Saturday, July 23, 2016

Better Than a Scorpion

Luke 11:1-13
July 24, 2016
William G. Carter

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray."

To be a disciple is to be a student. So it’s good to hear that the twelve disciples of Jesus were still teachable. They see Jesus praying, wait for him to say Amen, and then say, “Lord, teach us to do that. Teach us to pray!”

It’s a striking request, for a couple of reasons. According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was always praying. On the day of his baptism, he was praying when the heavens opened and the dove came down (3:21). It was his custom to slip away from the crowds to pray (5:16). The night before he selected the first twelve disciples, he went up on a mountain and spent all night praying (6:12).

Another time, in the middle of a prayer, he looked up at the twelve and asked, “Who do people say that I am?” And then he told them how he would suffer, die, and be raised (9:13). Shortly after that, he took three of them up a high mountain where his appearance changed – his clothes were dazzling white, his face was transfigured – and it happened, says Luke, while Jesus was praying (9:29).

His was a vital prayer life. Jesus was always praying – and the twelve said, “Teach us to pray.” They wanted something of what he had. They knew he could teach them.

But it’s a striking request, because every one of them was a Jew. They had a book of prayers called the Psalms. They committed these prayers to memory. With the prayers inscribed in their liturgies, the Jewish disciples had prayers for every occasion: when you rise to begin your day, when you lie down to hand over the night to God. If you need help with an enemy, the Psalms offered the prayers. If you wished to thank God for safe passage through the mountains, or an abundant harvest, or the success of a child birth, the Jews already had the prayers. They knew the life of faith is filled with prayers, prayers for every possible occasion.

But these twelve were looking for something even deeper. “Teach us,” they said to the Master. “Teach us to pray.”

So he gave them the words. “Father…Abba, Daddy…” He addresses God with affection. “Hallowed be your name.” Hallowed is Holy, apart from us, guarded and distinct. God can be addressed with affection, but God stands apart from you, holy and completely Other.

“Your kingdom come . . .” This is the heart of the prayer, a request that the God who rules over the solar systems and the barn swallows would also come to rule over the situations that we know: the broken bones, the wounded hearts, the fierce injustices. We want the God who rules over everything to rule over us.

Then it gets specific: “Give us each day the bread we need for today.” That is a request as old as the story of manna in the wilderness.[1] (Exodus 16). God sends food from heaven for the Israelites as they wander in the wilderness. It comes every day, twice on the day before the Sabbath. But it cannot be hoarded or else it rots. It is only bread for today. We need it. We don’t have it. We ask God for it.

“And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” Luke takes the edge off of Matthew’s version of the prayer. In Matthew, the forgiveness we request sounds conditional on our ability to forgive. Recall: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” But in Luke, Jesus assumes that we are already forgiving others, in the name of a God we wish to forgive us.

“And do not bring us to the time of trial.” That sounds ominous, as if the Father to whom we pray is the One who can also test us. It’s like that story in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. After Jesus is baptized, the Spirit of God hurls him into the wild places to be tested by the Devil. God sends him to confront evil on its own turf. That is going to be a decisive test! Do you want God to test you? Jesus says, “Pray that you are delivered from this.”

Here is how to pray, says Jesus. With simple words, with direct speech, focusing on the life and death issues before us every day, always praying for God to come and rule over us and our lives.

Yet the instruction is not complete. It’s not enough to merely write down the words, to recite them every day, and to mumble them when prayer becomes a habit. Jesus goes on to say some more.

Suppose you find yourself in need of daily bread, he says. A friend has come to stay with you, and both of you need the food. Now, suppose you went to a neighbor, knocked on the door, and said, “Can I get borrow some food for my guest and my family?” The neighbor is not going to turn you down. He’s a Middle Easterner. Generous hospitality is the name of the game. He’s not going to yell, “Go away, I’ve already gone to bed for the night” – especially if you persist in asking.

With this, Jesus leans over the pulpit to wink and say, “And how much more generous is God than your sleepy hospitable neighbor?”

He is still talking about prayer. Prayer is something more than saying the words. We have to stay at it, we have to persist. We have to make it real. Prayer is asking for bread, not cake. It is staying at matters of great urgency, not flaying at thin superficialities. It is swimming from the shallow end of our need to the depths of God’s great mystery. To a great extent, when we pray, we are always in over our heads.

Even the apostle Paul - schooled as a rabbi, trained in scripture, well experienced in the grace of God – could exclaim in one of his letters, “We don’t know how to pray as we ought” (Romans 8:26).  He’s clear about that. We don’t know how to do it perfectly. We ask for small needs to be met by a God who directs the comets and plants the giant sequoia trees. We ask for justice when we are busy perpetuating injustice.

Sometimes life is so confusing. At the peak of the Civil War, with North against South, gray against blue, brother against brother, President Lincoln stood to say, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other… The prayers of both could not be answered, that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”[2] Or as the prophet Isaiah speaks truth, “God’s ways are not our ways.”

We don’t know how to pray perfectly, because we often make it all about us.  “Lord, give me this. Lord, give me that.” Prayer is not about getting what we want – it is about opening ourselves to what God wishes to give us. God desires to rule over us: thy kingdom come! God creates us to live in peace: forgive us our sins, including the sin of being incapable of forgiving others, much less ourselves. God calls us to live holy lives: Lead us not to the test, Lord.

We pray for God to provide what God has already desired to provide. Prayer is so much more than reciting a little formula or asking for magic. It is participating in the holy life of God, staying with the divine joy that carries us even when life looks bleak and the road ahead is foggy. Prayer is daring to go into the deep end, where the mysterious waters of grace are way over your head, and trusting that whatever happens, you are met – you are loved – and there will be daily bread upon your table. Not because you put it there, but because God is behind it, giving it to all who ask.

“Teach us to pray.” To learn about prayer is to learn all over again about God.  God is generous, providing everything that the world needs to flourish. God is creative, planting dandelions in the cracks of concrete, giving life where no one expects to find.

And God is inclined to love us. “What father,” asks Jesus, “will give a snake to the son who asks for a fish? Or a scorpion to the daughter who asks for an omelet?” No father would do that, no mother could do that. Not if the parent loves the child.

Now we are getting to the heart of it. To pray is to participate in a relationship. It is entering and re-entering the dominion of God’s Love that lies at the center of all things. It is drawing near a Table we did not set, to appreciate a sacrifice that we did not make, to receive a mercy that we did not imagine, to welcome the Breath that filled the lungs of Christ into our lungs, into our bloodstream, into our very lives. Prayer is communion with God, the verbal sacrament before all other sacraments. We ask God to fill our silences and inhabit our words, until God’s desires for us are greater than our own desires for ourselves.

Want to learn how to pray? Do you really want to learn? Stay at it. Ask, knock, keep asking and knocking. Search for God until God finds you. Be willing for God to change you. Know in advance that, as you pray, God’s Spirit will work in you. This is the essence of the relationship.

So here is a parable from the early Christians who went to the desert. There were two leaders, Lot and Joseph. Both were honored as spiritual leaders, and given the name “Abba” – Abba Lot and Abba Joseph.

Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do?

The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not become fire?[3]

Now that is where prayer promises to take us: to fill us afresh with the Spirit of God.

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

[1] See Exodus 16:1-31.
[2] Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address.
[3] Told in many accounts.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

It's Not That Simple

Luke 10:38-42
July 17, 2016
William G. Carter

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

It is a bit of surprise to come across this story when we do. Jesus has just told the great story of The Good Samaritan, with all the energy it took to tell it, and all of the feedback he undoubtedly received for telling it. Immediately Luke tells us about a squabble between two sisters, one of them diligently preparing a meal for Jesus while the other skips the hard work, sits and listens to him.

The story starts here, a domestic squabble between two siblings. If you are not an only child, you know something about this. My dad would lace up his work boots on a Saturday morning and call out, “I need some help out in the yard.” My sister and I reacted in different ways. She would lace up her junior work boots, run outside, and say, “Here I am, what can I do?”

As for me, I was a bit more reflective. I would contemplate the philosophy of doing manual labor. Usually I was sitting down somewhere in the bathroom, with the door locked, as I read through the biography of a famous person like George Washington. I spent a lot of time pondering if famous people ever did yard work. In time, someone would pound at the door and declare in a piercing cry, “You need to come outside and help me and Dad.” I would ignore her, I was busy. She would pound again. Then she would take her dispute to a higher authority.

Isn’t that what’s happening here?

So I feel vindicated when I hear Jesus soothe the hard-working sister, “”Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; Mary has chosen the better part.” It’s not an exact parallel, but it works for me. And it’s a surprise that Luke would tell a story like this, a story of two siblings, one of them annoyed at the other.

Of course, there is that other story he tells, “Once upon a time, there was a man with two sons.” The Good Son stayed home and worked hard in his father's fields, while the other son ran off and squandered his share of the family fortune. In that story, we are invited to sympathize with the Good Son, who watches his wayward brother stumble back to a “Welcome Home” banquet while he had worked hard and done nothing wrong.

Today we have a story of Two Sisters. One is in the kitchen and the other is not. Martha is the diligent one and she is perturbed. She’s working hard and she doesn’t have any help. So she says, "Lord, tell my sister to come and help me." I bet she is cooking up one enormous meal while Mary's just sitting there. Can you blame Martha for being annoyed?

And then we have Mary, who sits at the feet of Jesus. She listens to his voice, sets her agenda aside, receives his instruction, and presumably ponders these things in her heart. This is the Gospel of Luke, after all, and Jesus is always on center stage. He is the one we are to be listening for, and listening to. If Jesus came to your house, wouldn’t you want to sit at his feet?

Now, you know the usual way that this story is used. It’s held up as a mirror, and the question is asked: “Which one are you?”  Are you hard-working Martha, focused on the tasks at hand, doing the necessary preparations behind the scenes, watching the clock, tending to all the necessary details? Or are you devoted Mary, gazing into the face of Christ, free from worry, focused on the deep significance of the moment, and not bogged down with the unnecessary details? Some are drawn to Martha, others attracted to Mary. That’s often how the issue is posed.

But it’s not that simple. The Marthas who love details need their Jesus-time too and they intend to get it, but first the potatoes must be peeled and the meat has to be cooked. The Marys can’t merely float on air, either; there are necessary life tasks that simply must get done.

Parker Palmer, a good Quaker, says you can’t divide life into action and contemplation. For us to be fully alive, we have to hold both together. There’s always work to be done and there is also necessary reflection to find wisdom and meaning in what we do. Palmer says one can’t exist without the other. As he puts it,

When we fail to hold the paradox together, when we abandon the creative tension between the two, then both ends fly apart into madness. That is what often happens to contemplation-and-action in our culture of either/or. Action flies off into frenzy – a frantic and even violent effort to impose one’s will on the world, or at least to survive against the odds. Contemplation flies off into escapism – a flight from the world into a realm of false bliss.[1]

So we need both, doing and being, working and being still. The necessary skill is to hold them together. That’s easier said than done.

The cheaper way is what many people do, to work hard and then go on vacation, to alternate between labor and rest, to put in your time at the office and keep your weekends free. But what I notice is that a lot of people don’t know how to keep their weekends free. Every free moment is jammed full by people who are gasping for air. All Martha, no Mary – and the healthy person is both.

When my daughters were small, they would run around and be busy. When they ran out of things to do, they would come in and declare, “We’re bored.” I learned to respond, “That’s good. It’s good to be bored, because it means that you’re not busy. Pure busyness is evil.” They would look at me strangely. I’m sure they told their friends that they had a really weird father and I’m OK with that.

After they grumped around for a while, declaring how bored they were, I would pour them some lemonade, and say, “Come here and sit under the tree for a bit.” Then I’d give them Speech # 73. It goes like this:

“You can’t sustain an active life without also developing an interior life. Read a book, learn some poetry, walk in the woods, write in a journal, do some art, listen to a big piece of music, sit by a crackling bonfire and think about your day, or best of all: immerse yourself in some silence. Let these things deepen you. Put some pauses in every day. Don’t just do something – stand there.”

That’s Speech # 73. Do you know why I’ve memorized it? So I can recite it to myself.

This is hard work to be like Mary and Martha at the same time, to get the work done and to be still, to stay contemplative while active, active while contemplative. It’s difficult because we live in such a distracted age. People are playing thumbs with their smart phones, always have to be connected, always have to have the TV on, always on the computer, and always have to bounce from one activity to another, always have to keep the calendar crammed full.

So I think what Jesus is saying is a situational corrective. Martha storms out of the kitchen with her dirty apron, demanding that Mary get off her tail and help out. He makes it a teaching moment. He turns to her, and with the gentlest voice possible, he declares to the Marthas in our midst is that there is a time for hard work, but there is never a good time to be distracted by many things, never a good time to be anxious.

Jesus knew how to work hard – he healed one person after another, spoke to enormous crowds, never had a minute’s rest from his own disciples, was always “on” when people were around. And yet, he could say, “Which one of you, by being anxious, could add an inch to the quality of your life? Look at the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap, but your heavenly Father feeds them. Look at the lilies of the field. The most opulent king in Israel’s history was not dressed as gorgeously as them.”

So Martha, if you’re burning the candle at all three ends, here’s a good time to look at the birds and admire the lilies. That pause, that sacred pause, is the essence of Sabbath. It is God’s gift of time for the restoring of our souls, an invitation to rest in the Lord and to let God run the world for a while. You could take that time today, but you have to do it. You could take that time every day. It’s not always simple, but it really comes down to that.

My friend Debbie is an executive administrator in Alabama. She’s the lady with the clipboard, always on top of the details. She schedules meetings, oversees the payroll, watches the budget, deals with the contractors. You get the idea. I have never known someone so well organized, so capable in so many ways.

She was invited to join the staff of a church training conference, to be led by Presbyterians and Episcopalians. This involved a week of training in Memphis, and each day began with worship. Sometimes the Presbyterian ministers led it, other times the Episcopalian priests.

At the end of the week, she said the final worship service promised to be very long. There were lots of readings, standing and sitting, more standing and sitting, some genuflecting – and then a gentleman stood to share the sermon. He was well up in years, long into retirement. He looked a little disheveled, like an absent-minded professor. He spoke with a southern twang. The man spoke without notes, and seemed to have a hard time gathering his thoughts.

Then he began to tell a story about being raised by his grandparents. They were good, solid country folk. His granddad would go get the Thanksgiving turkey. He stuffed a live turkey into a burlap sack and took the trolley back home.

This was where the story got really good, as seen through the eyes of a nine year old boy. He went out to the back yard as granddad came back. The axe would fall, the turkey’s head was gone, and that turkey would take off running. It would run and run, and stumble and get up, and run some more. It was pretty cool stuff for a nine year old kid: a headless turkey running around the yard!

By this time, Deb said she was totally confused as to where this man was going with this story. Here they sat with a bunch of robed-up clergy in all their high church finery and this guy’s talking about a headless turkey.

But then he paused and said, “Let me give you the moral of this story: activity is not a sure sign of life.” Did you get that? Activity is not a sure sign of life.”[2]

Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by all you think you have to do, yet here I am. Come, sit with me.”

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

[1] Parker J. Palmer, The Active Life: Wisdom of Work, Creativity, and Caring (New York: Harper Collins, 1990) 15.
[2] Thanks to Debbie Hamrick and her sermon, “Where Am I Going?”

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Will You Say the Neighbor's Name?

Luke 10:25-37
July 10, 2016
Ordinary 15
William G. Carter

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

This is a favorite story. Many of us have heard Jesus tell it a hundred times. It’s a story about taking care of one another, especially taking care of those who are beaten up and left by the side of the road.

That's the usual takeaway lesson: Be merciful to those who are victims of violence. It is the good advice of kindness. Show compassion to one another. Act like the merciful man in our story and you will live. Not only that, others will live because of you. This is the obvious lesson. It can be sanded down for children, and we can tell them, “Be nice.”

So we have Good Samaritan hospitals, Good Samaritan counseling clinics, and Good Sam travel clubs for those who break down on the road. Even President George W. Bush in his first inaugural address, declared to the troubled Middle East, “We aren't going to leave anybody lying by the road.”

These are nice thoughts that can lead to charitable actions. So nice and charitable, that we may not realize how we have softened this parable for the suburbs. As we tell it, it resembles nothing of the original setting.

Before the tale unfolds, we hear about a lawyer who wants to pounce on Jesus. “Just then” he asks a question about the Jewish law – which law? Which commandment?  Jesus is adept at playing the game this shyster wants to play and tosses it back in his lap – how do you read your own Bible?

The lawyer says it’s all about loving God and loving your neighbor. He’s right! It all comes to that. Nobody outruns the two-fold obligation to love.

But this lawyer is pushy, so he pushes some more. He really wants to test Jesus, so he can jump on the first wrong answer. Like every good Jew, Jesus answered his question with a question, so the lawyer comes back with a third question: “So who is my neighbor?” Who, indeed?

On the surface, that’s a stupid question. The neighbor is the one right in front of you, or across the street, or over the hedge. That’s the definition of a neighbor. But do we know these people? And if we know them, can we like them?

When I lived for nine years in Newton Township, my neighbors were the people across the field that lived in the farmhouse. I never did learn their names. They were too private to put more than a number on their mailbox. We rarely saw them come and go. If I had ever passed by them on the road, I wouldn't know who they were.

On the other side of my property, my neighbor was a retired civil servant. I was still unpacking moving boxes when he knocked on the door. “My name is Frank,” he said. Then he added, “You're the minister?” Well, yes, but I hadn't told him that. He seemed to know. Frank said, “We stick to ourselves out here.” He turned to leave, and then he looked over his shoulder to say, “By the way, your septic tank is spilling onto my back lot.”

Who is my neighbor? Apparently we have more neighbors than we realize. Could it be the gruff old man who defined the property line and doesn’t want your sewage fertilizing his field of weeds? Or maybe it's the internet troll who posts something offensive on Facebook and it makes you so mad. He’s your neighbor too. Or perhaps the family member that you don't speak with anymore. Or maybe, just maybe, they are the troubled souls who strike out in violence, maybe because they were victims of violence themselves. Are these people our neighbors?

This week, I think I was able to name the biggest problem that we have in America. We are confused about who our neighbors really are. We will acknowledge them if they are like us in every way. If they are like us, we might even come to love them. But they are not like us, are they still our neighbors? And are we still under any obligation to love them?

Many years ago, sociologist Robert Bellah pulled together some colleagues. They wanted to study American life and describe what was happening to our country. It was around the time that gated communities were getting popular, around the time when private schools were on the rise. They asked what’s going on. They noticed how like-minded people tended to clump together and how they subtly excluded those who were not like them. These sociologists came up with a phrase to describe it: “lifestyle enclave.” It’s an exclusive little community where people can afford to buy in, and those who can’t will know that they don’t belong.

Yet the question lingers: those people on the outside of our fence, are they still our neighbors? Well, what does Jesus say? Oh, he smiles slyly, and he says, “Let me tell you a story.”

He says: you know that road that goes downhill from Jerusalem to Jericho? I'm sure you do. There is only one road. It follows the canyon through the desert, down toward the Dead Sea. It’s about seventeen miles long, and you can walk it in a single day if you must. But you had best be careful.

Why, just imagine a man walking down that road, that isolated, lonely road. The thieves come out of nowhere and attack him. They take his money. They take his mule. They take his clothing. They beat him severely and leave him in the ditch. Anybody who travels that road will know: that could happen to them.

Then it happens that a Jerusalem priest passes by. He doesn't stop. He keeps going for some inexplicable reason. Maybe he figures the robbers are still there, we don't know. Those Bible scholars among who remember the book of Leviticus will know that a good Jewish priest will not go anywhere near a bleeding body, especially if that if that body is no longer alive. It will make him unclean and he won’t be able to do his work.

Ever hear that explanation? Amy-Jill Levine is a Jewish scholar, and she says it's ridiculous. For one thing, he is not going up to Jerusalem to work in the Temple; he is going down from Jerusalem. He’s on his way home, so he doesn’t have to stay pure. Amy-Jill says, certainly the Bible had its rules about staying clean, but it also had commandments to care for those in need.

So don’t let this priest off the hook. He blows off the wounded man, walks right by him, will not get involved. There is nothing religious about it, nothing at all. He is insensitive, inconsiderate, uncharitable, and inhumane.[1] So Jesus gives a little kick to the priest.

Same can be said of the Levite, who also passes by. The Levite is part of the worship team in the Temple. He’s not a priest per se, but he has been born into a professional caste of lay religious leaders. And when he sees the wounded man, he avoids him too. He ignores him, or whistles a happy tune and refuses to look at the victim, for pretty much the same reasons the priest passed by. He is clueless, or thinks himself superior, or too busy, when he is simply lacking in any human sympathy. No religious reason for it. So Jesus gives a little kick to the Levites too.

Now, Dr. Levine says every good Jewish story has three people on the road. As she puts it, “If I said Larry and Moe, you would probably say Curley.” So there should be a priest and a Levite … and an ordinary Jew.  The priest was extra-ordinary, the Levite was very special, and so we need an average schmoe to be the third person in the story.

You have heard the story enough times to know there’s nothing average about him at all. He’s not even a Jew. He’s a Samaritan, and he is the one who stops to help the wounded Jewish traveler.

Now, that’s all wrong. The Jewish lawyer knows that’s all wrong. The Samaritan is not on his map of neighbors. Oh no, not at all. Dr. Levine says, “It’s like saying Larry and Moe and Osama Bin Laden.”

Doesn’t Jesus know this? Oh yes. But doesn’t he remember? Just a few verses before, Jesus had wandered through some Samaritan land. He had decided to go to Jerusalem. Galilee is up here, Jerusalem is down here, and Samaria is in between. You have to go around it, because those people are your enemies. Well, Jesus went through it. The Samaritans made it very clear they wanted nothing to do with him, either. They refused him. He’s a Jew. He wasn't on their map of neighbors.

It was a tense moment. If you recall from the text a couple of weeks ago, James and John (the Galilean fisherman) said, “Lord, let's call down fire from heaven and blast these Samaritans away once and for all.” Jesus turned and told them to shut up. He rebuked them, as if he was an exorcist casting out their evil spirits. He was not interested in blasting anybody away. That was not his way. That is not the way of God’s kingdom. So he looks at his own followers, tells them to knock it off, and they move on.

And now, twenty-five verses later, he names a Samaritan as the hero of his story. The Samaritan is the one who stops. The Samaritan is the one who binds the victim’s wounds, takes him into his own room and cares for him at a nearby inn. When the Samaritan has to leave him behind, he gives the innkeeper a generous sum and says, “Keep taking care of him, and I’ll be back to settle the bill.” The Samaritan does this and he supposed to be the enemy.

Can you imagine that? The hated enemy is the one who helps. The hated enemy shows more humanity that those who are supposed to be your friends. In a world where religious people can be close-minded and cold-hearted, it is the hated outsider who turns out to be the savior of the man who was beaten and left for dead.

That's the story. And Jesus asks, “Which of these three acts like the neighbor?”

Well, duh. Everybody can see the hero of the story. According to the text, the lawyer says, “It's the.... It's the.... You know, it's the Sam...” No, he can't say it. So he says all he can bear to say. Who’s the neighbor? And he says, “It’s the … it's the one who shows compassion.”

Ah, he took the easy way out. He gives the answer, but he cannot say the name.

Do you see what the problem is in America? We have a lot of confusion and conflict about who our neighbors are. Even if they are kind to us, we cannot say their names.

There’s nothing new about this. It is an ancient problem. If this was a story about a story about a Samaritan who fell among thieves, the last thing the Samaritans would expect is for a Jew to reach down, dress his wounds, and nurse him back to health. Same old problem is with us. As somebody notes, imagine you’re the one in the ditch, and as people pass you by, the only one who stopped was a member of ISIS, or the NRA, or the Democratic party, or the PLO. Fill in whomever you most fear and despise. And a lot of people might respond in unison: We’d rather die than be saved by the likes of you.[2]

See, this is the problem. It’s not that we are independent enough that we don’t want help. It’s that we don’t want help from that person. That person is supposed to be my enemy. That person is supposed to stay out of my way. I’m supposed to live in a nicer house and nicer community than that person. I’m supposed to make more money and be more successful than that person. I’m supposed to be superior to that person and everything I’ve ever been told has shaped me to hate people like that.

And Jesus dares to tell a story that says, rather clearly, that the neighborhood is a lot bigger than we think it is, and it’s populated by people who actually act like neighbors to one another.

Can you see why Jesus got killed, after telling stories like this?

Even more, can you see why God raised Jesus from the dead and pushed into our faces to keep telling stories like this?  It’s because God loves the neighborhood, the whole neighborhood, the big neighborhood, and God wants it to be populated with people who show mercy to one another. That’s what love is all about. As the early Christ-followers declared, “You can’t say you love God if you hate your neighbor.”[3] The truth of the Gospel is that God-in-Christ has taken away all the reasons to hate anybody at all.

Imagine that.
  • Imagine a world where people who are different from one another actually make the effort to get along, to understand and receive help from one another.
  • Imagine a world that is no longer carved up in groups of friends or enemies, where everybody is now named “neighbor.”
  • Imagine a world where innocent black people don’t get shot, where innocent police officers don’t get shot either, where people on every side pursue every reason to respect one another.
  • Imagine a world where people turn off their television sets, with all the blathering that stirs up animosity and drives up advertising revenue, and instead they walk outside their guarded homes, knock on their neighbor’s doors, and say, “Can we talk until we find some common ground?”
 Imagine that.
  • Imagine a world where people aren’t afraid of one another.
  • Imagine a world where people who hurt one another are committed to working through the hurt and living into forgiveness. .
  • Imagine a world where the dreaded enemy Samaritan draws near to take care of you, a world where you might be the Samaritan to somebody else, yet you take the first step to create some honest peace.
Imagine that.

And if you can imagine it, go and do likewise. Because you know as well as I that love is the only way to life, real life. As the scriptures say, “Whoever does not love abides in death . . . We know we have passed from death to life because we love one another.”[4]

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

[1] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus (New York: Harper One, 2015) 98-103. Other references found on these pages.
[2] William H. Willimon, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016)
[3] 1 John 4:20
[4] 1 John 3:14

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Can't Stay Here

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Ordinary 14
July 3, 2016
William G. Carter

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’ 

My good friend Al says something at the end of his concerts that’s guaranteed to bring a chuckle. “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” It’s a funny line. People come out to hear Al and his band make some music. After it winds up, the night is still young. “Let’s go explore other dark corners, when it’s time, we’ll go home.”

But I’ve wondered if that might also be a good benediction for the end of a church service. “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” We call this room a “sanctuary.” It is a place of prayer, but it is not a hiding place. We gather here for worship, for learning, for Christian community, but then we are dispersed into the world. We can come here, but we can’t stay here. Christ sends us on.

The Gospel text is a sending text. A chapter ago, Jesus sent his twelve disciples ahead of him. Now he sends seventy more – or seventy-two more, if you noticed the footnotes. Why seventy – or seventy-two? Because, depending on what you read, there were either seventy or seventy-two known nations in the world. The Hebrew Bible said seventy, the Greek Old Testament said seventy-two, but no matter. Two by two, there are enough for you to take all the people on the globe.

Even before the miracle of Pentecost, when all the nations are gathered for worship in Jerusalem and the Spirit of the Risen Christ comes down upon them, now the Jewish Jesus says, “Go on your way. Take no money, take no bag, take no sandals – just take a word, a single word: shalom.” The word of peace is all you need. Eat whatever they give you. Stay wherever they put you up. Heal their sick and say ‘God is coming close to you.’” Jesus sends them out.

The seventy, or the seventy-two, do what the twelve disciples were sent to do, which is what Jesus himself has set out to do. He has no home, no regular place to lay his head (9:56). His ministry is transient. He is on the go. And to follow Jesus, in this regard, is to do what he does. If he is on the move, his people must be on the move. The charge is not to sit around in a conference room and rearrange the committee structures. It’s to go into the world on behalf of our Lord.

Here are a few details to notice about his charge. First, it’s not about getting people to come to our church, and it certainly isn’t about making our church as big as it can possibly be. No, it’s about service, specifically, serving people that we don’t even know yet. Jesus sends the seventy (or the seventy-two) with words of peace. This is their ministry: to walk into somebody else’s life and say, “Peace be to this house.”

The entire focus is upon the people to whom we are sent. Who are they? What do they need? How can our blessing for peace be translated into tangible service for them? Not for us, but for them.

How refreshing! If a church stays within its own walls, it can get pretty stale. Habits become institutionalized. The faithful flock can be reduced to a private club. Somebody new walks in, and we say, “That’s my pew, get out.”  Somebody young walks in, and the old-timers say, “Fresh meat! Let’s pounce.” Somebody na├»ve and willing walks in, and the tired people quote Jesus, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”

We need the second half of his teaching: “Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” It’s his harvest, not ours, and his people are sent out. Which is to say, if we’re sitting around waiting for people to show up here, we are not doing our job. Or as a wise, old minister once said to me, “The pastors who can always be found in their offices are not doing their jobs.” Christ sends us out to serve a world full of needs.

The second detail: it’s all about those people, it’s not about us. Please repeat that with me: it’s all about those people, it’s not about us. This is the fundamental rule of good listening; we listen to another person without injecting the conversation with a lt of noise about ourselves. It is the fundamental rule of true compassion: we care to that person, not we might feel good about ourselves, but to provide some sympathy and relief for them. It’s about them.

Jesus says to the seventy, or the seventy-two: go to them. Stay with them. Speak my peace to them. Eat what they give you. Drink what they provide. Don’t hop around from place to place. Stay with these strangers until you can heal whatever distresses them. It could take a while, and it’s going to happen on their timetable, not on yours. For the true servant knows that in the moment of need, these people are more important than me.

Once again, it’s not about building ourselves up. It’s only about those to whom we are sent.

And the third detail of this charge: ministry in the name of Jesus doesn’t need a lot of props. It doesn’t need a lot of technological gadgets, nor flashy sales techniques, nor whiz bang marketing campaigns. Service in the name of Jesus is not a high pressure campaign to win souls and grab more wallets. It’s not a boastful claim of how wonderful we are or how many assets we have stashed away. We go with a word of peace, a word that we inhabit with our own gentleness, our own humility, our own patience. Success does not rise or fall on any of us. We simply go to serve, to be present alongside other people and to serve.

So we can’t stay here. That’s the word of the Lord that I hear today. It’s good to be here. It’s good to sing the praises of God. It’s good to break open the bread of Holy Scripture. It’s good to pass the bread and wine at the Lord’s Table. I need to be here as regularly as I am able, and I wish for you to feel that way too. But we can’t stay here, as if this church is our hiding place. It’s our deployment center.

And that’s why, this fall, we are going to do what a growing number of Christian churches are starting to do. We are stepping into the world from our own doorstep. On September 25, the last Sunday of September, we will gather here for worship at 10:00. We will sing our hymns, listen for Christ to speak in scripture, and we will pray – and then immediately we will leave this building to go do Gospel work for other people. We may know these people, we may not. All of them are our neighbors, and we won’t be able to serve them if we stay in here.

This will be our first-ever Worship through Service Day. There will be something for everybody to do, and we want to put about two hundred people on the streets of this community to take the peace of God beyond these doors. Why are we doing this? Because the text tells us that Jesus Christ sends his people into the world.

You know as well as I that the world needs the healing love of Jesus. Behind the high hedges of this community, there are people who are lonely and disconnected. They come and go, unseen to many of us, but all of them, whether they know it or not, are the precious children of God. They’ve been bruised by broken promises and afflicted by diseased relationships. They are intoxicated by fear, or stuck in self-defeating patterns, or overextended in every possible way. And these are the ones that Jesus loves. 

According to this week’s Scranton Times, people buy houses in this community so they don’t have to send their kids to the Scranton city schools. Or they send their kids to private schools so they don’t have to mingle with the public schools. I will let you ponder if that’s true, while I ponder what so many people in this town are trying to outrun.

You know, there is a dark side to affluence. Families don’t eat at the same table. Everybody is too busy to enjoy the “good life” that they are hustling so hard to attain. Some guy is grumbling because the next door neighbor’s dandelion seeds are blowing into his lawn. And every week, one more suburban kid secretly slips off to heroin rehab, because nobody else is available to help him constructively deal with his pain.

This is our mission field. Jesus does not let his people wring their hands and say, “Let’s put up taller fences and withdraw from a terrible world.” No, he sends them ahead of him. He sends them in the power of his name. He sends them regardless of how they will be regarded. He sends them, because their ministry is really his ministry, and his ministry is done through them.  

I like how William Temple said it when he was the Archbishop of Canterbury: “The church of Jesus Christ is the only group in town that exists for the benefit of its non-members.”

When the service is over this morning, after the body and blood of Christ is given to sustain your spirit, after the final hymn stirs your soul, you don’t have to go home. But you can’t stay here. Jesus is sending you to serve the broken world that he loves.  

(c) William G Carter. All rights reserved.