Saturday, April 30, 2016

Even to Old Age and Gray Hairs

Psalm 71
Easter 6
May 1, 2016
William G. Carter

Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent.
18 So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come.

There is a comment that I often hear from older people who spend time in the hospital or have some kind of medical episode. They will look me in the eye and with all seriousness declare, “Whatever you do, don’t get old.”

When they say it, I’m never sure what they want me to do. I have every intention of getting old, and prefer it to the alternative. Lord knows, the years are marching on for all of us. For a few among us, those years are still kind. And for the rest of us, well, let’s pray for durability and the continuing ability to bounce rather than break. As the Psalmist says to God in our Psalm, “You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again.” (71:20).

Today we honor those in our fellowship who are chronologically gifted. They have been around for a while. Most of them are out ahead in the front of the pack, and quite a few will astonish us if their ages are ever reveal. One of our certified nonagenarians (that’s somebody aged ninety to ninety-nine) could not be here today. She’s traveling the world and has other things to do. As one of her friends said about her, “Ninety is the new sixty.”

That gives me hope. In the last couple of years, I’ve felt time creeping up on my heels. It is good to have a lot of mentors who have offered good advice. Keep walking as long as you can, they say. Enjoy what you eat, but don’t eat as much of it. Start doing crossword puzzles to sharpen the brain. And if you’re going on a long trip, never pass up a rest room. These are all helpful tidbits.

Today’s Psalm has some holy advice to add to such wisdom. It seems to have been written by somebody sensitive to the aging process. “Don’t cast me off in the time of old age,” he says in verse nine. In verse eighteen, he adds, “Even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me.”

Some people think that King David wrote psalms like these. Perhaps so, although, this psalm is not autographed by him or anybody else. Even so, we know David lived to be a senior citizen. According to the first book of Kings, when he “was old and advanced in years,” he couldn’t keep warm.

The servants covered him with blankets and clothes, but he was often chilly. So you know what those generous servants did? They found a young woman named Abishag to be his cuddle buddy, and that seemed to warm him up. The Bible says nothing immoral happened; all I will say is it’s good to be king!

And when David died, the official chronicler of the kingdom declared, “he died in a good old age, full of days, riches, and honor.” (1 Chronicles 29:28) By the way, anybody want to guess what his ripe old age actually was? King David died at seventy years of age.

Thanks to medical advances, good nutrition, and fewer battles with the Philistines, a lot of us are lasting a lot longer. Once it was extremely rare to know someone who is a hundred years ago. Not anymore. My grandmother, at 102 years old, has a great-great grandson. That’s five generations, and it’s amazing.

Yet, as all of us know, with longevity comes trouble. Without any adjustments, our Social Security savings could run out of money someday. Longer lives mean more medical bills. Women who thought they would outlive their husbands may have to live with them a good bit longer.

And I think of Anna Schwartz, who was ninety-six when I went to my first church and became her pastor. She didn’t like the fact that she was slowing down; at eighty-nine, she visited Egypt and rode a camel. Now her wings were clipped. She had outlived her husband. Her son Bob was retired and had health problems of his own. She couldn’t take care of her house.

Her main frustration was her boyfriend Russell, who was a mere eighty five. “I always wanted a younger man,” she said. Every afternoon, he risked life and limb to drive across town to the senior facility where she lived. The drive wore him out and he would fall asleep for the rest of the afternoon. The supper tray would come, and she’d say, “Russell, you’ve got to wake up and go home.” He would shuffle out the door, and then she would say, “I don’t know why I’m living so long.”

What was I, twenty-five, twenty-six years old? I wasn’t sure if she was trying to yank my chain or if she was asking a serious question. One time I said, “Maybe God still has work for you to do, Anna.” She wrinkled her nose and said she hadn’t thought about that. But I had great sympathy for her. Most of her friends were gone, her son needed a hip replacement, and her boyfriend was a bore. Why was she still here?

Well, let me take on that question: why are any of us here? It is certainly not for the sake of the troubles; God knows there are enough troubles in this life. But we know that God is stronger than them all.

Did you notice that, over and over, whenever our psalm speaks of trouble, it counters by asking God for help – or declaring that God has already helped. “You are my strong refuge,” says the Psalmist in verse seven, “My mouth is filled with your praise, and with your glory all day long.” It’s a clue as to why we are here – not to make more money than our neighbors, not to build a bigger garage and fill it with more toys, not to be consumed by the people out there who wish to take advantage of us for their gain. No, we are here to live in relationship with God.

For the Psalmist, it’s a relationship marked by God’s strength and God’s continuing faithfulness. To live with God is the source of our ongoing joy. To remember how many times God has helped us is sufficient for us to live into the future with hope. And to live with a saving, loving God is an experience that must be shared with those around us, including those who will inevitably come after us.

That reminds me: I didn’t finish quoting one of the verses a few minutes ago. It’s verse eighteen: “So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come.” Even if your memory is getting slippery, don’t forget that part: “I proclaim your might to all the generations to come.”

One of the great privileges of my work is that I get to see some moments that the rest of you might not have seen. We had one of those moments just a few weeks ago. We were baptizing a little boy named Rhys, and it was a big moment as all baptisms are a big moment.

It was a bit different, though, because I was asked to be the elder who walked him down the aisle. Indeed I was the mother’s second choice. Her first choice was her high school math teacher. I think she was unfortunately detained on a golf cart in Florida, so I got to do The Walk.

The baptism went pretty well. But there was a moment in the aisle that took my breath away. Rhys and I got about halfway down the aisle, and I introduced him to one of our ninety-year-olds. She reached out and wrapped his little fingers around one of her fingers and she held on for a moment.

It was an epic moment – the wisdom of long experience touching the future, the continuity of a holy tradition, right here in the present tense. It was as if she was speaking on behalf of all the saints to say, “The Gospel that I received many years ago is also for you, little one.”

In the words of the Psalmist, “until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come.” That’s another reason, maybe the really big reason, why all of us are here: to proclaim the love of our saving God.

So we come to the Lord’s Table today to proclaim it again. “Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.” “My lips will shout for joy when I sing praises to you.”

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

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Hungry Doxology

Psalm 148
Easter 5
April 23, 2016
William G. Carter

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!
Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created.
He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!
Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!
Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and women alike, old and young together!
Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; 
his glory is above earth and heaven.
He has raised up a horn for his people, 
praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him.
Praise the Lord!

Of all the interesting invitations that have come my way, I’ll never forget the time I was invited to preach at the synagogue. Invitations like that don’t come very often, and I wanted to do a good job.

My thoughts turned to finding the right scripture text, something that provided common ground for Christians and Jews. At the time, I working through the gospel of Mark, but Jewish congregation wouldn’t be interested in the gospel of Mark. The rabbi said he had been teaching his way through the book of Leviticus, but I have read enough of Leviticus to think he should deal with that himself. So I picked one of the psalms.

It seemed like an appropriate choice. The psalms offer common soil for Jewish and Christian faith to grow. How about one of them? When I phoned the synagogue on Tuesday morning with my scripture text, a polite voice replied, "We have never had a sermon on a psalm before."

I said, "Well, what are you used to?"

"Usually the rabbi bases a sermon on a story, like the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. Or he often deals with a scriptural teaching that begs for a new interpretation. But he never preaches on a psalm. Around here, we sing the psalms and pray them."

Well, it was already Tuesday morning and too late to scrap my plans for a Friday night Sabbath service. So I stuck with my psalm of praise and preached it to a congregation full of raised eyebrows.

Since then I've thought about the Jewish wisdom of avoiding psalms in the pulpit. A psalm is a song. It is a biblical prayer set to music. Songs are meant to be sung, not commented upon. No one opens up a cookbook and interprets the recipe on page 34. Instead they bake a soufflé. In the same way, nobody opens up the hymnal to begin a lecture. Either you read the psalm and get caught up in its music, or you leave it alone.

The psalm for today is a case in point. Psalm 148 is a resounding call to praise, a doxology that summons a multitude of voices to sing. All of creation is invited to praise the Lord, both the visible creation on earth and the invisible creation above the earth. The summons begins up there, in the heights, offered first to an army of angels. It moves to the sun and moon, and then to a choir of shining stars. Summoned are the furthest reaches of the galaxy, as well as the heavenly waters, which the ancient people regarded as the source of rain. "Praise the Lord," sings the psalmist, "for all of you have been created, established, and bounded by the Word of God."

Then all the whole earth down here is beckoned to join in the song. The melody begins with the bass notes, with the sea monsters and creatures of the deep. Then comes the primal forces of nature: fire, hail, snow, frost, wind and storm. Then the hills are alive with the sound of music, with all the apple trees and the cedars planted upon them.

The royalty on earth are called to bow before the Lord who rules over them. Finally there is the invitation for the rest of us: "Men and women alike, young and old together; let them praise the name of the Lord! God is great, and the Holy One has shown us the horn of his power." Nothing else needs to be said. No other reason is necessary.The heavens are summoned to sing the doxology and earth is invited to echo the tune.

I don't know if I can preach on such a song. All I can do is invite us to sing along.

But it’s difficult to do that if you can’t hear the music. Maybe you can to church today and there’s other noise drowning out that tune. As somebody observes, it is possible to sing God's praises too soon. Joyful songs can tempt us think all is right with the world . . . even when it isn't.  

Flip back a couple of psalms to 146, and there is mention of the oppressed, the hungry and blind, and those left out of the social well-being like the widows and the orphans. A happy song like 148 can direct our attention away from the real world of hurt, need, and injustice. If the only songs we sing are happy songs, it can anesthetize us to real pain, or create a community whose praise has been emptied of its passion. “The majesty of God has been cut off from the power of mercy.”[1]

I think this is a valid concern. A couple I know landed for a while in Texas. The only church they could find nearby was a huge church, a megachurch. The campus was a hundred acres with a theater-style worship center with comfortable seats. The people up front emphasized positive thinking, cheerful speech, and uncomplicated advise. The music was offered in major keys at victorious tempos, often accompanied by brass; if they didn’t actually have any trumpets that day, they would pipe them in.

The couple went there for a few months. They said it was entertaining. Every week there was some new spectacle often accompanied by a lot of hype. It was fun for a while, but after a while it got to taste like too much chocolate.

One of them said, “We realized it wasn’t real joy they were celebrating. It was something kind of plastic, something manufactured.” She added, “There wasn’t a lot of talk about God; God was simply the heavenly chaplain. Most of the talk was merely about ourselves: how big we are, how glorious we are, how awesome we are. It seemed pretty hollow.” So they stopped going. They stopped going anywhere.

Think about the soundtrack of our own lives, friends. What tunes play on your car radio? Do we surround ourselves only with the happy songs? And if we do, what are they drowning out?

So here is Psalm 148 – there is nothing manufactured about it. It is a call to praise, an invitation to joyful noise. But the music in the psalm is not our joyful noise, as if it’s our task to create it, crank it up, or pipe it in. The Psalmist says there is joyful music already around us.

He is motioning toward nature. We have a Creator that is so great that the sea roars with laughter, with us or without us. The waters break into applause. The thunderclaps smash the cymbals in a heavenly symphony. And if we were silent - what does Jesus say? – the stones would cry out.

It is an ancient insight with astonishing ecological overtones. Whenever anything really significant happens in the scriptures, the natural world takes part.

·      When Moses received the call to confront Pharoah, he saw a flaming bush that was not consumed.
·      When Israel was set free from slavery, the sea parted, and the people were led by a pillar of fire and a cloud of smoke.
·      When God gave the Torah as a holy gift, there was thunder and lightning, and the mountain shook.
·      At Jesus' birth, an unusual star appeared in the sky.
·      At Jesus' death, the sky turned black, and the rocks were split (Mt. 27:51).
·      On the day of resurrection, there was a great earthquake on the way to the tomb (Mt. 28:2). 
·      When God’s Spirit fell on the church at Pentecost, there was wind and fire.

All creation is praising God. No wonder the Psalmist points us toward the creatures who share this world with us. Like Lewis Thomas, the biologist. He said the music is everywhere. The termite beats its head against the floor of its nest to make a dark, percussive sound like a tympani drum. The drumming of feet is employed by prairie hens, rabbits, and mice. Gorillas bang their chests, toads sing to each other, dogs serenade their friends.

Yesterday I sat in my sermon writing chair, cracked open the window to enjoy a spring breeze, and listened to the woodpecker play a snare drum solo on one of my trees. I responded by doing the only thing I could think of: I put on a Mozart flute concerto and cranked it up loud.

Lewis Thomas, the biologist, says the world is an unfolding symphony. “If we had better hearing, and could discern the descants of sea birds, the rhythmic tympani of schools of mollusks, or ever the distant harmonics of midges hanging over meadows in the sun, the combined sound might lift us off our feet.”[2] If you are feeling sad, empty, or blue, get outside and take a walk. No need to manufacture any joyful noise. It’s already all around us.

Psalm 148 calls all of us, even the critics and the curmudgeons, to join in the joyful praise of God. The question is: Do we have anything to sing about?  Here it is, a month after Easter and our memories are slipping. The psalmist can speak about the beauty of creation, point us to the purple mountains, or invite us to hug a birch tree. But as beautiful as this world is, it's also a world full of fierce tornados, deadly floods, and mutating cancer cells. And the psalmist can speak about the greatness of God, exalted over heaven and earth. But a God like that seems a far distance from us. What would One so great have to do with people like us who are so small?

The best answer, and the deepest inspiration, is found in the moments when God's glory touches down on our greatest need. The poet of this Psalm celebrates how our exalted Creator draws near to the creation. There is healing, there is restoration, there is the long, slow march toward justice. In the Psalm this is called “the raising of a horn." That’s a Bible phrase for a display of power.

Israel and Church both have long memories when it comes to God’s power.with might. Just Thursday night, the Jews recited a 3000-year-old Passover creed: “When we were slaves in Egypt, God brought us out in freedom.” The memories continue: when we were homeless in Babylon, God brought us home. When we were broken by forces beyond our control, God sent Jesus Christ who was broken for us; and in the power of that love, all the broken pieces of creation shall be put back together until they break out in song.

So confident is the Church of those memories that we also look to the final end of all things. Every tear shall be wiped away, and death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more, and God himself will be with them. That comes from the book of Revelation, the concluding book of live which praises God on every single page.

As far as I can tell, that's the purpose of this good life: to praise God. The Westminster Catechism said we are here for a really big reason: "to glorify God and enjoy him forever." To this, Psalm 148 invites us to join in the song of heaven and earth. There is a joy beyond us which surpasses all the whims of human moodiness. There is gratitude to be embraced beyond all the grasping for human achievements. The purpose and destination of human life is captured in that simple phrase, "Praise the Lord."

So we need to encourage one another with these words, lift one another’s spirits, and point to those moments when the illusions are unmasked and we see the truth. I think of Harry S. Truman, the former president, who retired to Kansas City. According to his biographer, Mr. Truman went on a walk every morning. Most days, he even paused to speak to a beautiful tree that stood along their route. He stood and said to the tree, “You’re doing a good job.”

Now, you might say he was a doddering old fool who talked to trees. But Mr. Truman was a Baptist, shaped by the biblical notion of all nature praising God. "You're doing a good job."[3] (Journal for Preachers, Lent 1995, p. 19)

There is praise in the person who affirms that suffering and pain will never have the last word on human life. Years ago, before they cleaned up the subways in New York, I accidentally got on the wrong train. It was confusing and frightening, and then I saw a curious piece of graffiti. There, somewhere in the desolation of the Bronx, somebody had scratched out the words that I have taken to sum up the Gospel:

    You can punch my lips so I can't blow my horn,
    but my fingers will find a piano.
    You can slam the piano lid on my fingers,
    but you can't stop my toes from tapping like a drum.
    You can stomp on my foot to keep my toes from tapping,
     but my heart will keep swinging in four-four time.
    You can even stop my heart from ticking,
     but the music of the saints shall never cease.

Do you hear it? There is a song from God that rings out beyond all human circumstances.

This is what God intends for all creation. This is where the conclusion of the book of Psalms is been headed. This is where everything in God’s entire universe is headed.

      Praise the Lord, from the heavens and the earth.
      Praise the Lord, in the heights and in the deeps.
      Praise the Lord, whoever you are, wherever you find yourself.
      If you can’t sing today, let the whole creation sing for you.

That's what God intends for us, ready or not. If we're ready, we can start singing today. And if not, well, beware! For the music of God's praises grow nearer and greater. This is one hungry doxology. It won't be long until it swallows us up.

In fact, did you hear that? There it is again. Even the sea monsters are singing!

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

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Israel’s Praise: Doxology Against Idolatry and Ideology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1987) pp. 95-96.
[2] Lewis Thomas, “The Music of This Sphere” in The Lives of the Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (New York: Penguin Books, 1978)
[3] Journal for Preachers, Lent 1995,  p. 19.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Nagging Grace

Psalm 23
April 16, 2016
Easter 4
William G. Carter

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

After all my years, I have a half-dozen sermons on the 23rd Psalm. As I stand here today, I’m still thinking about which one to preach.

Number three isn’t so bad. The focus was on “green pastures and still waters.” Not a bad image for spring time in Pennsylvania! Beyond the fury of life, there is peace. Beneath the concrete and pavement, there is the good earth. We are renewed by nature, so we ought to get outdoors more.

Number five was pretty good. I cooked it up for a Maundy Thursday communion service. “You prepare a table in the presence of my enemies.” Imagine that: Jesus gathers his friends for a final Passover meal. Outside a storm is forming. He will be betrayed by someone at that table. He will be abandoned by everyone else at that table. He will be arrested, condemned, humiliated, and crucified by the world he loves – yet he prepares a Table right there… right here. Some of the people who heard that sermon said they would never hear the psalm again in quite the same way.

Sermon number two is perfectly adequate, but you probably have heard it. Especially if you came to the funeral of somebody that none of us knew very well. The professors told me to come up with a sermon like that and keep it ready at hand. “Through the valley of the shadow of death” is the theme of that sermon. It points out that the Psalm shifts perspective in the middle. It goes from talking about God (“the Lord is my shepherd”) to talking with God (“You are with me”).

How about sermon number four? That one discusses the generosity of God. Green pastures and an abundant table are evidence of the God who provides more than we ever expected. The oil of blessing anoints my head. My cup runneth over. Wait a second, Lord! That cup is so abundant that it is spilling all over the ground! We are not accustomed to the generosity. Usually we measure out goodness in teaspoons, but God says, “Take a sip from this fire hose!”

When you heard the text, perhaps you simply wanted to hear sermon number one. The focus is pretty obvious: the Lord is my shepherd. Never mind that a few of us have ever actually met a shepherd. The shepherd shows up a lot in the Bible. It’s an ancient word from the farm fields used to describe leadership. Kings of Israel are described as shepherds, both good and bad. “He leadeth me” is the line. Of course, some people didn’t want to hear about the rod, the staff of discipline, used to chase away the wolves and tap the hindquarters of wandering sheep. People squirm when they hear about God disciplining the flock. It seems to bump against the oil of blessing

Then there’s sermon number six: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” That sermon is pretty long, so I don’t preach it very often. People in the pews will give about 59 minutes a week. Some of our most ardent volunteers squirm if a committee meeting goes longer than two hours, even if the meeting had ten or fifteen minutes of interesting content. “Dwell in the Lord’s house forever”? Obviously that phrase is a metaphor, a comparison of the life of faith as dwelling in the house, as ongoing fellowship with God. It’s a good sermon, but it goes on a good long time.

I suppose I could preach any one of those six sermons. But here I am with all of you, and that makes it special. So how about a new sermon on the 23rd Psalm? I think you are worthy of that, so I have an idea of what that sermon ought to say.

You see, I visited the catacombs of my pastoral library this week. I lit the oil lamp and descended three floors to the quiet place of study. Surrounded by ancient manuscripts and learned tomes, I hunkered over the familiar words until I found something new. And suddenly, there it was, in the sixth verse: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” It is the Hebrew verb “radaph,” which is translated “follow.”

It turns out that “follow” is a lazy translation. It is much too passive. The better translation is the verb “pursue.” God’s goodness shall pursue us. God’s mercy shall chase after us. And so, sermon number seven is off and running.

A lot of people cannot imagine aggressive grace. Why, the very idea that goodness is not only present, but always   pursuing us – that is a most unusual expression.

Goodness and mercy chase after us. “Chase” is a word that carries overtones of danger. A movie with chase scenes will raise the adrenaline level. The bad guys chase after the good guys. As in the book of Exodus, “The Egyptians chased after the Israelites, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and his horsemen and his army.” (Exodus 14:9)  Normally a chase is not a good thing.

Last Sunday night, I sat down to watch the National Geographic channel. A group of forty baboons were chasing after a cheetah in the fields of Africa. Who knew that baboons are meat eaters or that they can run after a cheetah and sometimes catch it?

But then to hear that “mercy pursues us.” Grace chases us. When have we known that?

When my sister and I were small, sometimes we would get into a fight. I don’t know why; I was older and superior in every way. But you know how little sisters can be. Something would happen, the fur would fly. Our mother would step in to intervene. Not only did she break up the fight, but she created the reconciliation. She was absolutely forceful about it.

Here is what she would do. She would put out two chairs and make them face one another. One of us was put in the one chair, the other in the other chair. “Now, the two of you sit there and stare at one another. You are not allowed to smile. You are not allowed to laugh. You have to sit there and glare at one another until I tell you to stop.” How long did that last? About ninety seconds. Her smile would crack my frown. My giggle would prompt her chortle. A voice would say, “Don’t you laugh! I told you not to laugh.” Well, that would do it, and the laughter of love released us from our chairs.

I have long since thought that would also be one way to force grownups to get along. Demand mercy! Insist on forgiveness. Say it, in the voice of Jesus, “You must forgive!” (17:4) If you don’t show goodness and mercy, as God’s goodness and mercy have pursued us, what’s the point of being a human being?

This is the way to live the Christian life. A nearby Psalm lays it right out: “Depart from evil and do good. Seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalm 34:14)  There’s that same verb -- pursue.
John Calvin and his followers gave this a lot of thought. Not only did they affirm that God will ultimately rule over all things, they believed that the grace of God was so generous that it is going to win us over. The adjective they used was “irresistible.” They taught of God’s “irresistible grace,” declaring when God decides to save you, God is going to get t done. No use trying to fight the love of God. Resistance is futile. God is going to win.

How many Bible stories can you remember of people that Jesus chose to heal or save? Some of them didn’t even ask him to do – he simply did it, with the generosity of God. That paralytic man lowered through the roof by his friends? He never says anything; his friends drop him at the feet of Jesus. Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven,” and he didn’t even ask for that. Then Jesus says, “Get up and walk,” and the man can now do it.

Or the man by the miracle pool in the fifth chapter of John? He was lying there for thirty-eight years, unable to get in whenever the angel stirred the waters. Jesus approaches to ask, “Do you want to be healed?” The poor man whines, “I don’t have anybody to put me in the water.” Jesus says, “Get up, take up your bed.” He’s healed and he didn’t ask for that.

Or the man born blind, in the Gospel of John. He never asked to receive his sight, but Jesus gives it to him anyway. That is when the man’s troubles begin. The authorities interrogate him, his parents refuse to defend him, the man is thrown out of his congregation because Jesus healed him… and then Jesus chases after him, and finds him at the end. That’s nagging grace.

Francis Thompson, an English poet, wrote a poem called “The Hound of Heaven,” somewhere around 1893. It became quite famous, describing Jesus as a fierce hound who pursued a man until he got him. “I fled Him, down the arches and down the days,” says the poet. “I fled Him, down the arches of the years. I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways / Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears, I hid from Him…” For some people, that is their experience of God.

But I think this favorite Psalm offers a gentler perspective, no less persistent, but always benevolent. Like the woman who in three kittens. She found them at the shelter, three kittens from the same litter. They were a trinity of meows. She named them Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy, because everywhere she went, there they were. They were always nipping at her heels. She couldn’t get away from them.

The promise here: that no matter how difficult life is, God is gaining on you. God is going to win you over. How about that? The nagging grace, the aggressive mercy of God. 

Anne Lamott tells the story of her Christian conversion. She was making her way as a writer, but her life was much a chaotic mess. She had fallen into alcohol abuse, drug abuse, waking up in the wrong beds. She couldn’t straighten herself out.  Small advances could be made, yet it wasn't going well. Sometimes she went to a Sunday morning flea market in her town, and she would hear gospel music coming from a church right across the street. 

St. Andrew Presbyterian looked like a ramshackle building with a cross on top. She called it homely and impoverished, but the music wafting out of it was so pretty that she would stop and listen. In time, it was so compelling that she would wander over to stand in the doorway and listen to the songs. But when the sermon would start, and the preacher spoke about Jesus, it was enough to send her running back to the eh flea market.

But something kept pulling her back. She didn't want to be preached to about Jesus, but she realized she enjoyed singing about him. And the church smelled like it had nourishment in it. She stood in the door frame, often in the blur of a hangover or a cocaine binge, and find herself singing along. Then she had to leave before the sermon.

Life took a terrible turn. Her problems increased, and one night as she is sobbing in the shadows, she was aware that someone was with her, hunkered down in the corner. She knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. That appalled her. What would her brilliant hilarious progressive friends think? What would they think if she ever became a Christian? She said out loud, "I would rather die." And she felt him sitting there, watching her with patience and love.

She fell asleep. In the morning he was gone.

The experience spooked her. She shrugged it off. But everywhere she went, it felt like a little cat was following her, wanting her to reach down and pick it up, wanting her to open the door and let it in. But she knew what would happen. You let a sat in one time, give it a little milk, and then It stays forever. No way.

So a week later, she goes back to church. She was too hungover to stand for the songs. This time she stayed for the sermon, but it did nothing for her. Then the singing started, and it was so deep and raw and pure that she couldn't escape. They were singing between the notes, she said. It was like she was rocked in its bosom, held like a scared child, and it washed over her.

She started to cry, so she got up and got out of there. As she escaped toward home, it was like that little cat was running along at her heels. She got to her door, stooped there for a minute, hung her head and said, "I quit." She took a long breath, and then she said out loud, "All right. You can come in." That was the moment of her conversion.[1]

Goodness followed. Mercy nipped at her heels. Do you know what that's like? It means that God loves each one of us so much that God is going to chase after us with goodness and mercy until we are found, forgiven, welcomed, and won over.

That's what it means to have the Lord as your shepherd. 

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

[1] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999) 48-50.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Mourning Into Morning

Psalm 30
Easter 3
April 10, 2016
William G. Carter

I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up, 
and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.
Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, 
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, 
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.
As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.”
By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain;
you hid your face; I was dismayed.
To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication:
“What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!”
You have turned my mourning into dancing; 
you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

Her living room was filled with shadows. The shades were pulled, the curtains were drawn, and no light had entered the room, even though the sun was shining outdoors. There was a solitary lamp on the table with the dim glow of a forty watt bulb. It’s the only light in a room filled with shadows. She looked at me and said, “When will I feel better?”

Can you imagine who she is? I haven’t told you anything else about her. Is she bearing a long illness, perhaps recovering from surgery? Perhaps that is why there is little light in the room.

Is she a widow, surrounded by empty tissue boxes, still in the numbness of grief? Maybe it is five months after the funeral and everybody else has gone back to their normal lives, and life for her will never be normal again.

Or is she someone who carries a burden that nobody ever sees. The son who moved away at seventeen is now in jail, the daughter has fallen again into thirty days of rehab, her best friend betrayed her in broad daylight, or she did something that embarrassed her which now is making headline news. It is hard for her to leave the shadows. She wants to know, “When will I feel better?”

The sermon today is for her, because the Psalm is for her. Psalm 30 is filled with joy, but as we get into it, we learn it is hard-earned joy. This ancient poem knows about the reality of trouble, and it doesn’t settle on what kind of trouble it is.

There are foes, some unnamed enemies. We don’t know who they are. There is a cry for help and a declaration of physical healing, leading the editor of our English Bible to add the line, “Recovery from a Grave Illness.” The poet says, “I was on the verge of death,” sharing some worry about falling into The Pit, a euphemism for “Sheol,” the resting place of the dead. There is also mention of “sackcloth,” the ancient garb of those who were contending with humiliation or grief.

So what’s going on here? The same thing that happens in a lot of the Psalms. The specific details have been sanded away. We have a poem that rings true for anybody who knows how it feels to be in trouble. And woven within each line is hope that someday we will feel better.

I remember the day in 1998 when my divorce announcement was published in the Scranton Times. I knew the day was coming. It has legally been in progress for a year and a half, and emotionally in progress for a lot longer than that. Even though there was time to get ready for it, seeing the single line in the legal notices was deeply embarrassing, a public announcement of my private failure. The irony was that I was starting to emerge from a long cocoon, feeling better than I had in years – and there it was, in black and white: an invitation to put on a sweater made from sackcloth. 

A lot of us know what it’s like to fall into the Pit. The Psalmist doesn’t need to explain that to anybody. A text like this is a good reminder for all of us that, on any given Sunday morning, we don’t know the full story of those sitting around us. They might have climbed out of wreckage to get here this morning. Thank God that they are here!

Psalm 30 testifies that life is eventually restored, that souls can be lifted up, that healing is possible and enemies will not finally rejoice. It will take a while for anybody to complete that emotional journey, but we do make our way through. And the Psalmist says this is the work of God. It is God who heals, God who lifts. Mourning (with a “u”) will lead to morning, the dawn of a new day.

When trouble draws close, it is hard to believe that. For the writer of the psalm, it felt like God was angry. Why else would we feel like we do? The questions come, as they always do. Am I being punished? If so, what did I do that was so wrong? Is this the kind of God we have, a God who inflicts pain on us? Wouldn’t it be better for God to send a lightning bolt and finish this off?

The feelings are real, and they are raw. I thought that I belonged to God; I believed God established me like a strong mountain . . . and now, I don’t even know where God is. It’s like a game of Holy Hide-and-Seek, and God is nowhere in sight.

But at that point, the poet gives us a lesson in good Jewish prayer. It’s in verses 8, 9, and 10. “You know, God, you won’t get any benefit if I go down to the Pit. If I go back to the dust, that dust isn’t going to praise you. The dirt won’t be able to tell of your reliability.”

Do you hear what he’s saying? He’s lifting a line from Father Abraham, “Will you wipe out a sinful city if you can find fifty good people there? Ok, well, how about forty? All right, then, thirty…twenty, or ten?” (Genesis 18) Come on, Lord, you can’t wipe out the few good people you would find, if only you took a closer look. Hey, that is a daring prayer.

Or there’s that good Jewish prayer from Moses. God sees the Israelites made a golden calf to worship, and God is so angry there is fire snorting out of the divine nostrils. God’s going to wipe them out. But Moses said, “Now, wait a second, Lord. You are the Lord who brought your own people out of slavery in Egypt. If you wipe them out, what are the Egyptians going to say? ‘Their own God stole our labor force, only to wipe them out in the mountains.’ You can’t do that, God. You have a reputation to maintain.”

I think this might be a pretty good way to pray. It’s like saying, “God, you went to the trouble to get me baptized, and tell everybody that I belong to you. Do you really think it’s a good idea to heap a lot of trouble on me and leave me in despair? Come on, Lord, think of your reputation! We call you Savior, and right now, we need a little saving, thank you very much.” Did you ever realize we can pray like that? That’s one of the ways the scripture teaches us to pray.

There’s no reason to remain stuck in the shadow when we have a God who separated the light from the darkness. There is no reason to be insulated or isolated when we really need God to help. And for those of us who have been carried through the desert on grace, we should tell the stories of how we came through to the other side. As somebody once said, “Church ought to be more like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It can be a place where we talk honestly about our struggles, hear stories of how others have gotten through them, and pursue the grace, healing, and courage to begin our lives all over again. If church is not going to be like that, you have to wonder what the big deal is about it.”[1]

The second beatitude of Jesus goes like this: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4). That sounds like his commentary on Psalm 30. He doesn’t say how it is going to happen, nor does he say how long it’s going to take.

Sometimes grief feels like you are standing in the deep end of the swimming pool. You look up through the murky water and see people up there laughing, talking, and moving around. You can see that, but not very clearly. Life has slowed down. But the promise of our text is when the time is right, when our souls have been tended, we will feel better, and life will improve.

Maybe it’s like the old woman, Miz Lil, that Walter Wangerin had in his congregation in Evansville, Indiana. He stopped by to see her sometime after her husband Douglas died, and she gave him a lesson in how mourning turns into morning.

Miz Lil was rubbing her stomach. “That’s where my grief is,” she said. “It’s a heavy stone in my stomach and it will not pass. I bear it every day because I lost my Douglas. You pray it to go away but it doesn’t go. You ask Jesus to remove it and he doesn’t take it away. And in time, you realize this is the way it is. In time, the sorrow that was your enemy becomes your friend. You realize we grieve because we love.”

She paused for a minute as her pastor began to weep. Then she said, “Douglas is not far from me, nor me from Douglas.[2] She told the story. That was her ministry in that moment. How does the Psalmist say it? “So that my soul may praise you and not be silent.”

The Psalmist says, “I cried to you for help and you have healed me.” The poet who writes those words is testifying to the saving love of God. He or she doesn’t say how long it took or how it happened, only that it’s true. For those of us who still wait in the shadows, here is the promise of our own personal Easter. It is true, and it is ahead of us. Some of us know that to be true, some of us are anticipating what God promises to do. And we certainly don’t want God to waste all the time and effort that God has already invested in us!

In December 1988, the world almost lost Dave Brubeck. Yes, that Dave Brubeck. He was having a serious of heart episodes and under the care of a cardiologist named Lawrence Cohen. Dave kept putting off bypass surgery because of his concert schedule, but his grueling schedule wasn’t doing him any favors. Finally Dr. Cohen ordered him to Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut.

When you have a world-famous patient, the cardiologist can get nervous. So Dr. Cohen pulled on his coat the night before his surgery, got in the car, and went to Brubeck’s hospital room. It’s 10:30 at night, and he walks in to discover his patient with music manuscript paper scattered all over his bed. He’s writing a piece of music because he couldn’t sleep.  

Dr. Cohen said, “What are you doing, writing a piece of music? It’s the night before your bypass surgery!” Dave looked up and said, “You’re a Jew; it’s one of your psalms. ‘What can you do, I Lord? Can the dust praise Thee if you put me down in the pit? And joy will come in the morning.’” Psalm 30.

The next day, the surgery went well. Months later, Dave took Dr. Cohen to the premiere of the piece, a big choral piece called “Joy Comes in the Morning” that he had dedicated to his cardiologist. They were sitting in the box and at one point in the performance, Brubeck was smirking. Suddenly Dr. Cohen realized why – Dave had created the bass line of the piece from a transcription of his own irregular heart beat. Right in the middle of the performance, both of them laughed out loud.[3]

Laughter is possible – do you believe that? Joy can come – can you believe it? Yes. Our God is an Easter God. God will lift our souls from Sheol and turn our mourning into a fresh new day.

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

[1] Paraphrased from Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary (New York: Harper and Row, 1988) 4-5.
[2] Walter Wangerin Jr., Miz Lil and the Chronicles of Grace (New York: Harper and Row, 1988) 31-33.
[3] From a personal conversation, October 2000. Also reported to Hedrick Smith,

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Blessed Are Those Who Arrive Late

John 20:19-31
Easter 2 / Holy Humor
April 3, 2016
William G. Carter

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

God bless Aunt Alice! She was the second child of nine, my father’s older sister. She was a wonderful woman in every way, mother of five, stepmother of two. Aunt Alice always had a quick smile and a kind word. When she walked into the room, she lit the place up. Everybody liked her. She was a lot of fun.

Just one thing about her: she was always late.

We would drive six hours to go to a family reunion. Even though Dad knew the territory like the back of his hand, we would leave plenty of time to find the right pavilion at the county park. Uncle Russ and Cousin Steve would each have one foot up on the picnic bench, as they picked out “Winchester Cathedral” on their guitars. Cousin Jeff would be tossing a baseball with Cousin Duane. Cousins Darla and Trudy would be talking to my sister. The food was ready, it’s time to eat. Where’s Aunt Alice? She’s not here yet.

Her eight brothers and sisters all knew better. So did the in-laws. When Aunt Alice’s kids were old enough to drive, they arrived at the reunion long before her. “Just can’t get Mom moving in time to get here,” said Cousin Bob. His brother, Cousin Bill, said, “Yeah, we tell her to put in gear, and her only gear is reverse.”

About the time we turned our attention to dessert, here came Aunt Alice, carrying a large plate of Jello with strawberries in it. “That’s a good thing about Jello,” she said with a broad smile and a Venango County twang, “you can have it as a side dish or eat it as dessert.” She was a wonderful woman, but she was always late.

Now, to her credit, she didn’t make any excuses. She could have done that. A lot of people do. Why were you late?

·         My hamster died. I had to plan for his funeral.
·         I had to go audition for American Idol.
·         My watch was set to Tokyo time.
·         I was waiting for my deodorant to dry.
·         I was watching the Final Four and it went into overtime. Go Syracuse!
·         I had to wait for the Fed-Ex guy, who was bringing my Richard Simmons Sweatin' to the Oldies DVD.

No, Aunt Alice never gave an excuse. She would say, “What did I miss?” Well, you missed Uncle Bob’s story about shooting four groundhogs with a single shot. “Oh, he already told me about that.”

You missed Aunt Joyce’s three bean salad with horseradish, jalapenos, and sweet pickles. “Oh,” she said, “did you leave any of me?” No, it’s all gone.

“What else did I miss?” You missed Aunt Twila. She was playing the accordion by ear. “Well, how was that?” We said, “A little imprecise. It would have been better if she played with her fingers.”

“Well,” she said, “I’m sure glad I got here in time to see all of you.” Well, we were glad, too. At least those of us who hadn’t already left.

Do have an Aunt Alice in your family? What is it about people who show up late? Maybe they have a lot to do; you know, everybody has a to-do list. I’ve noticed some people don’t take the items in sequence. They get to them as they see them. You’re on the way home and she says, “Wait, I wanted to stop here.” You didn’t know anything about it.

For some people, they are late not because there is a lot to do, but because time moves so quickly. Maybe not for you, as you listen to a sermon, but certainly for Doctor Seuss, who said:

            How did it get so late so soon? 
            It’s night before it’s afternoon.
            December is here before it’s June. 
            My goodness how the time has flewn!
            How did it get so late so soon?

I’m pretty much a stickler for starting things on time. The choir will tell you that. Kay knows we want the call to worship to begin precisely at 10:00. Those who give a ten-minute minute-for-mission know that we have talked about installing a trap door in the pulpit that goes directly to the furnace – and we will give the button to Chuck Woolever.

I can say all these things, but the truth is, thirteen years ago, on the day of my wedding, it was time to start and my bride was nowhere to be seen. Turns out she was hiding in the back stairwell, just to yank my chain. She did it to declare once and for all that I wasn’t in charge. As she later stated, “Nothing was going to start until I got there.” She was right.

But I have to wonder where Doubting Thomas was on Easter Evening. Why wasn’t he with the other disciples? Did he run out to the store at the last minute to get something? The Gospel of John doesn’t say. John does say the door was locked because the disciples were afraid; perhaps Thomas had gotten himself locked out. How comical, then, that Jesus shows up anyway – locked doors never kept out the Risen Savior. Jesus is there, Thomas is not. We have every reason to think he was late.

He would be a week late, as it turned out. In the meantime, he had missed the moment when Easter became real. He didn’t hear Jesus bless them with peace.  He didn’t hear Jesus commission them to continue his ministry of forgiveness. He didn’t feel the breath of Jesus, who breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

No, Thomas missed all that. And he refused to believe it. Hear what he said? “Unless I put my finger in the nail holes in his hands . . .” Now, that’s disgusting. What is this, a bad joke?

I think Thomas would have done far better to offer an excuse for being late. I can think of a few excuses:

  • My heat was shut off, so I had to stay home to keep my rattlesnake warm.
  • I had to let out the dog and water my Chia pet.
  • I stopped at Rite Aid to check my blood pressure and my arm got stuck in the machine.
  • I heard a fire truck, so I went home to make sure my house wasn’t on fire.
  • I would have been here on time, but when I was putting in my contacts, I reached for the wrong bottle and  accidently super-glued my eye.
  • I was abducted by aliens. They were debating about sucking out my brains, but they couldn’t find any so they turned me loose.
Thomas doesn’t even have an excuse. Neither does he take responsibility for being late. Maybe he should have done that. Perhaps he could have said, “If the Lord wanted me to be here, he should have told me what time to show up.” But no. And he doesn’t make it any better when he insists, “Unless I stick my finger in the nail holes . . .” What a goof!

Now, I know this is the Bible, but I think Jesus rubs Thomas’ nose in it when he suddenly appears again, and says, “You want to see those nail holes?” I mean, Jesus is not only risen; he had been listening in on that previous conversation between Thomas and the others. He can come and go, he can listen and stay invisible.

Thomas sputters, because he’s been smoked out. “Stop doubting,” Jesus says to him. “Just stop it.” Thomas sputters again, and then he says, “Oh My God.” And that is the Really Big Creed in the Gospel of John.

But here’s the really important thing: Jesus turns from Thomas toward all of us. We weren’t there, either. In fact, I check the clock and you and I are running late, about two thousand years late. From Thomas to all of us, Jesus offers his final beatitude, his final blessing: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

That’s all he says. He doesn’t judge Thomas for showing up late, because faith comes to every person only when the time is right. For a lot of us, it’s a tangle path of doubt and drama, clarity and confusion. Physical proof would be nice (that’s what Thomas wants), but for us, it is not longer possible.

If you go to Jerusalem today, one of the crazy things you will discover as a tourist is that the Christian church can’t even agree on the location of the empty tomb. It could be over here, it could be over there. Nobody knows, because he’s not in it. Sooner or later, we simply have to trust that Easter happened, that Christ is risen, and that, in his good humor, he is listening in on this conversation, too.

God bless Aunt Alice. She taught me a deeply spiritual lesson. There is no judgment on what time we show up or the route we took to get there. Blessed are those who arrive late, because at least they arrive. I suppose there are all kinds of reasons for being late:

·         The line was too long at Starbucks so I couldn’t get to coffee hour.
·         I was losing my mind, and it took me a half hour to find it.
·         The usher wouldn’t leave me alone until I put more in the offering plate.
·         I dropped my glass eye down the drain and couldn’t see what time it was.
·         I was listening to the sermon and overslept.

Any of those might be valid reasons for being late. But the blessing comes when we arrive. The good humor this day is a sign of the grace of God, the eternal God who can wait out any one of us until we get to the place where we trust and believe. However this happens, whenever faith forms in us, it always occurs at the right time, because that’s the moment when the heart says “yes.”

(c) William Carter. All  rights reserved.