Saturday, February 27, 2016

Why? Why Not? What Now?

Luke 13:1-9
Lent 3
February 28, 2015
William G. Carter

Did you hear what happened to that little girl named Jessica? She was a third grader at an elementary school, and a terrible thing happened to her. On a Wednesday morning, she was sitting in class, nibbling on the tip of her pencil. The end came off in her mouth, got stuck in her throat, and nobody could get it out. She choked and died. It was a tragic thing to happen. And when we find our voices, the first question we want to ask is "Why? Why did it happen?"

Did you hear about that bright young man named Michael? He was skiing in Colorado one New Year's Eve. He and his buddies were throwing a football around while on skies, on the slopes, without a helmet or protective gear. The ski patrol told him to knock it off, but he ignored them. One wrong turn, he smashed into a tree. It was a tragic way to die. One minute Michael was alive, full of life. The next minute, he was gone. You hear about a tragedy like that -- there's no other word to describe it -- it's a tragedy -- and you ask yourself, "Why did it happen?"

Did you hear what Pontius Pilate did?  Some Galileans went down to the city for worship. Obviously they went to present an offering at one of the religious festivals. Excitement was high. The city was charged with religious enthusiasm. And while they joyfully presented their offering in Jerusalem, at the very temple where God meets his people, Pontius Pilate had them slaughtered. You hear about a tragedy like that, and what can you say? Most words get stuck in your mouth. But in the midst of the rage, the anguish, the confusion, about the only word you can say is "Why?" Why did something like that happen?

In the story we heard today, Jesus does not answer that question. If anything, he seems to echo it. They tell him about what Pontius Pilate did to those worshipers, and he tells them a story right back. "Well," he says, "did you hear about the tower of Siloam? It was an impressive structure, and people came from all over to see it. One day, without warning, it tumbled down and killed eighteen people." And then he looked them in the eye, because he knew what they were wondering. "Why?" Why did something like that happen? It's the first theological question that everybody asks.

Like I said, Jesus doesn't answer that question. But he does deal with one answer to that question, namely, that bad things happen to people because God is punishing them. Did Jessica choke because she was a sinner? Did that tower in Siloam fall as an act of punishment? Absolutely not. Jesus says, "No!"  Twice in this text, Jesus debunks any notions of causality ("it happened because they were bad") and comparative sinfulness ("it happened because they were worse than others").

In his time, there was a stream of popular theology that said bad things happen to sinners. Of course, at some level, all of us hope that is still the case. We want people to get what they deserve; at least, I do. And then I hear Jesus say in the Gospel of Luke, that God is good and loving to everybody. “God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked,” he says (6:35). That’s not how a lot of people would run the world. Sinners ought to be punished -- isn't that right? -- as long as I'm not one of them.

Like it or not, Jesus doesn't talk about punishment very much. And he won't let us ever think that tragedies happen because God is punishing us. The two tragedies mentioned in this text are not mentioned in the history books, yet neither is surprising. People like Pontius Pilate climbed through the political ranks by being mean, which you may have noticed is still going on. Buildings occasionally fall down, with or without the help of an earthquake. Bad things occur, regardless of how good or evil anybody happens to be. You could be a pious Galilean at worship (13:1) or an innocent person who stands under the wrong tower at the wrong time (13:4). You could be a victim of a capricious despot or a victim of bad engineering.  To paraphrase the bumper sticker, it happens. Just tune in the evening news. The names change, the stories stay the same.

But why do these things happen? Because we are being punished for our sins? Jesus says, "No!" There is not always a logical link between what we do (or what we leave undone) and what happens to us. We don't always get punished for our sins. But these things do happen because of sin. That is, not because of our individual sins, but because of sin as a force in the world.

As Jesus reminds us, we are finite creatures who cannot complete our lives by our own efforts. The classic word that sums up this human incompleteness is the word "sin." Some of us think of "sin" to signify something we do that is wrong. It means that, but it means more than that. Sin is also a human condition. It feeds on us like an addiction, and we can never completely shake ourselves free. In this sense, we confess our sin (singular), which is expressed in our sins (plural).

Today we can think of sin as a tragedy. As an act of chaos in the midst of order. As a glitch in the best-laid plans. Not only as something wrong, but something that can't help but go wrong. Sometimes it happens, or it conspires to happen; and there's nothing any of us can do to fix it.

Did you hear about Korean Airlines flight KE007? That's the plane which was shot down over Russia some years ago. KE007 was a regular commercial flight from New York to Seoul. It drifted into Soviet airspace and was shot down by a Russian fighter plane. 269 people died. At the time, the Soviets charged that the plane was a decoy and was actually on an espionage mission. The United States, for its part, claimed that the Russians were simply covering up the cold-blooded murder of nearly three hundred lives.

What happened? Well, KE007 was no spy plane, but a plane under the command of a sleepy crew. They were going strictly by the book in navigating their plane. But there were a couple of problems on the ground. An auto-pilot switch was left too long in the "on" position. Nobody in the cockpit noticed an amber warning light they did not notice. It was an improbable collection of circumstance and errors which allowed the plane to stray off course.

As for the Soviets, they had been monitoring the activities of an American surveillance plane. Nothing illegal or dangerous, but something to keep a watchful eye on. That plane faded from the radar scope only to be replaced by the mysterious blip from KE007. Unlike the other plane, KE007 wasn't behaving like a military aircraft, but they were already thinking from a military framework. A fighter pilot, Major Gennady Osipovich, was sent up in an SU-15 to get a closer look.

It was a moonless and dark night, but even in the gloom, Osipovich could see the navigation lights of the Korean airliner. It should have been a clue that this was not a spy flight. Osipovich's superiors were also hesitant. But finally, when the airliner did not respond to signals or warnings, they decided themselves to go by their rule book; they gave the order to shoot it down.

In other words, both the crew of the airliner and the Soviet military were going by the book. Both were trapped in systems not of their own making, which would bring them, through no design or intention of their own, to fatal and tragic crossroads. Today, Gennady Osipovich is a potato farmer; he still cannot bring himself to accept the fact that he destroyed a commercial airliner and its passengers. In fact, he was not originally scheduled to be on duty at all that fateful night. He had volunteered for the night shift so that earlier that day he could give a talk on peace at his children's school.

What happened? Sin happened; the intentions of God were short-circuited by people who thought they were doing the right things, yet fell victim to their own limitations. That's how it is, in a world like this. Welfare programs go awry, therapies end up harming instead of helping, bureaucracies stifle instead of support. People go by the book - even the Good Book - and other people, innocent people, suffer and die. Who is culpable? No one, every one, both at the same time, caught in the web of sin's tragedy.[1]

Jesus said, "Tragedy is not God's punishment." Everything we know about God from the Gospels is that God himself remains faithful and steadfast in the midst of human brokenness. I can tell you from the perspective of my own life that this is true. God stands close at hand, in spite of human cruelty, regardless of human frailty. When tragedy strikes, awful as it can be, let that be a reminder of our weakness, and let it point us to God, from whose love we shall never be separated.

Did you hear about the bloodthirsty Pilate? Or the tower that fell? Or the shooting down of KE007? Or the nine year old girl who choked on a pencil eraser? Yes, of course, we've heard about these things. Jesus uses these teachable moments to invite us to shake ourselves loose from any complicity in human tragedy, to make reparations and offer help as we're able, and to hold on tighter to the God whose own Son was a victim of human tragedy.

"Repent." That's the word Jesus uses. That is what God requires of us. Repentance means a lot of things. It might mean a coming-home, or it might mean a going-deeper. Maybe it means we have to change some of our attitudes and actions so that we don't get further ensnared in sin, or maybe it drives us to rethink settled opinions about how we thought about other people, their mistakes, and their problems. As somebody said after his brother’s death, "It forced me to re-evaluate my life. I have a whole new appreciation of how fragile all of us are.”

When trouble come, listen to the offer Jesus makes: Repent. Stay close to God. And if you aren't close, get close. Repent while the time is ripe. Let go of insisting on answers to "why?" Choose instead to draw nearer to God, from whose love nothing shall ever separate us.

Luke Timothy Johnson notes that Jesus responds to the report of these deaths "in classic prophetic style: they are turned to warning examples for his listeners." As he continues,

The prophet's point is that death itself, with the judgment of God, is always so close. It can happen when engaged in ritual. It can happen standing under a wall. And when it happens so suddenly, there is no  time to repent. Rabbi Eliezer had declared that a person should repent the day before death. But his disciples said that a person could die any day, therefore all of life should be one of repentance. The repentance called for by the prophet Jesus, of course, is not simply turning from sin but an acceptance of  the visitation of God in the proclamation of God's kingdom.[2]

Here's the Good News that Luke offers: in Jesus Christ, God requires - and makes possible - a total recasting of our lives.  We can join this affirmation only if we have "come down where we ought to be." We participate only as the words of Luke's gospel poke a hole in our balloons of expertise, management, and control. We repent when we give up trying to fix things that we can never fix, and instead turn to Christ, in whom, the scriptures say, "all things hold together." I do not know what personal tragedies you are carrying this morning. But I do know that the time is ripe to return to God, and to rely on his strength to get you through them. That's repentance.

The time is ripe. No wonder, then, after twice saying, in effect, "Repent, or else you'll perish too," Luke's Jesus spins a story about a fruitless fig tree. "Don't cut it down yet," says the assistant to the farm owner. "Give it one more chance to bear some fruit." For those who have ears to hear, there's a message that comes out of the parable: time is running out; yet there is still time. It’s time to come home to God.

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

[1] Thomas G. Long, "Learning to Speak of Sin," Preaching as a Theological Task: World, Gospel, Scripture, ed. Thomas G. Long and Edward Farley (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996) 99-100.
[2] Luke Timothy Johnson, Sacra Pagina: Luke (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991) 213.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Jesus, the Mother Hen

Luke 13:31-35
Lent 2
February 21, 2016
William G. Carter

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

From time to time, I have the pleasure of working with lay preachers, worship leaders, and others who read scripture out loud. Everybody who stands up here to speak wants to do a good job, especially if they are new. Sometimes they ask for some tips. “You have been doing this for a while,” they say, “so give me a few suggestions.”

The tips that I can offer are few, but they are important. Know your material before you stand up to speak. Look the people in the eye, but don’t stare at them. And maybe the most important advice: read the Bible passages out loud a few times before you read them  out loud in church. It’s surprising what kind of confusion we might provoke if we don’t do that.

This paragraph from the Gospel of Luke is a good case in point. There’s a lot going on in a handful of verses. Some Pharisees come to warn Jesus that Herod is going to assassinate him. That is curious. It is different from every other account of the Pharisees that I’ve ever heard. In most stories, they are portrayed as moustache-twisting villains, the covert enemies of the Lord. Every time he says something, they are ready to find fault. Every time he does something , they are quick to accuse.

Here, it sounds like they are genuinely concerned for his safety. Or at least, some of them are. Luke does say “some Pharisees.” At least one scholar says, “Why not?” They are human beings. They are people of faith.

They knew what kind of person Herod was. This is one of the sons of the King Herod who dealt with the three wise men. He’s not quite as brutal as his father, and he’s nowhere as competent, either. The Roman Empire is really ruling over the land, this Herod, Herod Antipas, is a puppet who rules at Rome’s pleasure. His dominion is about a fourth of his father’s kingdom, and his primary job is to keep a lid on all the rabble rousing in Judea.

Herod has already proved to Rome how brutal he is – he has beheaded John the Baptist. Now he sets his sights on Jesus, the preacher and healer. He can’t quite figure out Jesus. One of the rumors is that Jesus is John the Baptist, back from the dead. Another is that Jesus is one of Israel’s prophets, like Elijah. Elsewhere Herod has said, “I want to meet this man who is doing all the miracles.”[1]

But some Pharisees see through it and come to warn Jesus. “Get away from here. Herod wants to kill you.” That’s just how they sounded – urgent and concerned.

Yet Jesus responds with some sassiness. “Go and tell that fox that I’m too busy. I can’t be bothered. There are demons to cast out, sick people to cure, so much to do in so little time.” Now, what kind of retort is that? Obviously he doesn’t think Herod Antipas is worth the time of day. He has work to do, work for the kingdom of God, and he is not about to fuss over the second-hand threats of some drunken despot who loses his mind whenever a dancing girl twirls in his palace. Is Herod bad news? Yes. Is he a real threat to Jesus? No.

“I must be on my way,” says Jesus. “I must…” There’s a great force behind that phrase, “I must.” Jesus has a sense of purpose, a greater destiny. God didn’t send him into the world to be assassinated by a royal pretender who can’t even keep his crown on straight. “I must go on,” he says, as he said it before:

“I must be in my Father’s house” (2:49),
“I must preach the good news of the kingdom” (4:43),”
“I must face the chief priests and scribes (9:22),”

and now, “I must go to Jerusalem, because that’s where all the prophets get killed.”

This is how Jesus views his life’s work: he is a prophet. More than a healer, more than an exorcist who casts out evil, he is the Voice of God, in the human words of a prophet.

Luke has said this before. Jesus stood in his hometown synagogue, unrolled the scroll of Isaiah, opened the scriptures to his own people, told them two stories out of their own Bible – and for that, they ground their teeth and tried to throw him over a cliff. He told them the truth and his own neighbors wanted to kill him. Imagine what they will do when he gets to Jerusalem.

As someone says, “Prophets were always in trouble for telling the truth, for siding with the poor and oppressed, for not settling for the status quo – and for asking people to see a new vision of the world, the city, as it could be, as God wants it to be.”[2]

A world twisted out of shape wants to silence such a Voice. The very leaders of the world who have capitalized on their own unfairness will not stand a prophet who calls them to God before they love themselves. And they will not abide the Voice that calls them to love their neighbors as much as they love themselves. Jesus has to be silenced. It’s just as simple as that.

But it won’t happen before he gets to Jerusalem. That is his God-given destiny.

The great irony of God’s plan is that the One who speaks to them on behalf of God will be rejected and killed by God’s own people. This is how Luke understands the cross. It is not the outsiders and the interlopers like Herod or Pontius Pilate who are guilty. It is the people of faith who have every reason to know better. They have the scriptures that tell them to share their food with the hungry outside their gates (16:19-31). They have the prophets, who speak repeatedly of justice and generosity (20:9-16). They know the things that make for peace (19:41-44), yet tragically they keep creating conflict among themselves.

And in a great burst of compassion, Jesus exclaims, “O Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings . . . and you were not willing!” That is the human situation in a nutshell. God comes to gather us together, and we say, “No, we don’t need that. No, we can handle it ourselves. No, we are fine just the way we are.”

Yet God still comes. Doesn’t wait to be invited, just comes.

In my reading last week, I found a quote from Thomas Merton. I was going to save it for Christmas, but there is no reason to wait ten months. Merton says, “In this world, in this demented inn, where there is absolutely no room for him at all, still Christ comes uninvited.”[3] I love that – still Christ comes uninvited. He comes to cast out evil, heal the sick, and speak the truth, to a demented world that prefers its own illness and falsehood. There it is. And when he rides his donkey into the city, and everybody wave palm branches and shouts, “Blessed is he who comes into the name of the Lord,” even then they still won’t see him.  For they will have missed the time of God’s visitation.

This is what Luke wants to say. A few friendly Pharisees came to fuss over Jesus and say “Get out of town and save your own skin.” But he wasn’t interested in that, for he wishes to save their skins, along with their hearts, souls, and minds. That’s what Christ comes to do, to a world that has not invited him. The good news is that Jesus loves us more than we hate one another. He will gather those who give up on their superiority and their independence. He will embrace those who welcome his motherly wings around them.

And he is going to keep at this, you know. Today and tomorrow, he is going to keep speaking and healing and embracing and gathering.

And when is he going to finish this work? You heard what he said: “On the third day . . .”

© William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Luke 9:7-9
[2] John Buchanan, “A Butterfly in the Ghetto,” Sermons from Fourth Church (
[3] Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966) p. 72.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Love and Temptation

Luke 4:1-13
Lent 1
February 14, 2016
William G. Carter

We begin the season of Lent in the wilderness. Luke says that’s where Jesus had to work out what it meant to be Jesus. He was there for forty days, and the Holy Spirit was with him, but there was still a time of testing. Jesus couldn’t start his work without working a few things through.

That might sound unusual. We would like to regard Jesus as a finished product. Like in the Gospel of Mark; Jesus shows up and he is ready to go. But this is Luke’s story, and he has slowed everything down. Jesus is about thirty years old, he says. What has he been doing all that time? Living, and working, and going to the synagogue.

Luke says Jesus had to grow up in the faith of Israel. At twelve years old, he was learning the scriptures and discussing them in the Temple. When he returned with his parents to Nazareth, he “increased in wisdom” as he increased in years. Growth and maturity did not happen overnight. It took a while for his faith to be shaped and formed, just as it takes a while for any of us.

He went about his life for thirty years until the day he was baptized. On that day, he heard God says, “You are my Son, my Beloved Son. I am pleased with you!”

The next thing he knew, he was in the wilderness. Everything he knew was tested. Turn these stones to bread. Climb up here and look at all the nations that I will give you. Jump down from there and let the angels catch you. Jesus had to sift through the voices – what was God calling him to be, what was God calling him to do? Which was the right voice – and which voice was wrong?

Now most of us have to admit: we have never been tempted to turn stones into bread. Nobody has ever offered us all the nations of the world. Never have we been tempted to test gravity. These are extraordinary temptations. None of us can claim the same power and ability that was given to Jesus. You might say it’s tempting to think that these happened only to him.

But they happen to us. At the level of our own capacity, temptation comes all the time. The more capable we are, the more thoroughly we are tested.

Turn these stones into bread. Taken literally, we don’t hear that so much. But what the Tempter is saying is something like: Take your needs more seriously than anybody else’s. Use every ounce of your ability to look out only for you. Do something to ensure your own survival. Above all else, think about your stomach first.

This is a deep temptation, because it has enough truth to make it appealing, but not enough truth to make it true. As someone says, “We do not live by bread alone, but we do not live long without it, either.”

Peter Gomes, the great Harvard preacher, tells about his grandmother. Her doctor told her to lose some weight. She replied, ‘Better to die from havin’ it than from wantin’ it.’” (Sermons, p. 51).

We need food to live. Food can be very attractive. I own a whole bunch of cookbooks. Forget about the recipes. Sometimes I’ll sit down and look at the pictures, just to get my mouth watering. If I’m honest about it, what I’m hungry for is something greater than food. It’s the idea of food, of being satisfied, of having everything I need.

That’s very tempting. We can start relying on all the stuff in our cupboards. When we are hungry, we can go out and get some more. We were created to consume. But what we are hungry for is greater than all the stuff.

Jesus knows this. His faith was shaped in such a way that he knows this. He starts quoting from Deuteronomy, chapter eight: “We do not live by bread alone.” And then the verse goes on, “but we live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

Now do you know what he’s saying? He was out in the desert for forty days, just like Israel was out in the desert for forty years. When somebody is out there that long, they start getting hungry. God knows this, and God cares about us.

But if God sends you manna from heaven, you look at it and grumble and say, “Is that it?” It’s so difficult for us ever to be satisfied, even though God keeps us good things every day. We pray “give us this day our daily bread,” and that’s what we get, and we grumble about bread because we didn’t get cake.

And if God gives us cake, we want pie. On and on it goes. Nothing is ever satisfactory. Do you suppose the reason our stomachs growl so much is because we’re tempted to want something more than God gives us? I don’t know.

I do know that all of us get tempted by power. It doesn’t matter how important we are. Look at that ladder. Climb that ladder of success. Get to the top so you can look down upon everybody else. That’s a tempting thing.

You don’t have to be famous to have a lot of power. You don’t have to be the next nominee for the Supreme Court, You might be my friend Tony, on the day in Philadelphia when he blew out a tire on the Schuylkill Expressway. One afternoon, he was driving down by City Line Avenue. Suddenly he hears kerplunk, kerplunk, kerplunk. He had a flat tire.

He pulled the car off to the side and tried to jack up the car. He has the car radio on, so there’s something to listen to while he’s changing the tire. It was rush hour, so the Top Forty DJ switches to the traffic report. The traffic reporter is in a helicopter high above the city. As Tony changes the tire, he hears the guy in the helicopter say, “Sorry folks, you’re not going to get home tonight.” He groans. “Do I have to deal with that, too?”

The reporter in the helicopter says, “They’re backed up on the Schuylkill Expressway all the way to Montgomery Avenue. They’re standing still in both directions. The traffic of Philadelphia is frozen. The city is paralyzed.”

Tony has lug nuts in his hand and says to himself, “What evil has befallen my fair city?” The man in the helicopter said, “I see a car, a brown car, just west of City Line Avenue.”

Tony said, “Wait, that’s me! I'm the one that's making this happen. My flat tire has paralyzed the city! Children are crying for their parents. Business deals are falling through. Lovers are not meeting. And I am the one with the power to keep it all from happening." Now that’s power!

Some say that’s the way to determine your own value. Just climb to the top of the ladder. Forget that servant work. Forget all that stuff about the cross. “Hey Jesus, all the kingdoms can be yours. Sign here.”  He would never have to preach another sermon because everybody knows the Bible. Never have to heal the sick because everybody stays healthy. Never have to talk with a stranger about the Christian faith, because everybody already agrees with you. All the nations can instantly be yours, Jesus. Just skip the cross.

Once again, Jesus has to take a stand. He says, “It’s not about my power. It’s not about my prestige. It’s only about God and God alone.” You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.

Then comes one more temptation: Jesus, jump down from the tip-top of the Temple. Do a couple of flips and whistle for the angels to catch you. Didn’t God say, ‘You’re my Son, my beloved Son, and I’m pleased with you’? If you really do belong to God, shouldn’t you get some preferential treatment?

Maybe that’s the most tempting offer of all. Anybody who has ever been baptized in the name of God has been tempted to doubt that relationship. Either that, or we look for ways to cash it in. Maybe we expect for God to pay more attention to our prayers. Or we expect God to love us more. Or we go poking around the Bible for some special verse that will promise us some special treatment.

But what we are tempted to forget is that God keep providing for us. What we get from God is not so much what we want, but what we need. God loves us that much. When we remember that love, it is the first step in sifting away every kind of temptation.

I have a friend named George. He and his wife have two beautiful daughters, both of them settled and married. George says when they were teenagers, the girls were always getting asked out for dates on Friday and Saturday nights. At first, George and his wife would always insist that their daughters had to wait until the young men came to the door. Then they would face a short little exam: Where are you going? What street are you going to take? How late are you going to be?

As you can probably imagine, that didn’t last very long. Both protested the interrogations, especially in front of their guys. So George came up with something else. The rule was that before either girl was allowed out the door, she had to give Dad a hug. George would take her into his arms and whisper, “Precious Treasure.”

That was their code. It was short for, “You are my Precious Treasure.” It meant she was free to go, free to enjoy herself. But if she ever got in any kind of trouble, all she had to do was call and say “treasure” and he would be there immediately. “You are my Precious Treasure.”

Brothers and sisters, temptation keeps swirling all around us. There are forces within us and beyond us that twist the truth. There are voices calling us to take the easy way out. There are wayward impulses urging us to exalt ourselves to the exclusion of everybody else. There are regular opportunities to cash in our trust in God for something that grants some instant security.

But we have been baptized to live by a different script: loving, giving, trusting, sharing, and serving. We are the beloved children of God. We are called to follow after Jesus, go where he goes, confront whatever he confronts, and love what he loves.  

So whenever temptations come your way, don’t forget who you are. You are God’s precious treasures. 

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

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Renouncing Evil

Renouncing Evil
Psalm 51
Ash Wednesday
February 10, 2016

When young parents meet with me before a baptism, there is usually a point in the conversation that gives them pause. They want to know where to stand and what to say, while I remind them that raising the child within the church is what infant baptism is all about. They nod and smile, expecting the pastor to say something like that.

What many of them don’t expect is one of the questions that the church expects them to answer. “Do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?” It almost always gives them pause. One time, a mother blurted out, “Of course we’re not going to sin, we’re in church,” and that made me chuckle. That’s not even touching on the pride, lust, gluttony, greed, envy, wrath, and sloth that all Christian people must resist.

But it’s the second part of the question that usually stops them in their tracks. “Do you renounce evil and its power in the world?” Frankly, most of them hadn’t given that much thought. They figure evil is out there in the world. They hadn’t considered renouncing it. And when I tell them that’s an ancient exorcism question, it’s almost enough to make their heads spin around.

What does it mean to renounce evil? The dictionary definitions are helpful. To renounce is to “refuse to abide by any longer,” or “to declare that one will no longer engage in or support,” or “to formally declare one’s abandonment of a claim.” It is to refuse evil when we see it, to shrug off its power when we discern it, and to stand up against it when we know it.

The truth is that evil can get into any one of us. The poet of Psalm 51 knows that. “Have mercy on my, O Lord . . . I have done what is evil in your sight.” He does not specify, and he doesn’t need to. Whether we assign this Psalm to King David, who grabbed for what didn’t belong to him, or whether the mirror that we peer into, at any given moment, we could hurt one another or damage God’s world. Mercy is the first request for our prayers.

But we also pray to be cleansed and renewed, so that we can renounce and refuse the corruption of our own souls. The early church knew this is possible. Brother James wrote to his churches, “Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (4:8). Another early preacher said, “Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him.” (1 Peter 5:8-9).

With God’s help, we can do this. Jesus renounced evil, as we will hear in next Sunday’s scripture text. We can do this too. Let the season of Lent be our spring training for the soul, that we would stand up to all that is destructive and demented, that we would work for justice and live in God’s peace.  This is God’s will for us, for us to love the Lord with all our ability, and to let go of all that is unworthy of the love of God for all people. 

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

Saturday, February 6, 2016

His Face Was Shining

Exodus 34:29-35
Transfiguration / Mardi Gras
February 7, 2016
William G. Carter

Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

Rob Bell is a popular speaker in Christian circles. In one of his books, he writes,

I remember the first time I was truly in awe of God. I was caught up for the first time in my life in something so massive and loving and transcendent and true. Something I was sure could be trust. I specifically remember thinking the universe was safe, in spite of all the horrible, tragic things in the world. I remember being overwhelmed with the word true. Underneath it all life is somehow good, and I was sixteen and at a U2 concert… When they started with the song “Where the Streets Have No Name,” I thought I was going to spontaneously combust with joy. This was real. This mattered. Whatever it was, I wanted more.

            I had never felt that way before.[1]

People tell stories like this. From time to time, they make field reports of God. It isn’t always the kind of God who goes to church and sits quietly in the pew. It’s a God as Rob describes: massive and loving and transcendent and true.

The fact that most of us don’t feel that most of the time is a testimony that God loves us enough that He doesn’t come repeatedly to supercharge us with energy that sets us on fire. What we get instead are hymns that describe God from a distance with a lot of adjectives (immortal, invisible, God-only wise, or holy, holy, holy). Or we hear accounts from the Bible of somebody somewhere who had a brief holy moment, which the Bible writer struggles to contain in mere words. 

Moses was up on the mountain, spending time face to face with God. The experience changed him. When he came down, everybody could tell. His face was shining with the reflected glory of God, so much so that it scared the people of Israel. They kept their distance. They wanted to stay safe.

It reminds me of what somebody said about the people who always sit in the back of the church. I think it was a scholar at Yale University. He said the reason people sit in the back of the church is because they want to be in the presence of something Holy, but they don’t want to get too close. Some of you back there will have to tell me later if that’s true.

We hunger for the ecstasy that comes from the power and presence of God. But that bright power also scares us, so we want to keep it away, to keep it at a safe distance.
I think that’s something of what it means a limited human being in the presence of the Infinite Love that is God. We want it, but it’s almost too much for us. So when holiness comes close, it often gets filtered. Or deflected. Or veiled. Because we sense the whole experience would be more than we could take.

God has already said something like this to Moses before. Up on the mountain, God says, “No human can look on my face and live.” So God puts Moses in the cleft of a rock and passes by. All Moses can see is the back side of the Lord, moving away (Exodus 33:18-23). That’s in chapter 33.

Yet here in chapter 34, Moses is still in God’s presence, even if he can’t see the face or experience the whole thing. And it changes him. When he comes down from the mountain, there’s something different about Moses. It’s worth reflecting on what that might be.

Here’s one aspect of what is true of such moments: Moses fears God, but he’s not afraid of God. He fears God in the sense of awe and wonder, but he is not fearful of anything else.

Last Monday night, I was in Memphis for a training event. At supper time, our group headed out to a barbecue place to get some ribs. It supposed to be the best rib joint in the whole city. Turns out, it was right across the street from the Lorraine Hotel. That’s the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed, the day after speaking at a Pentecostal church in the ‘hood.

It started the wheels of my memory. In light of the story of Moses coming down from the mountain as a changed man, I looked up the words of Dr. King’s last speech from the night before he died:

I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

Did you hear that? Martin Luther King Jr. saw the glory of God, so he was not afraid. The glory changed him, just as it happened to Moses. The glory set him free. He was bound or constricted by old religious customs or pious ideas. No, like Dr. King, when Moses reported what God said, he talked to the people about how they were going to live. Moses reports how God invites us to live, honoring  our parents, keeping Sabbath, giving our hearts to only the one true Lord – and Dr. King echoed that by saying, “I just want to do God’s will.”

That’s the second aspect of having a holy moment, a moment when you catch a glimpse of God’s glory: it breaks down the wall between heaven and earth. Even though you know you’re living on earth, it feels like you’re in heaven. Whether the experience lifts you up, or heaven comes down, either way there is no separation.

This is how God wanted it to be from the beginning – no separation from the life-giving Presence and glory. That’s what the Garden of Eden was. That’s what Jesus comes to announce and reveal. Remember how he prays? “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” No separation!

When you affirm that God is present, even if you cannot see it all, even if you can’t see anything at all, it frees you from living in the muck and despair of earth alone. And every word that comes from God’s mouth is a Word that sets us free to live in joy and freedom.

But the third thing about these religious experiences, these mountain top moments, is that we have them, we want to have more of them. Faith can fade out if we don’t keep stepping back to the Source of our faith. Hope can evaporate if the nonsense of the world gets you down. Love can dwindle if you don’t love others, or it you don’t feel loved.

So here’s what Moses does after he has his glow-in-the-dark moment. He goes back for more. He continues to go back in the Tabernacle to be with God. He goes back to the place of awe, to the place of worship. His prayer is simply to be in the Holy Presence, to listen, to be there, and then to go outside and share what he has heard. There is a cycle of renewal. He wants the Holy Power to keep renewing him.

So when you feel completely alive? When have you felt like you are in the presence of something massive and loving and transcendent and true?

Maybe like Rob Bell, it was in the midst of great music.
Maybe like the new parent or grandparent, it comes in the gift of a new child.
Maybe it comes in fresh words so true that they bubble up like a fountain within you.
Maybe it comes when you go outdoors and see the awesome beauty of a steel grey mountain,
               or the elaborate dance of life around a small pond, and the majesty of creation astounds you.

Or maybe it’s something that happens in your life. Maybe you thought you were insulated, safe from every act of God, but then some moment takes your breath away, and it chips away at your elaborate defense system. Maybe you will even start trusting that the universe is safe, even the world still has plenty of trouble.

My advice is simple. When these moments come, and I believe they can come to everybody, be a good steward of those moments. Let them change you, if only as a small beginning as you emerge into something else.  Let them lift you into the awareness that joy is real and God is true. Should holy moments come, let them set you free without setting you adrift.

And then pursue them again and again, until the day comes when you shine with the fire of Love.   

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

[1] Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2005) p. 72