Saturday, October 29, 2016

Wee Little Man, Changed Heart

Wee Little Man, Changed Heart
Luke 19:1-10
October 30, 2016
William G. Carter

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Years ago we took the tour bus through downtown Jericho. It’s not far from the Dead Sea, and some of it hasn't changed very much over the centuries. There was an open market place to the right, with two locals squabbling over the price of figs. Off to the left, there was a public square with a camel, along with an enterprising photographer who would snap a picture of you on the camel for a small fee. Then the tour guide at the front of the bus said, “Right up here, in the next block, we will pass the actual sycamore tree that Zacchaeus climbed to see Jesus.”

Everybody laughed, because if you’ve ever been on a tour of ancient places, you know there’s a good bit of nonsense to please the tourists. The real tree is long gone. But everybody looked, because we love the story of Zacchaeus. It’s as relevant as ever.

For a moment, it was quite a thrill for the imagination. This is the town, this is the street, where Jesus invited himself to the home of the most famous tax collector in the Bble. He looked up into that tree and said, “Come on down, Zaccheus. I’m eating dinner at your home and spending the night.”

Now, the kids like the story because it sounds like Zacchaeus is kind of short, just like them. But I will point out that the grammar is ambiguous. We’re not sure if Zacchaeus is the short one or if it’s Jesus. Listen to the sentence again: “He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.” Which one of them is the short one? Maybe Jesus was 4’11”. The grammar is not clear.

But before you chew on that, let me say that what is clear is the impact of the story. Zacchaeus changes his life. Not only does Jesus intrude on him with the same intrusive grace that Luke has been narrating for nineteen chapters, but Zacchaeus responds. He makes a big, dramatic change. “Look, Lord,” he says, “I will give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I’ve defrauded anyone, I will repay them four-fold.”

It’s an unusual moment. Jesus has been changing lives by preaching, teaching, healing, and feeding the multitudes. But ever since his mother Mary first said “yes” to an angel, there hasn’t been a lot of evidence that people have actually done something in response to his ministry. They have talked about his stories, they’ve reacted to his teaching, they’ve benefitted from his healings – but that one of them should actually make a change in his life, why, that’s pretty rare in the Gospel of Luke.

As you may recall, he has been with tax collectors before. Some of them have followed after him, others have had him for dinner. As we heard last week, one tax collector appeared as the hero of one of his stories. But that a tax collector should make a change, specifically a financial donation, that’s an unprecedented response to the work of Jesus. Especially given who tax collectors were in his time and place!

We have at least one elected tax collector in our congregation and a couple of retired IRS agents. They are nothing like the tax collectors of ancient Israel. Zacchaeus and his bunch were Jews who sold out to the Roman Empire. Their job was to collect for the Romans whatever it took for the Roman soldiers to occupy the land. As an additional incentive, they could collect whatever additional fees they could get away with. If the local Roman soldiers were friendly, they could back them up and split the additional proceeds. That would have been especially true in an isolated border town like Jericho, off in the desert.

We know two things about New Testament tax collectors. Most of them lived in luxury (imagine that!) and all of them were hated by the neighbors in their towns.  It got so bad that the leaders of the Jerusalem temple kept a list of “despised trades,” people who were not welcome to worship with the rest of God’s people. Tax collectors were always at the top of the list.[1]  

So what does it mean that Zacchaeus “wanted to see Jesus”? What does it mean that he was willing to climb a tree and risk the embarrassment of being spotted by the crowd of people who hated him? What does it mean that he was “happy to welcome him”? He was the happy tax collector, literally he was “rejoicing exceedingly.” It’s the same verb as the shepherd who rejoices as he finds the lost lamb and carries it home on his shoulders (Luke 15:5), except this time it’s the Lost Lamb who rejoices when the Good Shepherd finds him – and calls him by name.

“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down. I must stay at your house today.” The guy whose job has excluded him and caused him to be hated by others is wanted, and named, and visited by the Christ of grace.

Now that’s a story that lies at the heart of the Good News of Jesus is all about. And it’s a story that keeps being told by others among us who find themselves wanted, named, and visited.

I have started to read the memoir of a man named Brennan Manning. Ever hear about him? He has some kind of story. He heard the call of God and was ordained as a Catholic priest. He served for a while and said, “Is this all there is?” He was a former Marine, had served in the Korean War. Presiding over a congregation never really floated his boat.

So Father Manning joined a Franciscan order, took a vow of poverty, and went wherever he was directed by his abbot. For a while, he lived in a cave in Spain while he was serving the poor. He worked as a campus minister in Ohio. He kept asking, “Is this all there is?” He slipped into alcoholism, left the priesthood, and dried out. Then he married a woman and moved to New Orleans. The people he’d known really wanted nothing to do with him. His family regarded him as a failure.

But in the thick of it all, he discovered the love of Jesus. It had been there all along, but he had ignored it in the name of mere religion. He had served the church and found it to be full of people obsessed with guilt. The way they worked out their own guilt was by imposing more guilt on the people around him. “It was complete nonsense,” he said. “Did Jesus die for nothing? Did he come back from the dead to make people feel guilty?”

In his recovery from alcohol, Brennan Manning discovered the love of Jesus. “I was pursued until I was found,” he declared. Indeed it didn’t totally fix everything. He began to speak wherever anybody wanted to hear about the love of Christ and wrote best-selling books – even though he had at least two more relapses into addiction and was later divorced from his wife. But he still kept talking about the love of Jesus. His ex-wife ran the office that booked his speaking trips.

In fact, in a strange twist, he was once booked to speak at a church very close to here, which I will not name. When the church leaders discovered what a mess his life had been, they uninvited him. They said he wasn’t spiritual enough, that he wasn’t a good example. Brennan Manning didn’t care. He said there must be more than what he called “moralistic religiosity,” and he kept writing books and talking about the love of Jesus.

When he passed away three years ago, he was traveling widely with a back brace, catheter, and an IV bag, with the simple message of the love of Jesus. He said, “The work that God had given me to do is helping people to enter the existential experience of being loved in their brokenness.”[2] He was found and loved by Christ, and he did something about it.

That’s why my friends and I looked out the bus window in the city of Jericho: it was another place where somebody had been found and loved by Christ. And he did something about it. Zacchaeus said, “Lord, half my possessions I give to the poor, and if I’ve defrauded anybody, I will restore it four-fold.”

Now, I didn’t want to point out that today is the day we make our pledges to support the work of this church. I don’t want to reduce the abundant love of Christ to mere fund-raising. We were not baptized in order to pay the light bill and meet the budget. No, we were baptized in the love of God in order to proclaim the love of God. It’s just that big.

And even if our lives have been busted or shipwrecked in any way, it is here in the community of Jesus Christ that we proclaim there is something more. We are found, we are named, we are visited – and we are invited to change, to become more like Christ.

Now let me say a word about what that meant for Zacchaeus, before we explore what that might mean for you and me. Zacchaeus was “a child of Abraham.” That means he was circumcised into the Law of Moses. The Torah was given by God to give guidance for his life.

But Zacchaeus decided that getting rich and selling out your neighbors was more important than the gift of God’s Word for his life, even when that Word said, “Live honestly, don’t defraud, be generous with what you have.” So he knew, somewhere deep inside him, that there is indeed something more.

And then one day, that Something More, the Word of God on two legs, walked up to his tree, called him by name, and invited himself for dinner. Luke says, “He hurried down, and he was glad to welcome him.” The gladness comes because he is free from having to live a divided life. The love of God found him. He was always, and now renewed, as a child of Abraham.

We are the adopted children of God, claimed by the same grace and love that saved and restored Zacchaeus’ life. And it’s time for us to do something about it. If you want to pitch in for the heat bill and last week’s bell choir anthem, great! The church needs that, but I’d like to think we are capable of so much more.

I remember what John Calvin said: “God has given the earth and its resources to human beings. As children made in the image of God, we’re called to share our resources and serve one another.” In fact, he argued in one of his writings, that a person is defrauded when a need is left unmet by someone with the power to meet it.[3]

So here’s what Zacchaeus writes on his pledge card today: I’m not ever going to defraud anybody. No, I’m going to be about the work of restoration through my generosity. And he makes that promise because he is confident of the love of God through Jesus, the One whom he calls “Lord.”

But enough talk; it’s time to do something. I want to do what Zacchaeus did, to commit myself to the work of God’s love through my generosity.  

How about you?

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

[1] See Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969) 303-312.
[3] Matthew J. Tuininga, “Good News for the Poor: John Calvin and Social Justice,”

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Righteousness Misfired

Luke 18:9-14
Ordinary 30
October 23, 2016
William G. Carter

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Two people go up to the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee, the other is a tax collector. And if you have been paying any attention to the Gospel of Luke, you know what kind of people they are.

The Pharisee is a terrible, horrible, no good person. Throughout his Gospel, Luke has trained us to boo and hiss whenever a Pharisee walks onto one of his pages.

One day, the Pharisees were sitting nearby when Jesus was teaching in a house. Just then, some villagers dug a hole through the roof and lowered a paralyzed man at the feet of Jesus. He stopped his lesson long enough to look at the man and say, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” The Pharisees say, “Hey, nobody but God can forgive.” Jesus looks at them, looks at the man, and says, “OK, get up and walk too.” So the man gets up and walks away, as the Pharisees grumble.

After this, Jesus goes to a dinner party at the home of a questionable man (a tax collector, by the way). There are a lot of questionable people there, hanging around with Jesus. The Pharisees stand outside and complain, “Why do you eat and drink with sinners?” They just can’t imagine it.   

After that, on a Sabbath day, Jesus is walking with his disciples through the grain fields. His disciples start plucking the grain and munching on it. Immediately the Pharisees step out from behind a mulberry bush to complain, “Why are they doing this? Don’t you all know the Bible? It’s the Sabbath. God says don’t do any work.” Of course they would say that; Luke says they are Pharisees.

And after that, on another Sabbath, they lurk around the edges of a synagogue as Jesus begins to teach. In the crowd, there is a man with a paralyzed hand. Jesus said to him, “Come up here.” As he goes up, Jesus stares into the shadows at the Pharisees. He says, “What is the law of God: to do good or to do harm? To save life on the Sabbath or to destroy it?” With that, Jesus heals the man, and the Pharisees are “filled with fury.” (6:11). Of course they are. Luke says they are Pharisees.

So after one episode after another, Luke reports a story from the mouth of Jesus: “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee…” And all of us say, “Boo! Hiss! Away with the Pharisee.” We’ve been trained to know what kind of person he is.

And we also know about the tax collectors. Luke has been telling us about them too. Of course, they are generally unsavory characters, collaborators with the Roman Empire, betrayers of their own townspeople – but they are responding to the Gospel of Jesus.

John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness. He began to preach, “The One who is greater than the rest of us is coming. Change your ways and God will forgive you. Be baptized and have your sins be washed away.” And do you know who came forward to respond? Tax collectors! (3:12)  They wanted a fresh beginning.

Luke says this is the invitation of Jesus. God’s Kingdom is right in your face, step into it. He said to a tax collector named Levi, “Come with me,” and Levi dropped everything to go. He was ready for it. He’s the one who threw the great banquet for Jesus. In fact, he filled the house with more tax collectors, and Jesus ate with all of them. They were ready for it too.

Luke says they kept coming, like moths to a flame. They wanted whatever Jesus had. They considered him their friend. (7:34). In fact, remember the great parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son? Jesus told them specifically on behalf of the tax collectors (15:2) who kept surrounding him. It doesn’t say that they all changed their lives, but they wanted what he had . . . and the Pharisees snarled at them all.

So when Jesus says, “Once upon a time, a Pharisee and a tax collector both went up to the temple to pray,” we are already prepared to hear the story. Both of these are stock characters.

The Pharisee is a religious leader, a man serious about his own righteousness, and he wraps up his rightness in his prayer: “I thank you God, that I’m not a bad person, like this tax collector. In fact, I give you a tenth of my whole income.” But there’s something about the prayer that is deeply flawed, and I think you know what it is. It’s in the phrase, “I thank you that I’m not like him.” He says that, and he falls through a dangerous trap door.

Meanwhile the tax collector knows his life is a mess. Maybe he’s like all those real-life tax collectors who swarmed around Jesus. They want what he has, but it keeps eluding them. Maybe they don’t have the courage to walk away from their polluted jobs, or to make amends with the townspeople who hate them, or they can’t quite abandon their ill-gotten wealth. All we know about this guy are two things: he can’t make eye contact with God, and he begs for mercy with no evidence that he is worthy of it.

Listen to what Jesus says: the tax collector is made right with God, not the other.

Well, of course. We have been set up to hear it, and to believe it. It’s all about begging for mercy, rather than declaring how good you already are. As Jesus says somewhere else, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” He has no blessing for those who are smug and superior.

The Pharisee wouldn’t have heard him say it, of course. He was too busy humming, “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way. I can’t wait to look in the mirror, ‘cause I get better looking each day.”[1]

Now, I hope you realize that what we have here are a couple of cartoon characters. These are not healthy, well-adjusted human beings. The tax collector isn’t finished with his redemption yet. As we will hear next week in the story of the tax collector Zaccheus, he still has a journey ahead of him. God may justify and forgive in the moment this guy utters the “sinner’s prayer,” but he is still quite far from being a grown-up follower of Jesus.

And the Pharisee, what’s really the matter with him? Who would ever be so arrogant to prance around and declare that he is better than everybody else? Someone so smug, so self-righteous, what’s he doing in the temple anyway? He has no need for God, except for God to be his audience, for God to listen to him prattle on about how successful he is, how accomplished he has been. What kind of pathetic, needy, self-serving arrogant fool is this?

Just picture the poor, broken tax collector. He is just finishing his brief cry for mercy, yet he has to overhear that Pharisee go on and on about how wonderful he is ---Why, it’s enough that the tax collector could very well blurt out, “God, I thank you that I’m not like that Pharisee!”

But if he says it, watch out. If you say something like that, the spiritual trap door might open once again, you could fall through it yourself, and everything you gained would be lost. If you catch my drift.

The spiritual life is never about superiority. It’s not about being a “winner.” There are no winners. By that I mean there’s nobody who is good enough to go up to God, flash a good report card, and presume that will get us in. That’s not how it works. If we were to get in, it’s not because we are good; it would be because God is good.

God is the One who sends us Jesus. God is the One who speaks through Jesus about God’s desire to rule over our lives. God is the One who made us the way we are, the One who knows how needy we are, the One who calls us to step away from all destructiveness and into the presence of grace. God knows that even if we are able to do it, like the old time tax collectors who were so ready for a fresh beginning, even then it would be hard to give up the bad habits, the ornery moods, and the quiet collaborations we still make every day with the empire du jour.

The only way we are going to be righteous is if God makes us righteous. One of the Bible words is God “imputes” righteousness in us[2] – that is, we are saved not only by faith in Jesus, but by the faith of Jesus. His righteousness is shown in the cross and resurrection of Christ’s self-giving love. He is the One who saves and reconciles. All we can do is make ourselves available and welcome the hard work Christ does on our behalf. It is a replaying of the death of our own superiority and the justifying power of Christ’s resurrection.

Here’s how somebody else says it:

What Jesus is saying in this parable is that no human goodness is good enough to pass a test like that, and that therefore God is not about to risk it. (God) will not take our cluttered life, as we hold it, into eternity. (God) will only take the clean emptiness of our death in the power of Jesus’ resurrection. (Jesus) condemns the Pharisee because he takes his stand on a life God cannot use; he commends the (tax collector) because he rests his case on a death that God can use…

For Jesus came to raise the dead. Not to reform the reformable, not to improve the improvable… As long as you are struggling like the Pharisee to be alive in your own eyes – and to the precise degree that your struggles are for what is holy, just, and good – you will resent the apparent indifference to your pains that God shows in making the effortlessness of death the touchstone of your justification. Only when you are able, with the (tax collector), to admit that you are dead will you be able to stop balking at grace.[3]

It’s all about grace, the good favor of God. That is what gathers us in. That is what sets us free from the slavery to our own ambition. Grace liberates us from the possibility of any arrogance. It’s all about God, who creates us with the ability to live in relationship to that grace. It’s all about God who is willing to die to bring us into holy fellowship and to rescue us from ourselves.

So here we are, the people who tell stories like this. We tell them because we know grace gathers us into this temple. We come here to pray, because we believe our lives depend entirely on the mercy of God.

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

[1] Thanks to Mack Davis for this song, the self-love ballad of the smug Pharisee.
[2] See 2 Corinthians 5:21, Romans 4:6, Galatians 3:22 (with its accompanying footnote)
[3] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1988) pp. 182, 184

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Can't You Do Any Better Than This?

Luke 18:1-8
Ordinary 29
October 16, 2016
William G. Carter

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”[bAnd the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  (Footnote (b):  so that she may not finally come and slap me in the face)

The comment has surfaced more than once. Maybe it’s a conversation at the coffee pot about a political advertisement, or a debate performance, or a general dissatisfaction with the kind of candidates that have been running for office. Someone says, “I suppose I could make a choice, and I probably will. But I can’t stop wondering: can’t we do any better than this?”

Now I don’t say that to side with anybody. All of us have plenty of opinions about the important matters before our nation. What is curious to me is how many folks, if they had the choice, might say, “None of the above.” Without going into the issues, I sense a general disappointment with the quality of people who tend to run for public office, nearly every public office. So the critique comes: can’t you do any better than this?

But enough about the election. I think the same question can be posed of the characters in the story of Jesus tells. There’s a judge who has no respect for God or the people. There’s a woman who is a persistent nag. And are we supposed to choose one of them as the moral example in the story. Come on, Jesus, can’t you do any better than this?

How about that judge! He doesn’t “fear God.” In the world of the Bible, where a reverence for God is the beginning of wisdom, this is code language to say he’s a fool. He has no reference point in the law. He recognizes no authority greater than his own opinion. He is totally unto himself.

And he has no respect for people, either. Some preachers over the years have assumed the judge takes bribes, that his justice can be purchased for a bag of fifty dollar bills. But there’s no evidence of that. To the contrary, he is consumed by indifference. He doesn’t give a rip about anybody or anything. A woman comes to beg for justice and he ignores her. He doesn’t listen to a word she says. What kind of judge is this?

Not only that, he sits by the city gates and talks to himself. If you know the Gospel of Luke, that should be enough of a clue that he is totally wrong. Every time one of the people in one of Jesus’ parables talks to himself or herself, they roll of the tracks. The rich farmer convinces himself to hoard all his stuff in a bigger barn. The wayward son practices a repentance speech that he never gets to finish. The employee who has been robbing his boss creates a new scheme to get ahead.

Likewise this judge has an internal conversation when the woman keeps knocking at his door. He confirms, “I don’t care about her, I don’t care about God.” Yet he decides to give her what she wants, not because it’s the right thing to do, not because her case is clear. No, he gives in because he’s tired of her noise. Not much of a judge if you ask me.

And then there’s the woman. How about her? Luke says she is a widow. Again, in the world of the Bible, that’s shorthand for saying she is a person with great needs. All though the Jewish scriptures, God says, “Watch out for the widow! Take care of the widow.” The widow in the ancient world had no safety net. She had no means of income. She could not inherit anything after her husband died. And so, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Job, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Malachi, and the Psalmist all declare, “Pay attention to the widow. Make sure nobody takes advantage of her.”

But this particular woman is hard to ignore. She’s relentless. Worse than that, she’s obnoxious. Day and night, she’s hammering on the judge’s door. “Pay attention to me! Give me what  want!” No wonder the judge gives in. As he says literally in the Greek language, “I’m going to give in so she doesn’t punch me in the face.”

I mean, remember what it says in the book of Proverbs? “With patience a ruler may be persuade, and a soft tongue can break stone.” (25:15). Well, there’s nothing soft about her.

And listen to her complaint: “Give me justice against my opponent.” So who is her opponent? We don’t know. The opponent doesn’t dare show up in the story. And literally, she wants more than justice; she wants revenge. The English translation sands away the splinters. “Give me revenge against my opponent,” she shouts. Day and night, night and day, she pounds against his door until finally he gives in. Wouldn’t you?

These are the two characters in the story that Jesus tells. Both of them have their flaws. Even if one of them gets their way, it’s going to be an unsatisfying victory. The loser might even say the system is rigged. Not because it is, you understand, but when you are dealing with a contest between two imperfect people, one of them is going to be a sore loser, especially if one of them ends up being the loser.

Now I’m talking about the parable, you understand, and nothing else. In the parables of Jesus, he always uses imperfect people. I’ve mentioned a few of them already. Let me mention a few more. There’s the dreaded Samaritan that turns out to be a good neighbor. Or the king that invites everybody to a party; they refuse to come, so he burns down their village. Or the self-righteous man who won’t go to his brother’s welcome home celebration. Or his prodigal father, who was dumb enough to give a third of his fortune to the son who blew it all in Vegas. Or so on and so forth.

For Jesus, this is his basket of deplorables. Some of his characters are seedy and corrupt. Some of them are violent. Some of them are dumb enough that they won’t come in out of the rain. Some of them are completely self-absorbed, like the pious Pharisee in the story we will hear next week. Some of them are downright wasteful. They are wasteful, like the farmer who goes out to sow the field and he throws the seed all over the place – on rocks, on well-worn paths, among the weeds - he doesn’t care. That’s wasteful.

To listen to these stories, these parables of Jesus, you have to ask, “Lord, can’t you do any better than this?” And I imagine him smiling or smirking, and saying, “I guess this all I have to work with.” Imperfect people, inconsistent believers. Maybe they are momentarily irrational or temporarily insane, or just stressed out by life.

Like the widow in our story. She pounds on the door, “Judge, open up. Open up right now. I want revenge! I want you to give me revenge.” And she keeps knocking, and she keeps pounding, and she wears him down until he finally gives in. What kind of judge is that? A judge that grants revenge? That’s no kind of judge. Life is not a Mel Gibson movie. And asking for revenge is really not all that good for our souls.

Luke says this is a story about prayer. He says it’s about prayer. Jesus doesn’t say that about the story, but Luke does. Jesus just tells the story. It’s Luke who adds the frame around the picture. Luke is the narrator who inserts verse one: “Jesus told them this parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

What’s Luke trying to say? That prayer is wearing down the patience of God? That prayer is acting obnoxiously toward heaven until heaven gives you what you want? That prayer is persisting until you get whatever you want, even if what you want is revenge? I don’t think so.

I know the Bible says “pray without ceasing,” but prayer is not pushing God until God gives in. In my experience, prayer is pushing God until we give in.

When my 21-year-old daughter was four months old, she almost died in her crib. I believe it was due to the intervention of an angel that her mom found Meg had stopped breathing, shook her awake, and we got her checked out. It turns out the circuits in her brain weren’t quite finished growing, and at any moment, she might stop breathing.

Needless to say, it was a time of great prayer, because it was a time of great stress. Ever notice how we tend to pray more when we are feeling stress? We don’t pray as much when life is going well, only when there’s trouble.

So I was praying and praying and praying that my daughter would get through it, that our family would get through it. In the middle of the night, I’d roll over, my eyes would pop open, and I’d start praying. “Lord, get us through it.” The prayer never seemed to settle in. Never seemed to fit.

One night, tossing and turning, in near desperation, I blurted out another prayer: “Lord, I don’t know what you’re doing . . . but I trust you. It’s in your hands. My daughter is in your hands. We are in your hands.” Suddenly a deep peace came into the room, and I gave in to it.

The work of prayer is a mystery. If you want to believe that you have to keep knocking, knocking, knocking until God gives you what you want, well, go right ahead. Let me know how that works for you.

I believe there is another way to go, and that’s to consider what kind of God we have. God is not the Old Man behind the counter of the candy store, waiting to give you whatever you want. God is the One who rules over the world and all within it.  And the gift of scripture, to say nothing of our whole tradition of faith, is that we have a very consistent record of what God is like and what God cares about.

A lot of scholars, like Ken Bailey and others, remind us that Jesus didn’t invent all of his stories out of thin air. In the time of Christ, there was a two hundred year old text from a wise Jewish teacher named Ben Sirach. Drawing from all the texts about widows, he told us what kind of God we have:

He will not ignore the supplication of the fatherless,
nor the widow when she pours out her story.
Do not the tears of the widow run down her cheek
as she cries out against him who has caused her to fall?

He whose service is pleasing to the Lord will be accepted,
and his prayer will reach to the clouds.
The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds,
and he will not be consoled until it reaches the Lord;
He will not desist until the Most High visits him
and does justice to the righteous and executes judgment.
The Lord will not delay . . . [1]

“I tell you,” added Jesus, “he will quickly grant justice to them.”

So maybe it is about prayer, especially prayer offered by the likes of us, imperfect people and inconsistent believers. In this head-scratching parable, Jesus points us beyond the likes of us to the God who is greater, infinitely wiser, and much more responsive. God wants us to say what is on our hearts when we pray, because prayer is fundamentally the expression of a relationship. A relationship in Christ is a praying relationship.

Yet ultimately, it is God’s will that counts, not our will. And if there is any magic in prayer, it comes when our desires intersect with God’s desires. That’s when God not only grants us his will, it’s when God can work through us. And that’s the magic, the deep magic, when we know in our bones, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

For our part, we keep praying. In our prayer, we seek to align our prayers with the work that God wishes to get done. And we know what some of that work is. As someone has said, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27)

(c) William G. Carter

[1] Ken Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009) 261ff.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Here? Really?

Luke 17:20-21
October 9, 2016
Rev. William Carter

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

A number of years ago, my wife and I discovered the exact location of the kingdom of God. Since you are religious people, I figure you would like to know where it is.

It’s on a lake in western Canada, 14.9 kilometers from the Bow River Parkway. It’s called Moraine Lake. You can get there by flying into Calgary and driving a rental car about two hours west. First you pass through Canmore, and then through the gates at Banff National Park. You take the exit for Lake Louise, curve around and go up the hill, but before you get to Lake Louise, you take a left. There is a small sign, easy to miss. Go down that winding two-lane road about nine miles and there it is, Moraine Lake.

It is difficult to explain how beautiful it is, but if you have a Canadian twenty dollar bill, turn it over and there is the scene. It’s a beautiful, pristine lake, untouched by chemicals or motor boats. Around the lake are ten mountain peaks, all of them over ten thousand feet high.

You can climb a large rock pile at the base of the lake. It will take about forty-five minutes, but the scene is spectacular. The lake is a surreal aquamarine color, created by the granite dust of glaciers which refract the light. My wife calls it the most peaceful spot on earth. From the top of the rock pile, with only an eagle soaring overhead, I felt extremely close to God.

We’ve been there twice. Three years ago, we stood in silence, held hands, and took in the extraordinary beauty. One of our dreams is to rent a log cabin someday on the shore of that lake and spend a few weeks there. I tell you, it is ground zero for the kingdom of God.

Well, you would think so. Then a bus load of tourists arrived and I began to wonder.

Not far from there is Lake Louise, the most photographed lake in the world. It’s another pretty one, but it’s overrun by tourists. Last time we were there, we couldn’t get within two miles of the parking lot. The Mounties on their horses were turning everybody away. So we escaped nine miles away to Moraine Lake. It’s harder to find and my wife likes it a whole lot more.

So we climbed to the top of the rock pile and took in the uncrowded view. It was beautiful. Pretty soon a ranger came by to say, “Watch out for the grizzly bear and her cubs.” Whoops, didn’t know about them. His warning made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. We thought about cutting the trip short.

But since we were there, I thought I’d check into the cost of one of those log cabin lodges. The cabin was beautiful, but the smallest one was $524 a night, plus taxes. Fourteen days would equal about four mortgage payments back home.

So we got into the rental car and drove away. As we were winding down the narrow road, she looked up from the travel guide and said, “This road is only open four months a year. They get hundreds of inches of snow, and the lake doesn’t thaw until the middle of June.” I can hear what some of the snow birds would say: “That lake is certainly not the kingdom of God.”

So where is the exact location of the kingdom of God? It’s not 14.9 kilometers from the Bow River Parkway. But a lot of us would like to find a place of complete beauty, a place of perfect peace, a place that lifts our souls and spirits, a place where we feel close to God.

Even if we don’t use religious language to name it, a lot of people look for rent a place in the mountains or at the shore. Sometimes they make a space of their own, like my friend in New Jersey. He built a shack in his backyard. “It’s my man cave,” he said. It has a flat-screen TV, a humidor full of expensive cigars, and soundproof walls. “All of that is intentional,” he said.

When people talk like this, perhaps they are confusing the kingdom of God with the Garden of Eden. What they want is to return to Eden, the beautiful garden where everything is perfect. However, even if we could find the place, we couldn’t go back. The book of Genesis says Eden now has a “No Trespassing” sign and is guarded by an angel with a flaming sword. We don’t live in paradise. It’s not the world we’re called to live in.

But we can live in the kingdom of God.

Now what is the exact location of the kingdom of God? Where is it? It’s not owning a condo on the side of a ski slope or beside the sea. It’s not all the other places people are looking for.

In the day of Jesus, some people wanted to know, “Where is it?” Some of them were the religious experts who asked Jesus. “Where is this kingdom going to be? How will we know it?”

His answer is curious. He says you won’t be able to see it or say ‘here it is’ or ‘there it is.’ And then Luke reports an even more curious answer. Jesus says the kingdom of God is ... and I’ll use the Greek preposition ... “The kingdom of God is entos you.”[1] Entos is an unusual preposition. If you try to translate it into English, it could go three different ways. Each one is grammatically correct. There is a divine ambiguity in this text.

The way I first heard it was from the King James Bible: “The kingdom of God is within you.” That is, it’s not “out there,” but “in here.” You can translate the verse that way, and many, many people will agree. To have a kingdom is to recognize a King, to give your allegiance in your heart. There’s a lot of truth to that. People can go looking all over creation for it, and it’s already inside us.

And if this is true, it means we can never afford to neglect the discipline of prayer, the reflection of study, or the work of worship. We must take responsibility to keep faith alive. If we don’t do this, we will fizzle out, especially when the tough times come.

In my own faith journey, there have been times when I have been grateful to have a clear sense that God rules over all, that I can trust my life and my world to God’s dominion. If you trust that in your heart, the kingdom is within you.

A few years ago, I spent my birthday on the cardiac floor of a local hospital. I wasn’t there to visit one of you, I was a patient in one of the beds. At noon, I ate a big greasy cheeseburger at Five Guys and said to my friend Virginia, “I have some pain in my chest.” So I went to the doctor, he put me in the hospital, they stuck the electrodes on my chest, and a nice nurse said there would be no chocolate cake with candles that night.

Turned out it was pleurisy, inflammation from a lung infection. I would be OK, but we didn’t know that for a couple of days. Since the event happened close to the weekend, my stay in the most expensive room in town was longer that I wanted it to be.

I don’t know if you’ve spent five nights on the cardiac floor, but it’s not a very restful place in February. Every time you are ready to drift off to sleep, a buzzer may sound, a voice announces somebody is coding down the hall. If you doesn’t drive you to prayer, nothing will.

The only way I could get through it was by casting myself into God’s hands and saying, “Catch me.” Then my prayers would picture all the truly sick people on the floor being held in God’s hands too. “God, be with all the people on this floor, God be with me.” Then a peace came over me, and I knew I would get through.

You’ve had those times, too. Maybe it was in the middle of fear, or confusion, or even exuberant joy, and unexpected peace came upon you. You know the exact location of the kingdom of God, and it wasn’t 14.9 kilometers from somewhere. It was deep within your soul.

But this is not the only translation of entos. Newer translations, like the New Revised Standard, say, “The Kingdom of God is among you.” It is a communal reality, something lived out in a group of people. That is, it’s not only something inside us, but something shared with others.

It’s like the early stories of the first Christian church, where everybody shared their possessions and looked out for one another.[2] It’s what the novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote about in a book that had to be smuggled out of Russia and published in another country. “Imagine a society,” he said, “built around the red-letter teachings of Jesus: non-violence, forgiveness, resisting revenge, and refusing to allow others to demean women or take advantage of those most vulnerable.”[3] Yes, indeed, imagine that.

We don’t have to look very far to see this, or know how it looks. Just two weeks ago, so many of us experienced that marvelous Worship Through Service Day. Did you see the photos or heard the stories? We painted a day care center, we fixed up a few properties, we delivered necessary supplies to a women’s shelter, we sorted and distributed books, we made music for a rehab clinic – and the best part, for my part, is that we did it together. That is the kingdom of God as a social reality, an expression of holy grace through the hands and hearts of a group of church people. It happened among us.

I know how good this made so many of you feel. You haven’t stopped talking about it. You have a shared understanding of what “church” really can be, and what we are when we are at our best. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is among you.”

But there is a third way to translate the word entos. Not only is the kingdom of God within us, not only is the kingdom among us; the kingdom of God, says Jesus, is within your reach. That’s the other way to translate it. We reach for the kingdom of God. One footnote in a translation (ESV) says it’s “within your grasp,” but that means we have to stretch for it, reach for it, strive for it . . . because it takes some reaching.

Remember all the things we have reached for: in the cradle, we reach for a sunbeam; in the playground, we reach for the monkey bars; at the Thanksgiving table, we reach for the pumpkin pie. We reach for good grades, we reach for the car keys, we reach for a good school, we reach for a good job, we reach for a good mate, we reach for a sense of security. We never stop reaching. But what are we reaching for?

Maybe we keep reaching because we are never happy, never satisfied. That capacity for reaching seems to be part of the human DNA. As someone has said, “This incessant pursuit of an ever-fugitive satisfaction springs from troubled depths within the human soul.”

St. Augustine nailed it perfectly when he wrote in the first paragraph of his Confessions, “O God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Of course, we are reaching, always reaching, until we trust we are always in God’s embrace.

Where is the kingdom of God? Within, among, slightly beyond our reach --- all the above. All of it.

·         The kingdom of God is within. Of course it’s within, but if it’s only within, it’s not big enough to be the kingdom of God.
·         The kingdom of God is among us. Yes, where there is justice, goodness, and peace, the kingdom is here. But to build justice, goodness, and peace is exhausting work. We need something deeper than external relationships.
·         The kingdom is within, it’s among, and it’s something we keep reaching for, because faith is never satisfied with the human status quo. Our deepest hunger is for God to rule in us, and among us, and beyond us.

So where is the kingdom? Is it beside the mountain lake, within the hospital room, among the fellowship of Christian co-workers, or is it something for which we reach, strive, and labor? Yes

And when we live within the merciful dominion of God that the Bible calls “the kingdom,” our restless human hearts will be at rest.

[1] I am grateful to Tom Troeger, who preached a sermon on this text that has guided my thinking and the structure of this sermon.
[2] See Acts 4:32-35
[3] Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Imagine That

Luke 17:5-6
World Communion / 27th Ordinary Time
October 2, 2106
William G. Carter

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

It’s comforting to me that the very people around Jesus wanted more faith. Maybe we’d like to believe the first apostles were spiritual superstars, and according to some legends, they were. But that simply was not true. In a flash of true honesty, we hear the first followers of Jesus ask for more faith.

We don’t know what prompts the request, and we don’t really need to ask. Walking with Jesus could be really demanding. He told all those parables that sounded delightful, but made people mad. He placed high demands on those who were closest to him. And some days, he said things that pushed people to the limit.

Just listen to what he’s been saying right before this request. If someone hurts you, you must forgive them if they repent. If someone sins against you twice in the same day, and turns to make amends, you must forgive them. And if someone sins against you seven times in a single day, and turns back to you seven times, you have no choice: you must forgive. Any questions? Yes?"

"Lord, that’s impossible to do. Could you increase our faith?"

Perhaps it is a feeling of inadequacy. Travel with Jesus, watch what he does, listen to what he says, and you can begin to feel inadequate. "Be on your guard," he said. "Everyone stumbles when they follow me, but woe to you if you cause somebody who follows me to stumble. It would be better if a millstone were hung around your neck, and you were thrown into deep water."

Oh my goodness. I reflect on all the times that I led somebody astray or gave them bad advice, and I’ll be the first to cry out, "Lord, I need more faith."

It is difficult to be a Christian, to live like a Christian. It’s all too easy to give in to the cynicism of our surroundings. If there’s a dark cloud over your head, you might universalize the experience and declare the world is falling apart. Hope slips away. Anxiety becomes a habit. You are tempted to give up. The last act of defiance is a protest cry, “Lord, increase our faith.”

Anybody can make that request, especially those who were closest to Jesus. The Gospel writer calls them “apostles.” How interesting – that’s what the followers of Jesus were called after the resurrection. They were not merely disciples, because, technically speaking, disciples are students and tag-alongs.

Apostles, on the other hand, are those who are sent out on his behalf. Apostolos is a Greek term that comes from the flower garden; it's a hardy plant that sends out a runner. It extends itself outward, with strength and confidence. For Luke, the apostles are given the power to go out to preach and heal (9:1-6). And yet, these very same apostles come up short. Maybe it's too hard to heal, too difficult to preach. Maybe the world is doing everything it can to get them to stop. So they say, “Increase our faith.”

In a world like this, the fact that anybody believes in God is a gift. We take that for granted, but it's true. The apostle Paul once said, "Nobody can believe that Jesus is Lord, except by the gift of the Holy Spirit." Faith in Jesus is not a natural habit that we are born with. It's not like infant who was born already knowing how to suck her thumb. No, faith is something else. It is a gift, and we are always in the posture of receivers.

Henri Nouwen once wrote we get faith only when we unfold our clenched fists into open hands of trust. Faith is always a gift, given from the heart of God into our open hearts. That's why the apostles said, "Lord, give us more." Whatever the reason, they came up short. Their account at First Fidelity and Trust had been drained dry. They wanted the Lord to make a sizable deposit in their names. “We want more faith.”

What Jesus had to say, both to them and to us, is not a word that provides any immediate comfort. The apostles want faith, but it sounds like Jesus rubs their noses in their own inadequacy. "You know," he says, "if you had just a little bit of faith, you could work wonders. If your faith was about the size of a little bitty mustard seed, you could say, 'Jump!' And that mulberry tree over there with its extensive root system would leap into the air and land in the sea."

“If you had a little bit of faith,” Jesus says, "you could do that.” They wanted more faith, and Jesus says, "If you had any faith, you could transplant a tree to the Mediterranean."

Now, I don’t have to tell you that’s ridiculous. Who wants to plant a tree in the bottom of the ocean?  Elsewhere when Jesus talks like this, he talks of moving mountains. Take a second to let that sink in: who wants to move a mountain? I have been to the mountains of British Columbia; those mountains are so big, it might take 90 minutes to simply drive around one of them. To move it is an act beyond the limits of reason and a physical impossibility. And that is precisely the point Jesus is making.

You see, they are having a conversation here about what faith really is. Faith is not merely an anchor in distress or a feeling of security in times of change. It is not a shot of adrenalin when you're weak, nor an inoculation against doubt, nor even the comfortable assurance of a large crowd that agrees with you. In this text, faith is the ability to see something that the world regards as a fantasy.

Transplanting a deep-rooted tree? The world says you can’t do it. Moving a mountain? The world says that’s impossible. Yet as Jesus points us to the reality of God, he invites us to envision something new, to hear something unheard of, to discover a way out of darkness even when all the exit doors are locked. That’s the Gospel – it is possible to forgive and to keep forgiving. It is possible for the hungry to be fed. It is possible for the people who have been put down to be lifted up. These things are possible because true faith can see it.

Give us more faith? “You already have enough faith.” That’s what he is saying. Gospel faith is not something we store up and increase. It is a seed planted within us as we hear of a God who makes all things new. It’s a gift. And in this text Jesus says, "You have it." 

Let me explain. The Greek language has two different clauses that begin with the word "if." The first goes like this: "If I were you, and I'm not, then I would go to church more.” That kind of “if” expresses a condition contrary to fact (`if I were you` - and I'm not).

But the second kind of “if" is a phrase that expresses a condition according to fact. It goes like this: "If Jesus Christ is our Lord, and he is, then we had better join him in his work." The phrase in our text is the second type. You could translate it, "If you had faith (and you do), then you could transplant trees, move mountains, and raise the dead with a single word."[1]

You see, Jesus is not chastising the apostles for their shallow spirituality. Rather he affirms that they already have an ample supply of the very resource they seek. For whatever reasons, these apostles sense their spiritual inadequacy. Yet Jesus invites them to join in reciting the first creed spoken in the Gospel of Luke. It's the word that an angel said to his own mother: "With God, nothing will be impossible." (1:37) God has come to us in Jesus, and now the Gospel can continue to work the grace of God.

As Jesus said to the followers of John the Baptist, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the sightless can now see, the crippled can walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Luke 7:22) Imagine that!

I have a friend who’s a poet. He says the human imagination is a muscle. It needs exercise to get it in shape. It needs to be utilized in order to be useful. And if our imagination can be rooted in our faith, then the work God does through us will only be limited by rule of God over us. If the society is mean-spirited, we can work for justice and compassion. We can raise our children in uncertain times. We can have hope for the world even if the people running for office act like nincompoops.

Because of God’s grace and power, we don’t have to be confined by the foolishness and cruelty of this age. Imagine that! We can live in the grace of Jesus Christ. And that seed of faith has already been planted in us.

So we come to a Table. Someone hands us a little piece of bread and we imagine it as a banquet. We glance around the room to see familiar faces, yet faith says all the saints of God are dining with us. We take the little cup of dark liquid, and we trust that in the blood of Jesus, all sin is forgiven and nothing shall keep us from the love of God, nothing at all. Just a little seed of faith is sufficient to welcome heaven here on earth, and that makes all the difference. And it’s enough to welcome the loving rule of God into every corner of our lives.

I know there have been times when I have prayed with the apostles, "Lord, increase my faith." But every time I do, I get the same answer. God says: "What are you going to do with the faith I've given you?"

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

[1] Fred B. Craddock, Interpretation:The Gospel of Luke (Westminster John Knox) p. 200