island, where a monastery has been formed to preserve music, art, and literature. Eli has memorized the scripture. So he recites it, the monks write it down, and the ancient text survives as its protector passes away.

It’s a fantastic story, for all kinds of reasons. And the main reason I like most is the love that Eli has for the scriptures. He’s like one of the ancient scribes in the Bible stories, someone who treasured the scriptures so deeply that he committed it to his heart. He’s like Jesus, who can find his way through the scrolls of the prophet Isaiah. He knows the text. He can find it and read it.

Another reason why I remember that movie is because it reminds me of the story of Nehemiah. Nehemiah was a cup bearer for the king of Persia. He was still there, long after his fellow Jews returned from Babylon. You may remember, the Babylonians sacked the city of Jerusalem in 587 BC. They torn down the walls around the city, they pulled down the temple in the center of the city, they took all the riches from the city, and they stole all the smart people and enslaved them in Babylon.

It was an apocalyptic time, and it felt like God had dropped a bomb on his own people. But the exile didn’t last forever, and the people of Israel trickled home. Some of them did, at least. And when they got there, everything they knew was in ruins.

Fast forward a number of years, and that’s where Nehemiah comes in. He is a Jew, he is still in Persia, and he hears the reports of how the homeland is a pile of rubble. It upsets him greatly. In a gracious move, the king sends him back to his ancestral home to rebuild Jerusalem. With efficiency and dispatch, Nehemiah oversees the rebuilding of the city.

And then comes the moment in our story. The scriptures are re-opened for the first time in anybody’s memory. The people of the Bible had gone a long time without their book. So Ezra the priest reads the whole thing to them – at least, as much as they had compiled in 445 BC, or whenever it was.

The psalms weren’t all edited yet, and the book of Daniel wouldn’t be finished for a while, but they had the heart of it – the Torah, the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Joseph, Moses and the Exodus, the Ten Commandments, the stories of the wilderness and the coming into the Promised Land, King Saul and King David, and a lot of other kings hardly worth mentioning, the prophets Elijah and Elisha speaking the fire of God, and the other prophets who spoke of the collapse of the nation.

The people leaned forward to listen to it all. Most of them hadn’t heard the Bible in years, some of them had never heard it at all. And when they did, there was a wave of emotion that swept through the great crowd. They were hearing their own Book, as if for the first time; and through their Book, they were hearing the Voice of God. Nehemiah says the people were weeping.

I don’t know if anybody weeps when all of us gather for worship. Oh, sometimes somebody might cry out, “Is this sermon ever going to end?” Trust me, the preacher has often felt the same way. Weeping might feel like an unusual response to the opening of scripture. There have been occasions when packs of Kleenex have been found among our pews, but it doesn’t always happen on a Sunday.

And if it does, why all the tears? Nehemiah doesn’t say. The verb he uses is “bakah,” a Hebrew word that means “to shed tears.”

The tears could be tears of grief. After all, if the people were listening to the early words of Genesis, they heard God say to the heavenly courts, “Let us make all people in the image of God,” and as they look around and see the deprivation and destruction, they see how low God’s own children can fall. The Bible offers a long record of one moment after another where people fall short of heaven’s intent.

By Genesis 3, Adam and Eve are hiding. By Genesis 4, one of their sons kills his brother. By Genesis 6, God says, “I’ve had enough of this,” and decides to wipe out the whole planet with a flood. So I imagine the battered Israelites, gathering in a rebuilt Jerusalem. They hear the story of how the people of God keep going off the tracks, and I wonder if that prompts the tears. Nehemiah doesn’t say.

Maybe the tears aren’t tears of grief. Maybe the tears are tears of hope. If you listen to the Bible, there is hope on every page. In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve hide, but God finds them, and then God makes them clothing (3:21). In Genesis 4, Cain kills brother Abel, but God confronts him and puts a mark on his forehead to protect him (4:21). In Genesis 6, God wipes out the world with a flood – but saves Noah, his family, and all the animals needed to re-populate the earth. Then God drops his arrows and puts his bow up in the sky, as a reminder to never do that again.

Listen to the Bible carefully. Whenever there is a description is something terrible that happens, there is usually an accompanying signal that the terrible thing does not have the last word. After all, the prophets said, “Jerusalem is going down, the Babylonian armies are coming,” but now, these people are back home in Jerusalem! I wonder if these might be tears of hope.

But you know what I believe? I believe these are more than the tears of grief or the tears of hope. Certainly there is some grief, certainly there is some hope, but there is something else going on.

Like the day when one of the little girls in my house got all jumbled up inside. She was doing well in second grade, but she was overwhelmed by some mean kids she thought were friends. One day she exploded into tears. So I swept her up in my arms and held her. When we both were able to take a breath, I whispered, “What’s wrong, honey?” She shivered and she shook. Then she blurted out, “I don’t know.”

Ah, I know those tears. Those are the tears of availability. Do you know those tears? They come when you don’t know what else to do, when all the feelings swirl around like a tornado, when you can’t keep everything corked up any more, so you let it all out! That is the moment when we are most available to God. The Jerusalem city walls may have gone back up, but the emotional defenses of the people were cracked open. So they were ready to hear God speak.

And it was just one of those moments.

What I find so helpful about this story from Nehemiah is that Nehemiah knew it wasn’t enough to just have a Bible. Certainly there was a Bible, and it was read all day to people who had never really heard it. The Bible is our central book. When the Presbyterians first formed in Scotland, they had a special person who would parade the Bible into the church. He was called the “beadle,” and he got to bring in the Book. The Bible is our book.  But Nehemiah’s story has more than a Bible.

There was also the moment, the really Big Moment of opening the Bible again for the first time. When Ezra the priest opens the book, it was an enormous worship service. To hear the story, it was quite a pageant. The people are saying “Amen, amen.” They are raising their hands. They are praising the Lord. Ezra has six Levite priests on his right and seven Levite priests on his left. The Bible is opened in the middle of all that. But it was more than a Big Moment.

It wasn’t enough to have a moment, it wasn’t enough to hear the Bible. What made it a Holy Event is that the people who were there “understood” the Bible. As they leaned forward, in tears of grief, hope, and availability, the leaders interpreted the Bible to them. In addition to the fourteen Levite priests, there were thirteen more. Nehemiah gives us a list of all twenty-seven impossible names. And their work was to teach, and interpret, and to “give the sense” of what was read to the people, so the people would understand it.

That’s why this story is so helpful. It reminds us of what most of us already know - that we can’t read the Bible and instantly understand all of it. It takes work to understand the scripture. It doesn’t come naturally. Understanding the Bible requires study of the mind and conversion of the heart. It’s entirely possible to read a passage and miss the point.

Like the bad guy in the movie, “The Book of Eli.” He wants Eli’s last possible copy of the Bible so he can control and manipulate others. That’s not what the Bible is for. The Bible is not a club to hit people over the head and bludgeon them into obedience.

No, the Bible points us toward God. It is given to us in the thoughts and the languages of the people who wrote it down over the course of a thousand years. And when people of faith decided which books to keep, they also preserved it through the ages, and translated it into the languages of new generations and peoples. And today. Nehemiah gives us the clues of what the Bible can do:

·         It names our grief at what we have been and what we have been through,
·         It awakens our hope in the grace and power of God,
·         It invites us to make ourselves available to God, the living God who stays with us in deep wisdom and redemptive mercy.

So it helps to have the book opened to us. That’s why we want our preachers to have an education. That’s why we want our Bible teachers to be prepared. That’s why our church has an education program. That’s why we find ways to study the Bible together. That’s why we honor the scholars who spend their lives studying the book and opening it to us.

We know why this is important. Left to ourselves, we will be confused by a book that is both deep and exasperating. How many people pledge to read the whole Bible, but check out early because the story is just too thick? We have public figures who claim to love the Bible, but don’t know the right way to pronounce “Two Corinthians.”

And there is our own resistance to open our hearts and minds to texts we have always heard. As one of my teachers used to say, “A lot of people who say, ‘Well, here we go again,’ have never been there the first time.”[1] We must be available to God every time we approach this book.

That brings us to the other story for today, the story of Jesus giving his first official sermon in the Gospel of Luke. It’s the Sabbath day in Nazareth, home town of Jesus. He goes to the synagogue, “as was his custom.” It’s the same old synagogue, with the same people he has known all his life. He gets up to read the Bible lesson, and they give him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Same old scroll, they have heard it before.

He finds the place where it is written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor,” to announce release to the prisoners and proclaim God’s jubilee year. They smile and nod, for they have heard that text before.

Then he says, “Today is the day. This is the day of God’s favor.” He opens the scriptures to them. Pretty soon they understand all too well that it is another Holy Moment, that God has come to disturb the comfortable and to comfort the disturbed.

After all, if anybody has the dust blown off their Bible, if anybody hears the scriptures opened in a way that God is honored and the people can understand, when the dust settles, they will not be the same people they were before.

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

[1] Fred B. Craddock, Craddock on the Craft of Preaching (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2011), 51.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Names Have Been Changed

Isaiah 62:1-12
Ordinary 2
January 17, 2015
William G. Carter

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,  and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.

It was a trick that all the eighth graders thought was hilarious. Get a substitute teacher, and everybody assumes another name. If a seating chart was left in the top drawer of the desk, sit in somebody else’s seat. When attendance is taken at the beginning of class, speak up when your assumed name is call. The unassuming teacher calls on John to do a math problem at the blackboard, and Tony stands up to do. Everybody snickers. In eighth grade, that’s a lot of fun. Pretend you are somebody else when the person up front calls your name.

Sometimes a future bride and groom will come in and chat. On the checklist of chores to complete around the wedding, perhaps one of them wants to change their name. In the old days, the wife took the new husband’s name. Now it can go any possible way. Sometimes the merger leads to hyphenated names. Or they keep their original last names, but every other kid gets one of their last names. In fact, I know a wife who dropped her first husband’s name, went back to her birth name, and then got re-married but didn’t take the new husband’s name. In any case, you can go to and they will handle all the necessary changes for only $59: voter registration, driver’s license, Social Security, IRS, passport, and magazine subscriptions.

These days, of course, a name can be taken from you. A couple of winters ago, my daughters took me to see a movie called “Identity Thief.” They said was a comedy, but I didn’t think it was funny at all. A Denver accountant named Sandy Patterson, a man, had his identity stolen by a con artist in Florida. He gave her all his personal information over the phone as she was supposedly selling identity theft protection. Then she uses his credit card to buy jewelry, clothing, and a brand new TV. Why does she do it? Late in the movie, she confesses she grew up in a lot of foster homes and doesn’t know her real name. Bad breaks have stolen her name.

Today Isaiah gives us a poem about names. Last week, we heard the prophet declare how God says, “I have called you by name, and you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1-7). Today it’s another occasion in Isaiah, and God says, “I’m going to change your name.” Three times, in fact, God changes the names.

Why are names so important? In Hebrew thinking, a name is more than identification. It’s the essence of one’s identity. In the Garden of Eden, Adam (the earth creature) names all the animals. God makes something, brings it to Adam, and Adam names it, “I’m going to call that a cow. I’m going to call that one a blue jay. That one over there looks ridiculous, so I’m going to call it a platypus.”

One day God made something special and brought it to Adam. Adam said, “I’m going to call that an elephant.” God said, “There’s no such thing as an elephant,” and Adam replied, “Well, sure there is.” God said, “Why are you going to call that an elephant?” Adam said, “Look how big it is!” By naming all the animals, Adam could exert authority over them, or so he thought. If you know the name or give the name, you have power over it.

That’s why it is extraordinary that, centuries later, Moses comes along, looks toward God, and says, “What’s your name?” Moses knew this was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God had been around a while, and Moses said, “What’s your name?” God said, “Yahweh,” which means “I am what I will be,” or “I will be what I will be.” It’s kind of an elusive name, mysterious, slippery. But as someone once quipped, once God told Moses his name, “God hasn’t had a peaceful moment since.”[1]

The truth of the matter is that people can nag God all they want, but God has bigger concerns than our small matters. In Isaiah 62, the poet picks up on a long prophetic tradition of referring to Jerusalem as God’s “wife.” She was an unfaithful spouse who chased after others, as the prophet Hosea declared. The prophet Jeremiah (2:1-4:31) described the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians as a broken marriage. The book of Lamentations (1:1-21) describes Jerusalem as an abandoned woman weeping over her fate.

Yet now, in the concluding chapters of the prophet Isaiah, God is going to take her back. The Babylonian Exile is over. The sinful people will be forgiven and restored. And here is how the poet describes it:

     For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you,
     and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.

And to seal the promise, God says, “I’m going to change your name.”

It’s not the first time God declares this. The Bible is full of names that have been changed. It happens a lot, so many times that we remember only a few highlights:

  • Abram (“father”) becomes “Abraham” (“Big Daddy of a Large Multitude”).
  • Jacob (which means “heel grabber”) becomes Israel (“the one who strives with God”).
  • Simon, son of John, is renamed by Jesus as “Rock,” (Petros, or Peter).
  • Saul, named after the first king of Israel, is knocked off his high horse by the Risen Christ, and later rebranded “Paul,” a Latin name that means “Pee Wee.”
The names are changed because the people have changed. God gets busy in their lives, and they are no longer the same.

It still happens. Down in the red rocks of New Mexico, there’s in a monastery off the paved road. On a Sunday morning after worship, you can talk with the guest master. His name is Brother Andre. He took that name after he committed himself to a lifetime of prayer. I didn’t ask what his name was previously. Doesn’t matter, for he is a whole new person.

Or years ago, when I first struggled with God’s hand on my own life, wondering if I was hearing the call correctly, the Presbyterians assigned a mentor. Her name was Rebekah Elowyn. The first time I met her, somebody nearby said, “Oh, that’s Mary Lowe.” She corrected them gently and said, “My life has been transformed by God and I am a different person.”

Her story is revealing. It seems that some time in her forties, Rebekah came to terms with abuse she had suffered as a child. As a way to survive, she shoved the pain down deep, but eventually it bubbled back up. With the help of a therapist, she named the trauma and was able to move through it. For the first time, she felt healed and whole. She was a new person, and the best way she could celebrate her new identity in Christ was by changing her name.

So God looks at Jerusalem, his bride, and says, “I see you differently. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. I shall rejoice in you like a young man on his honeymoon.” And then the name is changed:

     You shall no more be termed Forsaken,  
     and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
     but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married;
     for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.

But it doesn’t stop there. God’s love for Jerusalem spills out through the land. It is intended for everybody. The healing, the health, the justice, the reparations – it is given as a gift to all the people that God loves. With some urgency, God declares:

     Go through, go through the gates, prepare the way for the people;
     build up, build up the highway, clear it of stones, lift up an ensign over the peoples.
     Say to daughter Zion, “See, your salvation comes . . .”

Then it happens again. God renames the people:

     They shall be called, “The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord”;
     and you shall be called, “Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.”

I hope you realize this is more than poetry. This is transformation. It is what God wants for you and for me, for our families, our loved ones, our church, our community, our commonwealth, our country, our planet. God wants to take full delight in us, to know us and enjoy us forever, to make things right, and to heal what has broken.

That’s the abundant life that God wishes for all of us. Not abundance in having a lot of money, or climbing to a higher rug of power or ability, but an abundance of well being. This is salvation in the largest biblical sense. Salvation is not only a rescue from sin, although it is that. It comes with a clear sense of health in every sphere of life. It’s when people treat one another fairly, it’s when fear is countered with trust, it’s when emotional wounds are made well, and it’s when racism and other injustices are removed. It’s our own arrogance and pride that gets us in so much trouble, and it’s God’s persistent light that chases away the dark.

Salvation is described in that marvelous Psalm 103, which we heard a week ago in Jo Conklin’s memorial service, and which we will sing as our very next hymn. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and don’t forget God’s benefits…” and then the benefits come like drum beats:  

God forgives all your iniquity, 
God heals all your diseases, 
God redeems your life from the Pit,
God crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
God satisfies you with good as long as you live     
God works justice for all who are oppressed. (Psalm 103:1-4)

In other words, not forsaken!
In other words, not forgotten!
In other words, redeemed . . . and therefore, renamed.

Our work is to live into this, as God’s beloved people, as God’s emissaries to a broken world. God will not rest until all things are rescued and made well. That is the work of saving, begun by God, and undertaken by people who are not who they used to be. The work is not done, but  in Jesus Christ is is under way.

So here’s an invitation for the redeemed of the Lord to look a good bit more redeemed.

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

[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, “Buechner” (New York: Harper and Row)

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Getting Through the River

Isaiah 43:1-7
Baptism of the Lord
January 10, 2016
William G. Carter

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
   when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
  For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
   I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
  Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you,
   I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.
  Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you;
  I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold;
   bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth—
   everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

Here’s the line that I remember: “when you pass through the waters.”

The Susquehanna River rolls through my home town. It rambles west, before turning south and meandering through the Endless Mountains. When I was a kid, the big, quiet river seemed quiet. Then in June 1972, a bad storm came through and lingered, and the water spilled over the banks. The damage was unbelievable. Who would think a gentle river would leave that much mud?

During my college years, I took part in something called the “Great Owego to Nichols Raft Race.” Call it a “celebratory event” in early summer. All the crazies in town - and there were quite a few - would construct homemade rafts. The object was to race nine miles downstream. If you had a Hibachi with burgers on your boat, you didn’t have to be in a hurry. It was all done in good fun.

One year, a few guys from my church built a Viking war ship and enlisted me on the crew. Like the others, the ship was inspected very quickly and passed before it ever actually floated on the water. It was a hot day, the beverages were flowing, and not all the rafts stayed upright, although our Viking crew made good time, arriving at the end right before a piece of plywood fell off the side of the craft. It was a premonition. The whole event ceased a few years later due to something called liability insurance. Apparently somebody sank and one of the river pirates needed somebody to blame. It was decided the river was too dangerous, if not too expensive.

Most people can’t pass through the river. They drive over it and never get wet. Then there are times the river gets everybody wet regardless. Four years ago, the Susquehanna went wild again. Too much rain in September. Flooding closed the highways for three days. My folks lived high on a hill, but the flood upset them greatly. When I finally got through and knocked on their door, I asked if we could tour the damage. Mom said no, but Dad thought he might be up for it.  

The dirty water was still high in some spots, which prompted a number of spontaneous detours. On Front Street, closest to the river bank, we saw Victorian homes being emptied, with water-logged antiques piled high on the curb. Through the village we went, awestruck the destruction. We drove by John Spencer’s book store, a favorite landmark full of valuable old texts. Outside, a front-loader filled a dumpster with wet books. Dad said, “I’ve seen enough” and shut his eyes.  

So I wake up when Isaiah says, “The rivers will not overwhelm you.” I would like to believe it. People around here still have their stories from the Agnes flood of 1972. The 2011 flood that sopped John Spencer’s bookstore was simultaneously swamping the Presbyterian church in West Pittston. Our good friends down there just sold their damaged building right before Christmas, four years later, and they have been nesting with a Presbyterian church on higher ground.

A lot of us know what powerful waters can do. Indeed it can be overwhelming. Yet God says, “Don’t be afraid. I am with you. You’ll get through this. You are precious in my sight.”

The river is a metaphor for all the deep waters of life. The metaphor is that figure of speech that helps make emotional connections. I think of Psalm 69, which begins, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck, and there is no place to land my feet on solid ground.” We’ve had those moments, haven’t we? The psalmist goes on to say, “There are a lot of people who are out to get me.” It leads to a request, “Lord, get me through these rough waters.”

Some hear Isaiah’s poem, and they remember how Moses and the Israelites escaped from Egypt. Just as the Egyptian army bore down on them, God split open the Red Sea. The Israelites passed through the waters, and their oppressors were washed away. “This will happen again to you,” says the prophet Isaiah. “Don’t be afraid.”

And then the faithful go down to the river to see John the Baptist announce the Messiah is coming. He says the old ways must be rinsed away, and the new person will arise from the waters of baptism. So they line up and say, “Wash me clean!” So he holds them under the water so that the old sinner in their souls is finished off, and lifts them up as if they are freshly born from the womb of God. That’s where some of our early Christian baptism practices began, with the hope of John the Baptist, but fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ.

At many baptisms, the ancient words of Isaiah are brought forward with deep significance: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you … because you shall be precious in my sight, and I have called you by name.”

A preacher named Tom spoke those words on the day my second daughter was baptized. It happened right over there. I was keeping a firm grip on her rambunctious big sister, while Tom took the baby into his arms. “What is the name of your child?” Margaret Rose. “Margaret Rose,” he said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit.” Then he quoted Isaiah, “Do not fear, I have called you by name.”

Little did we know that just about two months after her baptism, we almost lost Margaret Rose. One day, she stopped breathing in the crib and needed to be shaken awake. That experience shook me awake. I didn’t sleep very well, either from my fear of losing her, or from the constant presence of a monitor system that her doctor prescribed until the circuits in her brain could grow more completely.

It was the kind of moment that you have probably had too, where the faith that you speak so easily and glibly is tested in the deeper waters of turmoil. And yet the truth of the matter is, we do get through these things. The only way through is through, and God gets us through.

That little girl we were afraid of losing is now a college senior who sang here on Christmas Eve. And when I told her I was going to tell this story, she said, “Why? That was a long time ago, and I’ve gotten through it.” “Yes,” I said, “but that’s easier to say now than it was twenty years ago.” She smiled and said, “Sometimes it takes a little time to sink in, doesn’t it.” Especially if you’re a dimwitted preacher.

So Isaiah speaks this poem to a generation of displaced Jews. Their lives had been disrupted by a flood of Babylonian soldiers who had invaded their country. Everything familiar had been washed away. They doubted that the God who brought them out of Egypt hundreds of years ago even knew they existed, so their worship services were going through the motions. They questioned if they had any future to look forward to, or if the coming days would be more of the same. And God interrupts them by saying, “You’re precious.”

In fact, if the words of Isaiah’s poem sank into the depths of our soul, then you heard two words over and over again. In English, the words are “I” and “you”:

I have redeemed you - I have called you by name - I will be with you
I am with you - I have traded others for you - I will gather you home
I love you - You are mine.

See, it is one thing to know the waters are fierce and threatening. It’s another thing to know that our names are known, that we are loved, that we are precious in Somebody’s sight.

A friend told me about a minister who went to school in the south. When he was in seminary, the president of the school was a very imposing man. He was a spiritual and intellectual giant. He was not a big man physically, but his mind and his piety were powerful.  You can even sense something of what he was like when I tell you his name: Dr. James McDowell Richards. Well, the students adored Dr.  Richards. They revered Dr. Richards.  They held Dr. Richards in great esteem. But they were a little afraid of Dr. Richards too. He was not a very approachable man.

Well, this minister graduated and went out to work in the church. He was a pastor in one church, then the pastor of another, and then he took a call to become chaplain at a nursing facility. As he looked over the list of residents,  he was terrified to discover that the newest resident was the now retired and infirmed and aged Dr. James McDowell Richards.  He had been terrified of him in seminary and now he was going to have to be his chaplain and pastor.

Well, he did the best that he could.  He visited Dr. Richards. He prayed with Dr. Richards.  He read scripture with Dr. Richards. He led worship where Dr. Richards was present. He tried to be his pastor, the best he could.

One evening, he went into the dining room of the nursing facility and there was Dr. Richards having his evening meal, sitting in his wheelchair. His nurse was standing guard beside him. He walked up and had an informal conversation with him. Then suddenly, and he does not know to this day why he asked him this, he said, "Dr. Richards, I've always wanted to ask you something."  "Yes?" 

"You and your wife were the parents of sons."  "Yes." 

"Did you ever tell your sons that you loved them?" "No, I'm an old-fashioned father. I didn't need to tell them. They knew. Well, one time, I told one of them. I was in the hospital. I thought I was going to die, and he came to visit me, and I told him. But it wasn't a regular thing." 

"Well, I just wondered, Dr. Richards. You know, my father never told me that, either. You were like a father to us in seminary, and I just wondered if fathers ever did that sort of thing."

The meal was now over, and the nurse began to wheel Dr. Richards in his chair to the exit.  My friend watched him go, and saw him signal suddenly to his nurse, and say something to her. She turned the wheelchair around and brought him back over to my friend. Dr. Richards reached up and touched his cheek and said, "Brian, I love you."

 "I knew that all along," said Brian, "but to hear him say it sealed it in my soul."[1]

Let me tell you what happens in this room. This is where we hear God say, “I love you, you are precious, you are mine.” No matter what deep water we must go through, the God who loves us is with us. God will take our hand and get us through to the other side.

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

[1] Thanks to Tom Long (who baptized Margaret Rose) for telling this story.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Glory with Dirty Fingernails

John 1:1-18
Christmas 2
January 3, 2016
William G. Carter

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Christmas came ten days ago. Pretty soon, there will be some tidying up. The tree will come down, the lights and ornaments will go back in their boxes. The Advent wreath will be dismantled and the base returned to the attic. The candles that were ignited at 6:30, 9:00, and 11:00 were snuffed out, with the stubby ones tossed away and the rest of them returned to a box in the closet.

And now we can ask, “What was that all about?”

The merchants and the malls are tallying up sales to see how they did. Our own people tell me that we had nine more people here on Christmas Eve than last year. I have a good number of my thank-you notes written, and all the gifts under our tree were either relocated or consumed.

Ten days later, we can say, “What has happened?”

These are the days for chasing the deeper meaning of Christmas. The Christmas carols have faded from the supermarket sound tracks, and Big Lots has put out the St. Patty’s day decorations, with a few pink Valentines on the way. Our culture jumps from celebration to celebration, without ever taking much time to savor the holiness in the holidays.

So what happened at Christmas?

No doubt some will quote Isaiah: “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” (9:6). With that, some will sing of “the little Lord Jesus, asleep in the hay.” It’s an excellent word picture. Christmas is the child Jesus, born in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Without the message of the angels, however, the event would only be a child birth. And Christmas is much more than that.

Today’s text is a poem written about ninety years after the first Christmas. John has had some time to think about it. He doesn’t mention a baby or a manger, or sheep, cattle, and camels. In fact, in his entire book never mentions the mother of Jesus by name; simply refers to her as “his mother.”[1] He has other things on his mind. John wants to explore what all this is about.

That’s not going to come quickly. Good theology doesn’t come right away. It needs to cook for a while. And when John dishes up this poem, the church can chew on the rich vocabulary and grammar.

Did you notice where the poem begins? It begins at the beginning: “In the beginning.” John dials it back all the way to the creation of the universe. At that moment, the Word and God co-existed. They were one, they were distinct, and they were together. The same God who spoke all things into existence, declaring “let there be light,” is the God who created by using the Word.

And what did God created through the Word? Life and light: they are the universal gifts to all people.  Everybody has life, everybody has light. John says this is a universal story. It’s for everybody… except that some people don’t get it. They should know where they come from, but they don’t. They could welcome God when he goes to them, but they can’t. There’s the human problem in a nutshell: they don’t know God, they can’t welcome God - - and so they stumble around as if they are totally on their own. This is what John suggests, and he will have plenty of stories to prove it.

But what happens on Christmas, he says, is that God doesn’t settle for that. God doesn’t leave people to stumble around in the dark. God comes to the world and lands with human feet. The Word of God takes on skin and bones and breath. The One who gives light and life to all things comes and lives among them. That’s Christmas.

It’s a confusing message for a lot of people. Either they are still in the dark about the Source of their light and life, or they look at Jesus and say, “Are you kidding? Is that it? A first-century carpenter with splinters in his hands?” And to be fair, for most of Jesus’ life, he blended in. There was nothing to distinguish him until he was about thirty years old, and he began to speak the truth, and he began to heal those who were broken – and a world still shrouded in darkness replied, “We can’t have this; we had better turn out the lights.” Which is a way of saying the story of Christmas is still going on.

When you pick up the paper and read about the terrible things people do to one another, it’s because they have a hard time accepting that the light has come. When those who know better lie and distort the truth about themselves, see this for what it is: they are refusing the Light that casts no shadows. When those with the world’s power plunder those who are vulnerable, they are denying that Life is offered to them too. And heaven waits for earth to wake up and see the Light and Life of God have come, right into our midst. We can have it here and now.

But that’s a tough Word to keep straight, even for those of us who are the keepers of Christmas. I noticed a line in a Christmas carol that I had not noticed before. It’s the last phrase of the last verse of “Away in a Manger” – and it says, “and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.” That’s not quite right. It makes it sound like Christian faith is only concerned about the afterlife – and that’s not true.

Jesus is born here, lived here, was crucified here, was raised here, and says, “I am with you always,” which certainly includes here. We don’t have to wait until we die to live with him then. We can live with him now, and welcome him now. The next time I sing that carol, I think I might change the words to accurately describe the Christian life: “and fit us from heaven to live with thee here.”

You see, here is the miracle of Christmas: this life matters. Our skin, and bones, and breath matter. The way we go about our business, the way we care for our children – it matters. We don’t have to wait until we’re done around here before we can go to someplace holy. Christmas means the Holy has come right here. The God who is Spirit has taken on human flesh. In Jesus, God has arms to hug, lips to kiss, an appetite for good food and drink, and feet well-calloused from walking.  The Word became a physical, temporal body, says John. So what we do with our bodies really does count.

A man I know tells about his wife teaching a year-long study of the Bible. One week, the class was assigned to read the entire book of Leviticus. If you’ve ever read that book, you know somebody had to get bogged down. Indeed, when they gathered, one brave soul complained, “Why is God concerned with how we prepare our meat, what we do with our livestock, and women during their monthly cycles? Does God have nothing better to do?”

A wise old sage in the group spoke up, “I loved Leviticus because of its excruciating earthiness. I’m glad God cares about what goes on in the kitchen, bedroom, and bath because that’s where most of us spend most of our time. God doesn’t just want my soul. I don’t have to be in church to serve God. Even at the kitchen sink, God is with us.”[2]

Can you imagine what that means, that God is with us? That God is so concerned with us that God actually arrives? It’s sobering – because every moment of our lives can be bathed in his light, unless we give in to our natural inclination to recede into the shadows. It means that there is no place we can go to outrun the grace of God, no place so dark that God can’t shine some Light somehow. Christmas means that human life can be blessed and hallowed by the God who chooses to enter it.

Christmas means that, in the great human game of hide and seek, all of us have been found. Our part is simply coming home when Christ calls, “All-ee, all-ee, in free.”

That’s the heart of it, although some have used more elegant words. I think of Saint Irenaeus, the second century bishop of Lyons. He loved the meaning of Christmas. Here is how somebody describes him:

At the very heart of his faith was a conviction that the unseen, unknowable God who had created everything so loved humanity that he had become a human being just like us. By becoming the human being Jesus, God wanted to share with every human person his own, eternal life in such a way that our fragile, contradictory human nature would not be overwhelmed or crushed, but fulfilled utterly. All that we are was designed from the beginning for a fullness beyond anything we could imagine, in and by communion with God.[3]

If there is one sentence from him that I hope you remember, it is this: “The glory of God is a human being who is fully alive and the life of humanity is the vision of God.”[4]

The full life is the life that Jesus has always lived in the joy of eternity. It is the live he comes to live among us. It is the very life that he offers to all who welcome him. So welcome him this day. Welcome him in Word and water, in bread and cup – and get on with living the marvelous life that he sets before you.

Happy New Year!

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

[1] See 2:1-5, 2:12, 6:42, 19:25-27.
[2] William H. Willimon, Incarnation: the Surprising Overlap of Heaven and Earth (Nashville: Abington Press, 2010) p. 68-69.
[3] From the Taize Community,
[4] Against Heresies, Book 4, 20:7