Saturday, September 24, 2016

Commissioning for Worship Through Service

Luke 16:19-31
September 25, 2016
William G. Carter

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 

In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

It’s the story of two neighbors, one who had it all and one who was needy. In death, as in life, there was a world of difference between them. That is the source of the story’s tragedy. The tragedy for the needy man is the rich man ignored him. The tragedy for the rich man is that he ignored the Bible. You see, ignoring our neighbors is one of the ways we ignore the Bible.

Sometimes it happens with the neighbors closest to us, as on page three of the book of Genesis. There were two brothers, Cain and Abel. Cain grows jealous of his brother and strikes him down. When confronted by God, Cain responds with a question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). The obvious answer is “yes,” but the obvious answer is not always obvious to us.

Jesus has been talking about paying attention to our neighbors. According to the Gospel of Luke, that was a central message of his good news. We have heard the stories many times.

There was a man who fell among thieves, and two religious people passed him by. It was the Samaritan, the dreaded enemy, who took care of the wounded man, because that’s what neighbors do.

“When you throw a party,” he said, “don’t invite the people who will merely invite you in return to their next party. Go after the ones that everybody overlooks, the people who get left off the guest lists everywhere else.” That’s what a neighbor does, in a world shaped by the Gospel.

The shepherd who finds a lost sheep calls out to his neighbors, “Come and rejoice with me! I found what was lost.” The lady who finds the lost coin calls out to her neighbors, “We’re going to have a party. I found what was lost.” The father who gets his lost boy back throws a huge barbecue for the neighbors, and then he goes out to his other lost son and says, “Even though you’ve never left home, come home.”

It will not be a complete celebration unless all of us are able to enjoy God’s gift of life together.

That’s what makes the story of Lazarus and the rich man so tragic. They were neighbors. Poor Lazarus slept in a cardboard box on the rich man’s curb. The rich man knew him by name, but neither called him to his table nor took food to his side. There was a gulf between them in life, created entirely by the rich man. So there was also a gulf between them in death, created by the justice of God.

It’s a story, you understand – a story. And Jesus is the One who tells it, so it’s not only true in the deepest sense; it’s the truth that can transform our lives. All scripture calls us to live in fellowship with those around us, to pay attention to those in need, to address those needs, and to use our days here on earth to prepare for an eternity of getting along with God and all God’s children.

So that’s why we are doing this weekend of service: to bridge whatever invisible gulf separates us from our neighbors.  Serving others will knock down the walls that keep us from enjoying the communion that God makes possible.  

So my charge to you is simple: find some way to show the love of God to those you meet today. Take the cue from those who make quilts for the homeless here twice a month: they always pray for those who will receive the work of their hands. If you are cleaning up a playground, pray for the children who will play there. If you are sorting books and delivering them, pray for those who will read them. If you go to the Women’s Resource Center, pray for the end of emotional abuse and the healing of those scarred by violence.

We pray, but it’s not enough to pray. We also commit our energy, time, and money to improve the lives of those around us. Jesus has come into the world to make a difference. If we’re going to follow him, we must, too.

So let us stand for a time of prayer and commitment.

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

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Befriending Dishonest Wealth

Luke 16:1-13
September 18, 2016
William G. Carter

"For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."

Of all the parables Jesus told, that one is a real stinker. Maybe that’s why I talk about it whenever it comes up in the cycle of lectionary readings. Jesus tells about a wily crook that is cheating his boss. When the boss hears about it, he says, “You’ve got to go. Turn in your record.” So what does the fired employee? Before he goes out the door, he has a fire sale. He trims the prices on his boss’ products, thinking that after he’s gone, at least he will have some friends.

And when the boss hears about it, he doesn’t throw him in prison or hand him off to get roughed up. No, he says, “Congratulations! I’m impressed. What an excellent idea!” It’s the ending of that parable that gives good Presbyterians fits. They think a crook ought to be arrested, not be commended. Is that boss crazy? The thief has done the crime, he should do the time. But instead he’s congratulated by the very man who has let him go.

It’s a troubling story, the most slippery of all the stories that Jesus tells. And the only thing more troubling is one of the teachings that Jesus extracts from it: “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Now, what in the world is that about?

Make friends by dishonest wealth? We know about making friends . . . but to do it by dishonest wealth? Or to translate it another way, “filthy money” or “unrighteous mammon.” Who wants to make some friends by way of some dirty money?

A friend of mine is the pastor of a new church not far from here. The new church is the merger of some small country churches. They have a beautiful new facility. Right by the front door, there is a plaque to honor a local business man of, shall we say, dubious reputation. I don’t need to mention any names, simply to say he runs a big junk yard, and he may be the largest land owner in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It’s hard to say, he doesn’t do interviews. 

Apparently somebody knew somebody who knew somebody else, and they got this business person to arrange for the site preparation of the new church building. He’s not a church member there. It may be questionable to ask such a person for a favor, but they did. Now they have a large plaque honoring his generosity. Is that what Jesus means by “befriending dishonest wealth”?

Or I think of a new community center, a place not far from here that is dear to my own heart. The board is in the process of raising money to rehab the building and open the center. It was announced that there was a $100,000 grant. Well, that was wonderful! It’s not enough to do the whole project, but it’s a big help. And where did this grant come from? From the profits of Pennsylvania casinos.

Well, we’re grateful for the funding, but I confess some discomfort on where the money comes from. I know families that have been ripped apart because somebody spent too much money in a casino. This summer, I visited a local casino for the very first time. I didn’t spend a dime, just went to look. Do you know what I observed? Nobody is smiling. Not a single person. But some money from that den of addiction is helping to fund a very important project in the community. As Jesus says, “Befriend dishonest wealth.”

Or I remember the conversation with my dad. I went home one time from Princeton Seminary, full of biblical ideas about peace and justice. And I said, “You know, Dad, I am a little worried that you work for a company that makes high capacity weapons.” At the height of his career at IBM, my father managed the development of a computer guidance system for the B-1 bomber. My father looked at me, smiled slightly, and said, “It’s true that the Cold War has funded your higher education, to say nothing of a lot of other things that our family enjoys.”

“But Dad,” I protested, “don’t you think that’s wrong?” He replied, “People like me make a lot of money so we can send preachers like you off to school to learn the Bible, so you can come back and raise those kinds of questions.” Oh, I miss my dad.

Jesus said, “Make friends through filthy money.” I wonder about that.

I mean, I would never dare ask the source of that money that all of us are putting in the offering plate today? I’m not sure I want to know where it comes from. From the looks of it, this is a crowd of good-looking, church-going folk. You don’t seem like you’re caught up in shady deals or back room manipulations. But what about the people who touched the cash before you give it away today? Does our money have germs?

Once upon a time, there was a church that received a visit from the FBI. The Feds dropped by to visit the pastor and the Finance committee. It seems somebody in the pews was laundering marked bills from a robbery by putting the ill-gotten funds in the offering plate. The local bank discovered the cash, traced it to the church, and realized it has come in a number of times. The minister said, “We didn’t ask where it came from. What we can tell you is the money is buying church school curriculum, sending kids to camp, feeding the hungry, and providing hurricane relief.” But it was dirty.

When people hear the Bible passage for today, they get disturbed. Jesus holds up a common thief as the hero of one of his stories. He doesn’t make any comment on the man’s morality. It’s almost as if he assumes that the work of human commerce is always going to be contaminated somehow. Money is merely paper, metal, or numbers in a computer somewhere. But there’s no question that somehow or another it will get dirty. The problem is not what money is, but what it can do to people. It’s not money that is “the root of evil.” No, the Bible says “the love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10)

That’s why the Bible tells of terrible things that happen when people are twisted by greed and power. Judas Iscariot sold out Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Ananias and Sapphira held back some of the profits of a land sale when the people of God had needs (Acts 4:32-5:10). A man named Simon Magus waved a fistful of fifty dollar bills at one of the apostles and said, “Can I buy some Holy Spirit for me?” (Acts 8:19) It didn’t turn out well for any of those people.

But there are other stories, too, stories of people who make a constructive difference with their money. They give, they share, and something good happens. I think of the apostle Paul making an appeal to the wealthy people of Corinth. There had been a famine and people were starving. He says to the Corinthians, “You have so much and they have so little. We know you are eager to give generously. So give me a reason to brag about your generosity.” Notice he doesn’t ask how they made their money, or whether their money had germs when they received it – his concern is to invite them to do something good with the money they have.

Like my friend Mike. A couple of weeks ago, I took my mom home from a visit, and stopped to see my brother and his family. They were working at a carnival in their town. Specifically, they were working a lottery booth for the high school band boosters. My brother said, “Buy some tickets and support my kids.” I looked both ways to make sure nobody was watching. So I gave him a buck, I’m such a big spender. He gives me four tickets to scratch off. I didn’t win anything, but hey, it’s for my nephew and niece, so I’ll give them a buck.

While I’m standing there, along comes my friend Mike. He lays down a twenty, buys a bunch of tickets, starts scratching them off. He’s not winning anything. And I ask, “What if you hit a lucky number?” He said, “I’ll just give the winnings to the band.” He lays down another twenty, gets more tickets, doesn’t win anything.

I said, “Why don’t you just give them the twenty dollar bills? He said, “Well, that’s no fun. Besides, it’s for the kids.” Then he quoted Garrison Keillor, “Nothing you ever spend on kids is wasted.”

Was the money dirty? No, not with what he was doing with it.

There is a certain kind of shrewdness that Jesus is calling for. He is not talking about investing money to make more of it here and now. He’s talking about being welcomed “into the eternal homes,” about being faithful to God with the “true riches.” He’s speaking about using our money here and now for God’s purposes, to express God’s values, to create relationships rather than financial wealth.

As the poet Wendell Berry says somewhere, there are two economies. Either we use capital to build social relations, or we sacrifice social relations to build capital. Berry says, “If we do not serve what coheres and endures, we serve what disintegrates and destroys.”[1]

To this, Jesus adds, “You can’t serve God and wealth.” It’s one or the other. “If you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?”

So here’s the question, the Gospel question: what are we going to do with our money? It is one of the profound questions of faith. If anybody takes a look at our checking account statements, they would see what we value. We spend money and give money to the things that matter most to us. Is it only for ourselves, or is it going to build relationships? Will it reflect the values of God’s eternity? Will it build God’s kingdom and extend the reach for God’s kingdom? Or is it merely going to build walls and install security systems?

Jesus says it makes a world of difference. Spend some time meditating on this 16th chapter of Luke. It’s a collection of Jesus’ teachings – and warnings – about what we do with the money we have. The question is not whether money may be tainted. The question is whether our hearts are focused on God and generous toward others. Those are the “true riches.”

In Michigan, there is a fourth grader by the name of Cayden Taipulus. He was standing in the lunch line in the school cafeteria, and noticed the kid ahead of him was denied a hot lunch because there was no money in his lunch account. Instead the lady with the hairnet took two slices of white bread, put a single slice of American cheese between them, and handed it to the embarrassed kid. He was pretty upset, and so was Cayden.

Cayden went home and sulked. He asked his mom, “Isn’t there something we can do?” He collected bottles and cans for recycling, and turned them in for money. He asked his family members to help out. He collected enough money to pay off the lunch accounts for 300 kids.

His mom got into the spirit, and helped him to set up a fund raising page on the internet. As of yesterday, they have raised over $37,000, so that no kid in his school will ever have to go hungry.[2]

There are a lot of things we can do with our money. Rather than merely make money, how about if we make a difference . . . to the glory of God?

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

[2] See the website at and consider making a donation.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Is This the Way It Is?

Luke 15:1-10
September 11, 2016
William G. Carter

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.'

So I’m going to tell you something today that could get me in a lot of trouble. I’ve given a lot of thought to this, so I don’t do it lightly. Ready? Here it is. The truth: whenever I talk about grace and mercy, someone always gets angry. Whenever I preach about forgiveness, someone always stomps out of the sanctuary. Whenever I say, “God is love,” somebody scowls.

Now, that’s the truth of it. In my baser moments, when somebody stomps or scowls at the kindness of God, I want to say, “Get over yourself.” And in my wiser moments, I don’t say anything. I simply remember that religious people killed Jesus because he preached and practiced kindness. It goes with the territory. This is the way it is.

One day, they dragged a woman in front of him.[1] They had caught her in the act of adultery. Apparently they didn’t catch the man, just her. One of them said, “Teacher, you know what our Bible says about this. Moses said we should stone her to death. What do you say?”

At that point, there is a long pause, a palpable silence. Jesus writes in the dirt with his finger. Then he says, “Let the one who is without sin throw the first stone.” Again, there is another painful silence. Then he hears “thud, thud, thud,” as one stone after another drops from their hands. There is a rustling, and when Jesus looks up, the angry crowd is gone. There’s just that woman who was dragged from her bed.

He says, “Lady, where are your accusers?” She said, “They are gone, sir.” And he said, “Neither do I accuse you. Go, and stop sinning.”

Now, what the Bible doesn’t tell us is that there was one guy who had a hard time letting go of his stone. He is hiding behind that palm tree over there and watching the scandal of it all. Jesus forgives this woman and then he talks with her! I bet he stomped out of there, went home, and wrote a letter to complain. Jesus forgave and did not condemn. He saved her life and she was a sinner.

It sounds like this was an ongoing issue for Jesus. The religious leaders grumbled and said, “This fellow welcomes sinners. He eats with them.” For them, that was a huge crisis of faith. If you welcome a sinner, you don’t separate yourself from them. The word “Pharisee” means “the separate ones.” They are the ones who do everything they can to live a holy life according to the Torah of God, even if that means separating themselves from the everyday spiritual slobs who aren’t so careful.

What’s more, to eat with somebody is to be at peace with them. It means you are in fellowship with them. If you eat with a sinner, it looks like you condone who they are and what they have done, and in some cases, what they are still doing. Jesus not only forgave the sinners. He welcomed them and ate with them. So the holy people murmured about him. This is the way it is.

Years ago, there was a couple in our congregation who separated. Before the divorce was finalized, he moved in with a girlfriend. That year, he was serving a term as an elder on the session. He was the chair of the stewardship committee. Some friends of his wife paid me a visit and declared that I needed to throw him off the session. They felt my job is to be the spiritual police officer of the congregation.

I listened as they made their case, and I listened carefully. I offered to meet the man for coffee and have a conversation, even though they didn’t know I had had many conversations with him already. Well, that wasn’t good enough. They expected more drastic action. So I said, “I suppose we could go through the membership roll and get rid of all the sinners. Let’s see: Acker, Ackerly, Armstong, Bailey…” With this, one of my visitors started getting huffy and declared we didn’t need a person like him in our church.

So I said, “Let me tell you the truth. I’m a pastor. I deal with people every day whose lives are in transition. Some of those lives are a real mess. But they are coming here because it is the only place in town where they are going to hear that in spite of what they’ve done, God loves them, that God is walking with them in the middle of their mess. This is the only place where they are going to hear that God gives them a second chance, and that even if they screw that up, ultimately God is going to save their lives and carry them home.” That’s the way it is.

“Besides,” I added, “if you want to run the stewardship campaign, go to it.” There was a long, long pause, and then a “thud” on the carpet as they dropped their stones and slipped away.

Please understand: I am sympathetic to their concern. I would love it if everybody was well-behaved. Yet I serve a wonderful congregation that has its flaws. This is a flock of imperfect people with an imperfect pastor. And I knew there were extenuating circumstances in that man’s former marriage. There always are. There are at least three different sides to every divorce. All I’ll say is it never fails to take my breath away to discover how cruel people can be to one another. That’s not how we are called to be or how we are to live. The call to be a follower of Christ is a call to grow in faithfulness and fruitful living.

But following Jesus includes becoming more and more like Jesus, the same Jesus who said, “Neither do I condemn you; go and stop sinning.”

I know, these are difficult matters. We really want everybody to be good, and to be good to one another. And sometimes we might think that we ourselves are on top of the world. Maybe our relationships are healthy, our children’s teeth are straight, and our investments are turning out well. If so, hallelujah, praise the Lord!

The truth, however, is that all of us have some hurts that we carry, some difficulties that we disguise, some fears and inadequacies that gnaw at us after dark. Some of us cobble a few things together just to get here on a Sunday morning. I realize you clean up pretty well, but I know better – because I know the truth about myself. I don’t need an annual personnel evaluation to point out my flaws; I already know what they are, and am generally surprised that more of them don’t show. The apostle Paul called himself “the foremost of sinners”? Well, call me “El Jefe

Somebody asked me the other day what I thought about 9-11. We swapped stories of where we were, how a beautiful September day was demolished by hatred and senseless destruction. The conversation started to turn in the direction of “how terrible those terrorists are,” but I needed to hit the pause button. It’s fifteen years later, I said. The tragedy was bad, but we can’t respond to hatred with more hatred. That’s deadly.

My coffee partner said, “What would you suggest?” So I quoted a song lyric from the rock star Sting. His poetry may be a little obscure, but he’s talking about an alternative to perpetuating violence. He sang it on a concert on the night of September 11, 2001:

If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one
Drying in the color of the evening sun.
Tomorrow’s rain will wash the stains away
But sometime in our minds will always stay
Perhaps this final act was mean to clinch a lifetime’s argument
That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could
For all those born beneath an angry star
Lest we forget how fragile we are

On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star, like tears from a star.
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are, how fragile we are.[2]

All of us are fragile. That’s the point. None of us are better than anybody else. None of us. The Pharisees and scribes couldn’t see it, but Jesus could. That’s why Christianity is not the practice of superiority. Not now, not ever. For God’s sake, our leader was a condemned man, spat upon by religious superior-thinking people, and killed on a cross like a criminal. And he is the King of kings. He was misunderstood then, he is ignored now.

If Jesus is superior, it is in his graciousness. Ever notice, after his resurrection, he never goes back to say, “Hey Pontius Pilate, you want to take another swing at me?” He never returns to say to the high priest Caiaphas, “Hey, you dummy, you got it all wrong.” No, that’s not how Jesus was -- or is. He doesn’t blast down the wall. No, he knocks on the door and he waits us out.

And in a parable of astonishing self-definition, he is the foolish shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to go after the one who is lost. Well, what if one of the other ones wanders off and gets lost? He will go after that one too.

So we have this parable from the lips of Jesus. The shepherd risks everything to go after the wayward sheep. He risks his reputation, he risks his own safety, he risks the rest of his flock – because he has to rescue that lost sheep. Notice he does he does not wait for the sheep to repent. No, he goes after that sheep, because grace always precedes the return. Grace is what carries us home. This is what gives the shepherd great joy: going after the one who has lost its way, lifting it in rescue, and giving it a whole new life. It’s slow work, it’s holy work.

Robert Capon was an Episcopalian priest who loved this parable. He says it is the essence of the Gospel, and it cannot be separated from the work that Jesus does in his death and resurrection. Here’s what he says:

When God pardons, he does not say he understands our weakness or makes allowances for our errors; rather he disposes of, he finishes with, the whole of our dead life and raises us up with a new one. He does not so much deal with our derelictions as he does drop them down the black hole of Jesus’ death. He forgets our sins in the darkness of (Christ’s) tomb. He remembers our iniquities no more in the oblivion of Jesus’ expiration. He finds us, in short, in the desert of death, not in the garden of improvement; and in the power of Jesus’ resurrection, he puts us on his shoulders rejoicing and brings us home.[3]

Is this the way it is? I hope so, I believe it to be so, and I trust it with all my heart. Because my life depends on the grace of God, and so does yours.

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

[1] John 7:53-8:12. Some scholars, noting its odd location in the Fourth Gospel, believe this story really belongs in Luke.
[2] Sting (Gordon Sumner), “Fragile,” recorded on “Nothing Like the Sun”
[3] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace, Eerdmann Publishing, p. 39.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Jazz of Justice

Amos 5:14-15, 21-24
25th Jazz Communion
William G. Carter

Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Four years ago, some of our Presbybop musicians were with me in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Methodists had invited us down for worship, a concert, and a seminar. When our chores were concluded, we put the drummer and the bass player on a plane, and Al and I had a little time to kill before we caught a later flight.  

So I suppose that’s how we came to drive by Central High School. The school is still there, as it was in 1957. That was the year that Governor Orval Faubus stood up against the Supreme Court of the United States, and the centerpiece of his rebellion was Central High School. The Supreme Court declared it was unconstitutional to separate black from white into different public high schools.

Faubus said, “I don’t care what they think. I’m the governor of Arkansas. I’m not going to let nine African American teenagers into Central High School.” So he ordered the state’s National Guard to prevent it. News got back to Washington, and President Eisenhower was slow to react. The law was that people of different skin colors could study together, but Faubus said, “Not in my state.”

Looking at some of the news footage of the day, it got pretty ugly. People said terrible things about those who looked different from themselves.  They were saying that for years before, just as they have whispered it ever since, but they were pretty blunt about it then. It took the president twenty days to get around to sending in troops to defend the law. Maybe he was hoping Governor Faubus would be reasonable.

But most racists have no interest in being reasonable, especially if their so-called “way of life” is being challenged, called out, or disturbed. Faubus resisted, just as Florida resisted, Mississippi resisted, and George Wallace’s Alabama refused. Racism has been the “original wound” of the United States. This is a country that mostly began as a nation of European immigrants and outcasts, some of whom got the bright idea that they could capture, sell, and enslave Africans as a cheap labor source. Even after slavery was declared illegal in 1865, many African Americans were still largely treated as if they were less than human.

The weight of all of this fell on my conscience as I looked upon Central High School in Little Rock. 

If we are going to play jazz, we have to have a talk about race, about justice and race. Jazz music begins as a musical conversation between the races. Some say it originates in New Orleans, in the gumbo of French, Spanish, Creole, Black, and White. Others hear the creativity emerging from New York or Chicago. It’s hard to say specifically, because the music’s origins are such a mixed stew.

There are certain things we know. If people are oppressed, they learn to sing the blues. If all they have is a two string guitar, they can learn to bend the notes to witness to their broken hearts. If the burdens of life become heavy, there is the human (and perhaps divine) inspiration to stand up and say, “I count for something,” and that might break out in an unexpected songs of exuberance. If those in power that life must lived by a certain script, there is the holy possibility that some might interpret that script, dance with it, even improvise upon it. And so, jazz arises. Jazz bubbles up in America about the same time that the Holy Spirit bubbles up in the Pentecostal revivals of the early 1900’s. It was seen as illegitimate by those in power, but it has never gone away.

So it is no wonder that jazz musicians have often spoken or acted prophetically when people were mistreated for the color of their skin. I offer three brief vignettes:

Billie Holiday, an African American singer, found a song written by a Jewish teacher who called Lewis Allan. Allan wrote that song, “Strange Fruit,” after seeing some ghastly photographs of African Americans being lynched in the South. There was “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” It became Billie Holiday’s signature song, her way of speaking up and speaking out. Columbia Records, her recording company, didn’t want her to record it, fearing that sales would drop, especially in the South. She recorded it for another label and it sold one million copies. In 1999, Time Magazine named it the best song of the century. The song told the truth – and it stood up to evil.

Dave Brubeck put together a jazz quartet that gained international acclaim. They were big. Columbia Records didn’t want to release one of their records, fearing it was too “far out.” That album, the Time Out album featuring “Take Five” became the all-time best selling jazz record. The quartet was so big that the US State Department sent them around the world on a peacemaking mission.

But when they came home, some American concert promoters blanched when they discovered Brubeck had an African American bass player. In one venue in South Carolina, the promoter demanded that Eugene Wright, the bass player, play behind a curtain so the white audience wouldn’t see him. Do you know what Brubeck did? He cancelled the concert at the last minute, and twenty-two more like it, because if “all of us aren’t going to play on stage together, none of us are going to play at all.” Imagine the shock of those concert promoters if they read the fine print and discovered the prepaid concert fee was nonrefundable.

And then, Charles Mingus, son of an African American soldier and a white-skinned woman of Chinese, English, and Swedish descent, among others. “My father was always ashamed of his skin color,” Mingus once said. Charles himself was light skinned, but growing up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, he knew what it was like to be disrespected and disregarded because of how he looked. He dealt with racism every day of his life.

So when he heard about Governor Faubus of Arkansas rejecting the law of the land, refusing to let African American teenagers into a segregated school, he put together a song to make fun of him. That’s the song, “Fables of Faubus.” The melody sashays and simpers to ridicule the governor for his bigotry. Behind it is a lyric that Columbia Records (once again) refused to let him put on the recording. They knew it would be terrible for sales. But the year was 1959, the issue was civil rights, and within a year, Mingus would record the song on another record label with these words:

Oh, Lord, don't let 'em shoot us!  Oh, Lord, don't let 'em stab us!
Oh, Lord, don't let 'em tar and feather us!  Oh, Lord, no more swastikas!
Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!
Name me someone who's ridiculous, Governor Faubus!
Why is he so sick and ridiculous?  He won't permit integrated schools.
Then he's a fool . . .  [lyrics (c) Charles Mingus]

As a way of standing up to racism, Mingus made fun of it.

So what does this have to do with the scripture lessons we heard today? Plenty! Psalm 2 says that God looks at the powers, the principalities, and the politicians of this world, and God laughs. It’s the only time in the entire Bible where it says God laughs. And the reason God looks upon them to laugh is because these people think they are so high and mighty, and they are missing the boat in a hundred different ways. God is “amused at their presumption” (The Message), but then God comes to set things right.

That’s the definition of justice: it is the judgment of heaven to establish fairness among all of God’s people. Justice is not voting for the person who will appoint the judge you happen to like to the Supreme Court. No, justice is the establishment and maintenance of shalom, of God’s rule of peace. Justice is the regarding of one another as neighbor, for that person who is different from you is still created in the image of God.

So along comes the prophet Amos, about eight hundred years before Jesus. It was a time when the few people who were very, very rich were getting infinitely richer, and it came at the expense of those who had no access to the basic gifts of life. Does that sound familiar? Sure it does. Amos is in our Bible to address the way that human beings keep mistreating other human beings, all to fill their pockets, feather their beds, and keep clawing onto their own sense of power.

Amos gives it to us straight: people are forgetting about God, people are forgetting about one another. They go to worship to sing their happy songs, then stomp over their neighbors on the way out. So Amos declares, “Don’t give me your happy songs.” Some go to worship God and make sizable, significant contributions, ignoring that they have made their money by refusing to pay a living wage to the very people who make them rich. “Don’t give God that dirty money,” Amos said.

And then with the voice like a trumpet, Amos says the line that everybody from Martin Luther King Jr. to Bernie Sanders has repeated, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” That’s more than poetry. That’s an invitation for how to live. “Do good and live,” says the prophet. “Hate evil, love good, establish justice” . . . for that kind of living is the way that the grace of God becomes real.

So there we stood, in front of Central High School in Little Rock. It was a quiet fall day. The bell rang, and we watched black and white students stepped out into the sunshine. I am sure it’s not a perfect situation for all of them, but because of those who have been courageous enough to speak up, for those who will step across the invisible lines that still divide us, there is still the possibility of receiving the grace of God which is truly a gift intended for everybody. And maybe we don’t have perpetuate the damage and the divisions. Justice, as someone said, "is a cleansing, surging stream."

Charles Mingus was an imperfect prophet. He was a complicated soul, he could be difficult, he didn’t make a lot of friends. Years ago, Tony Marino and I played a couple of concerts here in town with Jimmy Knepper, the great trombonist who was part of Mingus’ band for a while. He told how Mingus flew off the handle one day, punched him in the mouth, and knocked out a couple of his teeth. That’s how he treated one of his friends. He was not an easy man.

But there was this other side of him that was determined to tell the truth. He often revealed this in his song titles, titles like, “Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atom Bomb on Me.” “Remember Rockefeller at Attica.” Or my favorite title, “All The Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother.” Even “Fables of Faubus” – he retitled it later to call it “Fables of Nixon.” He was yearning for something greater than the same old nonsense that people do to one another, just as we come to the communion table yearning for something holy and true. We are hungry for the bread of God’s justice.

So here’s one more story. Charles Mingus was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. The disease devastated him quickly. One day, he called his son Dorian into his sick room, looked into his face, and said, “You are no color.”

Dorian thought, “What? I have a white mother and a black father. Well, he’s not really all black himself…Irish, English, Welsh, Greek, Swedish, Chinese, Black and German.”

Charles said, “You are no color. That’s the trouble with the world, that everybody gets caught up in what they are, and where they’ve come from, and that’s not the point.”

So what is the point? That all of us are the children of God, and all of us have to work a lot harder at getting along, helping one another out, and overcoming evil with good. That’s what God’s justice is all about. Let that justice roll down on us like waters. Let's get drenched.

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