Saturday, July 15, 2017

Seeds

Matthew 13:1-9
July 16, 2017
William G. Carter

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”


I am always astonished at the tenacity of vegetation. The dandelion pops up overnight, blossoms in a burst of yellow, then explodes in a puff and scatters across the yard. There’s a vine that wraps itself around the back fence. Every year it gets snipped down to the soil, but every year it returns and grows taller. It’s well planted. Or there’s the blade of grass that pokes its head out of the crack in the driveway – how did the seed get there?

It appears a good seed, given the right conditions, can grow just about anywhere. A few years ago, my mother gave us some a few spearmint plants for the front garden. They took over. Now there’s no room for anything else. The few daisies that our friend Carol shared were planted in our rocky backyard and they are doing just fine. While I sipped my morning coffee, I saw them greeting the morning sun and singing alleluia.

A good seed can grow just about anywhere – but not everywhere. The rocky mountain has a bald spot somewhere around ten thousand feet. The grass grows in the crack of my driveway, but not on the driveway itself. And if it ever stops raining this summer, the sun might eventually burn out the well-lit lawn.

So Jesus tosses this familiar parable toward the ears of his hearers, uncertain where it will land. There is no telling which response will happen this time.

Some of us will race ahead a paragraph or two, and find a freeze-dried, just-add-water explanation of the parable. It’s given in the same style as Saint Augustine, who taught that the parables can function like a hidden code. He liked to say that every detail of the parable stood for something else. The Word of God’s kingdom equals the seed. Each patch of soil equals the individual listener. Rocky soil is the person with no depth. The scorching sun equals the troubles of this life. The thorns that choke out the seed are cares of the world and the lure of wealth, and so on.

This is how the early church understood the parable. It is an obvious interpretation that comes by observation. Just watch who shows up on a Sunday, and the following Sunday. Take note of who is flourishing. The Gospel seed is thrown into all kinds of soil.

There are people who stumble into a church, sit down and listen, and quickly discover a life-giving Word from God. They are excited. They return early the next week. They sit down front. But should they lose a job, have trouble at home, get snubbed at coffee hour, or discover that all the Christians have flaws, they may slip away. And if they hear something challenging in a sermon or a Bible study, they evaporate. Nothing grows. They are only around for the excitement, not the growth. It’s easy to call that shallow soil.

Or consider the people who move into town, buy the big house, have 2.3 perfect children, and drive the big car. They come to First Presbyterian Church, because it would never occur to them to go to Last Presbyterian Church. The music is stunning, the building is well-kept, the preacher went to Princeton, and most of the people look just like them.

But then, some friends at the Club mention some wonderful vacation spots. The kids get involved in weekend sports, not because they’re great athletes, but there’s where their friends are. Time passes, and one of the deacons seems them in the grocery store on a Tuesday night. “It’s been forever since we’ve been in church,” they confess. “Our weekends are just so busy.” The Bible says, “Cares of the world, the lure of wealth, it yields nothing.”

It’s easy to evaluate by the results. That’s how John Calvin developed his views on predestination. Calvin was preaching the Gospel twice a day, every day. He noticed that some people got it and others fell asleep. Some people grew in the faith while others daydreamed. Calvin said, “Obviously God has turned on the lights for some and kept the lights off for others.” It never occurred to him to evaluate the quality of his sermons, but, well, he was noticing the results.

American church people love to look at the results. Where is the growth happening? Where is there a thirty-fold, sixty-fold, hundred-fold return? Where are the other churches growing? What are they doing? What fresh ideas can we steal from them? After all, they’ve been stealing our members; we should up our game and steal some of theirs.

It’s tempting to look at the results. If you look at the results, you never ask what kind of soil you are. Is this acidic soil? Are there some rocks here? Has it been paved over?

Even tougher: have I allowed the crows to snatch the seed away from me? Are there thorns of privilege and affluence wrapping themselves around my legs?

It’s a hundred times easier to look out there than it is to reflect in the mirror and ask, “Why isn’t the seed of God’s kingdom growing and flourishing in me?” It is a worthy question - - but I don’t think it has a lot to do with the parable.

This is the parable of the Sower. The Sower went out to sow. And what does he do? He throws the seed all over the place. He shows no caution, no preparation, no hesitation, and so the seed goes everywhere. He does not prepare the ground, pull up the weeds, or remove the stones. He doesn’t chase away the birds, block the sun, or chop down the thorns. No, he’s not the gardener. He is the Sower.

So let’s pay attention to what we learn about him. I have made a list.

First item on the list: he has a lot of seed. He never runs out of seed. You might say he’s the source of all the seed. Never has a shortage when it comes to sowing the seed.

Second item on the list: this Sower is terrifically generous. He throws the seed all over the place. It’s not restricted to carefully dug furrows. The seed is thrown everywhere. It doesn’t matter if the soil is rough or welcoming. There is always fertile seed which carries its own promise within its own shell.

Third item on the list: the Sower is not interested in controlling the outcome. All he wants to do is spread the seed around as far as he can. There are all kinds of soil; for all we know, the Sower may have created all that soil too. But for now, it is the season for seeding, and he is doing a marvelous job. The seed is all over.

Fourth, and maybe the most important item on the list: the Sower knows if that seed is going to grow, it’s going to grow. It’s good quality seed, the best seed possible. In fact, it might be the only seed there is. Its source is in the Sower. It is his seed, and his seed alone.

As I reflected on this, I remembered the prophetic poem of Isaiah which we included as one of the readings for today. Let me remind us of the pithy parts:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
    and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

Do you know what I hear emerge in those words? That God is responsible for God’s own kingdom. That God gives life to the soil and the soul. That God’s own Word will take root and flourish. That God is not concerned with wasting words but creating bread, specifically the Bread of Life.

So I think about this. I don’t believe our job is to be selective, restrictive, or evaluative. No, in the name of the Sower, we are called to be generous. Keep spreading the seed of God’s kingdom.

I recall a conversation with a youth group leader. She was feeling worn out. Plans would be made for the youth of our community, and few of the kids would show up. She would say, “I don’t know what to do.” I responded, “Keep going. You never know when the seed might take root.” So she would try again. There would be little, if no response.

One day, she was getting ready to send out some information and she had two sets of labels. I said, “Why two sets of labels?” Well, one was the A List, and the other was the B List. The A List comprised the few kids who were a sure bet to come – they loved the program, or their parents forced them to come, or maybe both. The B List named the kids who never came. The information was only going to get sent to the A List. She said, “Why should we waste the invitation on the ones who never come?”

I simply responded, “Because you never know.” You never really know. This is not harvest time yet. It’s sowing time. And God has a way of creating life where you can’t imagine it possible. Come over and look at the grass sprouting up in the cracks of my driveway.

Now if you have ears to hear, and you hear this parable of Jesus, and if you flinch when you hear him speak of “shallow soil” or “the thorns that choke out the seed, due to the cares of the world or the lure of wealth,” pay attention to that. Make the necessary changes that you might welcome “the life that really is life.”[1] (1 Timothy 6:19)

Every week, I meet people on the street or in the stores, and they say, “Oh, I don’t get to church as much as I should.” Or “it’s been a while since I’ve been to church.” Or “Hey stranger, I bet you’ve been missing me.” Well, of course I’ve been missing you. To quote a favorite poet, “What life have you if you have not life together?”[2] It’s good for us to be together, if only for an hour a week.

But I cannot change anybody’s schedule for them. I am powerless to rearrange anybody else’s priorities. It is not my role to cancel somebody’s trip to the shore or declare that travel soccer is the bane of all Christian educators. It’s up to each of us to consider what we might do to welcome the Word that God speaks, to nourish it in our hearts, and take part in the fruitfulness of the Gospel of God.

And let's keep our eyes on the Sower. As for me, I want to sow the seed of the kingdom, as God sows the seed: generously, lovingly, without restriction, because I have seen what happens when the love of God takes root in a person’s life. The hopeless brighten like the summer daisies. The drunkard sells his beer and buys furniture. The self-centered suburbanite befriends the poor. The old crank transforms into Santa Claus. The fractured souls are healed.

The Gospel bears abundant fruit. Just as the Sower intended.



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


[1] 1 Timothy 6:19
[2] T.S. Eliot, “Choruses from the Rock”

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Rest

Matthew 11:28-30
July 2, 2017
William G. Carter

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”


I don’t know of a more inviting invitation. “Come to me and I will give you rest.” He speaks to the woman who cannot sleep, to the child who is anxious, and to the man is bone-tired. Come . . . rest. The invitation is gentle, not forceful. He speaks from a level place, a humble place. And his invitation includes all: “all you,” or as they say in the South, “you all.” There’s not a single person excluded. Everybody come, come and rest.

What intrigues me is why so many people turn him down. Have you ever noticed that?

As a kid, I learned from my father. He knew how to put in a long day’s work. At his desk by eight every morning, home for supper by six, then he would change his clothes and go outside for a few more hours of labor. Dad came from a family of farmers. They didn’t sit very much, unless Grandpa was riding the red tractor in his straw hat and a strand of timothy grass in his teeth. Even then, the days were long and there was precious little rest.

When we would visit those grandparents, we’d leave at the end of an IBM workday. Mom would have the kids bundled up and ready go. Dad would roar up the street, run in and change his clothes, and off we’d go, six hours in the car, along endless Route 6. Next morning, he would wake early on his parents’ farm, slug down some coffee, and ask if there was anything he could do to help. He didn’t rest when he went on vacation.

I know a lot of people like that. They can quote the Bible: “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop,” says one version of a verse from the book of Proverbs.[1] Or there is that section that somebody read to us at the teenage Bible camp:

Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.
Without having any chief, officer or ruler, she prepares her food in summer,

    and gathers her sustenance in harvest.
How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a vagabond, and want like an armed man. (Proverbs 6:6-11, RSV)

It’s a compelling lesson from nature. And in case you don’t know what a “sluggard” is, the New Revised Standard translates the word as “lazybones.” Go to the hard working ant, O lazybones, and learn your lesson. Work hard. Don’t ever sit still. The Calvinists didn’t invent a hard work ethic. They found it in their Bibles.

But there’s also the invitation to rest. According to the Greek dictionary, to rest is “to cease from movement or labor in order to recover and collect (one’s) strength.” Now, we don’t need a dictionary to tell us that. We already know what rest is. It’s just that we don’t do it very well. 

And do you know why that is? As Jesus suggests, it’s a matter of the soul. “Come to me,” he says, “and I will give you rest for your souls.” The soul is the part of us that’s alive. It’s the intersection of thought, feeling, and breath. It’s the gift breathed into us by God’s Spirit that makes us human. The soul is the wellspring of our dreams, the anchor for our imagination, the seat of all passion and hope.

And the soul is the part of us that can be traumatized, anxious, and fearful. When the soul is wounded, one of the typical responses is to keep pushing on, persisting through, often in the vain hope that if we just add another inch to the span of our day, we will speed by or gloss over the deep wound that we are trying to avoid.

That’s what Wayne Muller identified as he reflected the practice of keeping Sabbath – and why so many people resist it. He writes:

This is one of our fears of quiet; if we stop and listen, we will hear this emptiness. If we worry we are not good or whole inside, we will be reluctant to stop and rest, afraid we will find a lurking emptiness terrible, aching void with nothing to fill it, as if it will corrode an destroy us like some horrible, insatiable monster. If we are terrified of what we will find in rest, we will refuse to look up from our work, refuse to stop loving. We quickly fill all the blanks on our calendar with tasks, accomplishments, errands, things to be done . . . anything to fill the time, the empty space.[2]  

He’s right about that. Go to a restaurant and watch the people around you. Some of them would rather stay attached to their smart phones than have an intelligent conversation. Go the shore to get away from it all, and when you realize that others had the same idea, take note of how many of them are staying tethered to email and internet.

It is simply the next extension of what I discovered about two weeks after I bought my first laptop computer some twenty-five years ago: because we can do work anywhere, we never stop working, especially if the work is mental, or emotional, or virtual, or expected of us. Let me tell you it was interesting to spend four days last week in a place in the New Mexico desert where there was little internet service, and you only got cell phone service if you stood on a table with your left arm in the air as an antenna. Don’t ask how I discovered about the cell phone service.

So what is the rest that restores our souls? That is the invitation of Jesus Christ. We find it by “coming to him.” And what is that? Coming to a church? No, we come to him. If you merely come to church, it will exhaust you.

But we can’t see him. How do we come to him?  I think we come by paying attention to his grace. We come by listening to Jesus say that every one of us has inestimable value. We come by chewing on his promise that we “do not live by bread alone,” but by the life-giving words that come from the mouth of God. We come by observing the birds of the air and how they are cared for by an Unseen Benevolence. We come by admiring the wildflowers which bring beauty to life’s path and we did not plant them.

It’s all about grace, the invisible goodness and favor which give us our lives in the first place. If we’re convinced that life is only weariness and burden, then we’re missing how everything is really a gift, a generous gift. If we are obsessed with the latest stupid stunt of some public figure, then we’re missing what a wonderful blessing it is to be together, to pursue the dreams we have in common, to work for the benefit of all of us.

Maybe the saddest addiction of all is to be consumed only with myself – my views, my fears, my worries, my hurts, my anger, my wounds. I don’t know if there is a heavier burden than that. There is only one way to have that burden lifted from our shoulders. It is to come to Christ, who alone is saving the world as an expression of the goodness and grace of God. We really do have to give up the burden of being addicted to ourselves.

I recently picked up the latest collection of Sabbath poems by Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer. For forty years, he has spent Sundays resting, going for a walk, and writing short poems on Sabbath themes. He pays attention to the world that thrives even on his Sabbath day off. In the book’s preface he writes these words:

We are to rest on the Sabbath in order to understand that the providence or the productivity of the living world, the most essential work, continues while we rest. This work is entirely independent of our work, and is far more complex and wonderful than any work we have ever done or will ever do. It is more complex and beautiful than we will ever understand.[3]

The world doesn’t revolve around us. Maybe it’s better for us to orbit around the One who made it all, the One who fills it with life and brings it to such abundance.

“Come to me . . . and I will give you rest.” That’s why the invitation persists. We don’t rest once and then think we’re done with it. Neither do we sit on our hands while others labor to benefit us. A full life is a rhythm of work and rest, of task and reflection. And if life is out of balance, if the rhythm is limping, the invitation is to come. To keep coming. To persist in coming to the grace of Jesus Christ.

At its heart, this kind of rest is about one thing: what will fill me with God’s abundant life? What will restore my soul?  What are the practices that create a song in my heart? What is it, for you, that brings you totally alive? That’s the kind of rest we’re talking about.

Every one of us has an answer unique based on who they are, how they are growing, and how they are wondrously made. In my house, one of us picks up yarn and needles, and imagines a hat for a premature infant; although these days, she is just as likely to design and create a kitchen table or a backyard deck. (It is an awesome thing to be married to a woman with a nailgun.) Meanwhile I sit in my blue chair, juggling metaphors or scratching out a new jazz melody. All of us are wired differently.

The lady up the street has an enormous flower garden; tending it is what gives her life. Or there’s the man who persists in welcoming cast-off puppies; they keep him company and he returns the favor.

For some people, it’s running marathons (which I can’t understand) or singing difficult songs (which I do). For other people, it’s providing a happy table, where joy is the main course.

For some people, it’s the solitary work of quiet prayer for the needs of the world. For others, it’s translating those prayers into acts of mercy and justice. It gives life to them and to others.

This is what it means to come to Christ in restorative rest. In the grace of God, we find what gives us life and we pursue it. And we keep pursuing it, not for the sake of indulgence, but in the pursuit of a greater integration and health. It’s a different kind of yoke to be placed upon our shoulders. We give up all the other slaveries and take on the disciplines that heal our souls.

And that’s why we keep coming into this place and gathering at this Table. For this is where we hear once again how much we are loved, how deeply we are saved, and how greatly the world is kept in hands far more gracious and just than our own.

May you have a blessed Sabbath, again and again.


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


[1] Proverbs 16:23, The Living Bible
[2] Wayne Muller, Sabbath (New York: Bantam, 1999) p. 51-52
[3] Wendell Berry, This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2013), introduction.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

How Much Should We Pack?

Ordinary 11
June 18, 2017
William G. Carter

As much as I like to travel, I’m never sure how much to pack. When my wife and I fly out to Albuquerque for vacation this Friday, we will do our best to keep a week’s worth of possessions down to one suitcase. That’s the goal. It’s not certain that will happen.

Packing is determined by two contradictory principles: how do we move quickly? How can we be prepared for every contingency? How many pairs of pants can we take, or in my wife’s case, how many pairs of shoes? Should we pack an umbrella? Does it rain in New Mexico? How about a suit jacket, in case our hosts take us out to dinner? Meanwhile, we booked a very small rental car – will the suitcase fit in the back?

Packing is an art form. For wisdom, I recently printed off an article: “How to pack like a Ninja.” There’s great advice: roll up your t-shirts, and take one less than you think you’ll need. Roll up your socks and stick them in your shoes. To save space, wear a jacket onto the plane. Don’t waste valuable suitcase space.

On the other hand, it’s possible to forget the essentials. Like the kid who was in such a hurry to get out of the house and spend a Friday night with friends. Around eleven that night, I got a phone call. A sheepish voice whispered, “Dad, could you bring over some underwear? I forgot to bring some. But whatever you do, don’t tell me friends.” Of course I won’t tell your friends; I’ll save that story for a sermon. Ah, Father’s Day!

So I was paying close attention when Jesus sent out twelve of his followers. He gave them the authority to do his work, and sent them out to travel around as he has been traveling around. And what’s the best advice at the heart of his commission? Don’t take anything with you.

In Eugene Peterson’s translation, Jesus says, “Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood… Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously… travel light.”

Well, of course. Too much baggage can get in the way. Like that family trip years ago to attend a cousin’s wedding. On the way through the Mojave Desert, our rental car got a flat tire, about a hundred miles shy of Barstow, California. The tire was changed with a spare, but the punctured tire wouldn’t fit underneath where the spare came from. And there was no room for the tire inside the car because there was too much luggage, so it had to go on somebody’s lap.  

“Travel light is good advice.” Yet Jesus pushes it to extremes: “Carry no bag for your journey. Take no sandals, no walking stick. Forget about an extra shirt. And most of all, take no money.”

That reminds me of the hazing story when my father joined a college fraternity. They blindfolded him late one night and put him in the trunk of a car. Then they drove around for forty five minutes, stopped somewhere, and told him to get out. He had no wallet, no money, no compass, no flashlight. And they said, “See you back at the fraternity house. Figure out how you’re going to get there,” and sped away.

Obviously he made it back, or I wouldn’t be telling the story. He never said how he did it, but he did say it wasn’t easy.

And Jesus isn’t hazing anybody. He’s sending them out to do ministry. He has been healing a lot of people, an awful lot of people, and there’s more work to get done than he can get done. He’s a human being, not a Superman. A human being can only put in so many eighteen hour days, can only be in one place at a time. So he calls out twelve of his followers to extend the work. Jesus gives them direction, commissions them to go, and says, “Don’t pack anything.”

Well, that’s not to say he doesn’t give them something. You know what he gives them? You know what he gives us? A small little sack of words.

“When you go somewhere, say, ‘The Kingdom of God has come near to you.” That is, God is ruling over heaven and earth, and God is right here. And the second thing you say is ‘Peace be to this house!' That’s what I give you. That’s all you have to carry. Nothing else is necessary. You are sent into the world with a handful of words."

In a way, that is a relief. The words Jesus gives are simple words. They're easy to remember. Not too burdensome to carry.  And it's good to know that God's work can be done without a lot of props. We need no bag, no sandals, no purse.  We need no flip-charts, no brochures, no PowerPoint presentations. That's good to hear, because the props can get in the way.

Years ago, when my sister worked at a Presbyterian summer camp, she brought back a book that they used for devotions. It’s a snarky little book, full of wisecracking little parables, which is probably why it is still on my shelf. Here’s one of my favorites:

 In a certain town, an advertising executive decided to sell God.  She invited some clients to a presentation.  Then she got busy.  First she converted the "God message" to a variety of abstract images projected onto a screen.  Next she added a catchy soundtrack with guitars and drums. Finally she hired a caterer to serve drinks and hors d'oeuvres in the softly-lit room. As her clients arrived, she chatted with them casually. Then came the visual pitch. Afterwards people complimented her creative approach. She was pleased and said she was glad they liked it.  With a chuckle she added, "I hope you'll buy my product."  People looked confused and uncomfortable.  Finally someone said, "Oh, are you selling something?"[1]

The props can get in the way. Contrast that to what writer Frederick Buechner reminds us about Alcoholics Anonymous: They meet in basements and spare rooms, because an addiction to alcohol is ruining their lives. They have no budget, no hierarchy, no building of their own. They simply tell their own stories, where they went wrong, how they are trying to go right, how they find the strength and hope to keep going on. There’s not much more to it than that and it seems to be enough. Healing happens. Miracles are made.[2]

This is what Church is meant to be, he says. Sinners Anonymous.

"I send you without a bag or sandals or purse," says Jesus, for God's work is best done with words. At the bottom of it all, we need no steeple, no pulpit, no organ, no blackboard, no office. In fact, we don't even need a coffee pot. Don't get me wrong; these things are nice, but in the ultimate economy of God, all we are given are a few words.  I, for one, find that refreshing.

What delights me even more is that Jesus implies that our words can carry the freight of the Gospel.  I had forgotten that words have such power.  Of course, not just any words will do.  Jesus gives us the right kind of words. He gives us words of blessing and words of truth.

Whenever you go into a house, said Jesus, say a blessing.  Say "Peace be to this house!"  It makes no demand.  It requires no decision.  It simply announces the salvation that Jesus came to bring.  As one scholar puts it, “When you speak like that, you release God's good news into the air.  God offers peace to all within hearing.  Anyone hungering for such wholeness is free to respond on their own terms.[3]

And when you go into a town, said Jesus, tell people the truth.  Oh, you can eat with people and heal the sick.  You can paint their houses and mow their lawns.  But don't forget to speak up and say, "God's kingdom has come near to you."  You see, that's the truth!  Regardless of how effective your good deeds, regardless of whether or not anybody wants you around, you need to speak up and say, "God's kingdom has come near to you." 

After all, it's God's kingdom, not yours, mine, or theirs. Its coming doesn't depend on you. The kingdom is at hand, regardless of how many good deeds we do along the way.  God's reign has broken into human history.  So speak up and say so.  Announce that God is here, that new possibilities for life are at hand.

It encourages me to hear such good news, especially given our circumstances.  The plain fact is that the world is not knocking down our door to hear the gospel.  I checked this morning's newspaper and there's as much pain and suffering as there was yesterday.  All the more reason for Jesus to send us out into the world.  He allows us no bag, no sandals, no purse, and no props.  He sends us out as lambs in the midst of wolves, carrying only a few fragile words. Still the question remains: Are words enough? Do they have sufficient power?  Is there anything we can say in God's name to make a tangible difference in a painful world?  What do you think?

Walt Wangerin, the Lutheran storyteller, tells about his church organist, an imposing woman named Joselyn Fields.  At forty-seven, she was stricken with cancer.  Spring, summer, and autumn, he went out to visit the woman.

He said he didn't know what to say, nor did he understand what he had the right to say.  He wore out the Psalms; the Psalms were safe. He prayed that the Lord's will be done, scared to tell either the Lord or Joselyn what the Lord's will ought to be. By his own estimation, he bumbled.

One day when she awoke from surgery, he decided to be cheerful, to enliven her and to avoid the specter that unsettled him -- the death.  He chattered. He spoke brightly of the sunlight outside, and vigorously of the tennis he had played that morning, sweetly of the flowers, hopefully of the day she would sit again at the organ, reading music during his sermon.  But Joselyn rolled a black eye his way.  She raised one bony finger to his face. And she said, "Shut up."  He shut up.  He kept visiting her.

And so he writes, "The autumn whitened into winter; and Joselyn became no more than bones; her rich skin turned ashy; her breath filled the room with a close odor which ever thereafter has meant dying to my nostrils.  And the day came when I had nothing, absolutely nothing to say to Joselyn."

He said, "I entered her room at noon, saying nothing. I sat beside her through the afternoon, saying nothing.  She lay awake, her eyelids paper-thin and drooping, watchful eyes -- we, neither of us, saying anything.  But with the evening came the Holy Spirit.  The words I finally said were not my own."

Walt said, "I turned to Joselyn. I opened my mouth and said, `I love you.'  And Joselyn widened her ebony eye. And that lady, she put out her arms. She hugged me. And I hugged those dying bones. She whispered, `I love you, too.'  That was all we said. But that was the power from on high, cloaking both of us in astonished simplicity, even as Jesus had said it would.

Joselyn died. And Walt says he did not grieve.  For the yellow fingers of death had already lost their grip.[4]

"Behold," Jesus said, "I send you into the world to do my work.  You don't need a fat purse, or a bag, or brand new sandals." All he gives us are a handful of words. Words of blessing: "Peace be with you!" Words of truth: "God is ruling, and close at hand." Above all else, they are words of love. That's all we need. That's all we're given. 

They are enough.



William G. Carter. All rights reserved.


[1] Lois Cheney, God Is No Fool, publisher unknown
[2] Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark
[3] Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel of Luke, p. 848
[4] Told in his wonderful book Ragman (New York: Harper and Row)

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Spelling Trinity

2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20
Trinity Sunday / Ordination and Installation
June 11, 2017
William G. Carter

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.


Some time back, my friend Jane was ordained by the Presbyterians, not as an elder or deacon, but as a minister of word and sacrament. She graduated from seminary, passed all her exams, and lined up a job. She wanted to be ordained in her home church, over in Dallas, Pennsylvania, and it was a privilege to celebrate that day with her.

She moved out of state, and her ordination certificate arrived in the mail a few weeks later. Jane tore open the envelope and was excited to see her name on the certificate. But her countenance fell when she discovered the clerk of the presbytery has misspelled the name of her home church. If you’ve been over to Dallas, you may remember the name of the church is “Trinity Presbyterian Church.” The stated clerk spelled it, “T – R – N – I – T – I – Y.”

For somebody with dyslexia, all of those “t’s” and “i’s” might be hard to keep straight. Yet the presbytery clerk was a minister, and you would expect a minister to get that word right. So Jane sent back the certificate, asked for a corrected copy, and waited a few more weeks to get one. “After all,” she said, “Trinity is a word that we ought to know how to spell.”

Christian people will agree with her, although it takes a while to learn how to spell that word. The New Testament speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the word “Trinity” never appears in its pages. It took a while for the church to spell out the word for the first time. And its heart, all spiritual growth is about making sense of what that word means.

The two New Testament texts are conclusions of the books where they are found. In Matthew 28, Jesus is risen from the dead and gathers all the disciples that are still around for a final charge. “Authority is given to me, all authority,” he says. “I’ve been making disciples out of you, so I send you to make disciples out of all the people of the world.”

And how do you make disciples? First of all, you baptize them. You claim them for God by washing them with water. And then you teach them everything that Jesus has been teaching: blessed are the poor in spirit, forgive one another countless times, give a cool cup of water to those who thirst, visit the prisoners, heal the sick, have no fear.

A disciple is defined as a Christ follower. It is a person who is claimed by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are baptized in the name of the Trinity.

At the end of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church, he offers a blessing in the name of the Trinity. We hear it just about every week: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.  The order is significant: Jesus is the One who gathers us in grace, that grace brings us to God who is the One whose very being is Love, and “communion” (or “fellowship”) is the ongoing gift of the Holy Spirit.

What’s so striking about that this blessing comes at the end of a very cranky letter. Second Corinthians talks about how hard it is to do God’s work in the world. And not only in the world-in-general, but the congregation in particular. A congregation is full of people, forgiven sinners, yes, but unfinished saints. They will beat you up, and then talk you down when you are gone. They will resist the grace, fight against the love, and break the fellowship.  

That’s why we have to hear this well-worn blessing in its original context. Let me read again the lines that lead up to it:

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. 

He’s talking to a difficult and contentious crowd. They are in competition with one another. They are in love with the enticements of the world. Some of them are saying, “Why do we have to collect money for those disaster victims in Rome? They aren’t Corinthians.” To put it simply, there’s not a single one there who is about to greet another with a holy kiss.

But Paul knows what the Christian life is called to be: a life of cooperative service and compassionate regard, a life that shares in the mind of Christ, the benevolence of the One God who sent Christ among us, and the companionship of the Spirit who is the presence of the Risen Christ. So he says it: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Or to answer the question somebody once asked, “What does the Trinity have to do with us?” The answer: everything! There is no life apart from God. There is no mission, no purpose, if we are not sent to share the fullness of God’s gift of life with others. There is real sense of community unless we share that life with one another, in the presence and fellowship of the God who gives that life.

For a long while, a lot of Christians didn’t talk a lot about the Trinity. It was a concept, an abstract idea, some inherited notion that we were supposed to believe. At best, we might hear a children’s sermon about it, as some dear soul held up a three-leaf shamrock and said, “This is what God is like.” I think I gave that children’s sermon at least once, and when I was done, a bored congregation snapped back to life and went on with its business.

Yet in recent years, Trinity has re-emerged as something more than an ancient idea. It’s an insight into the very life of God, that God’s essential identity is community, that God is anything but static and in constantly motion. And if the idea of Three-in-One and One-in-Three is too big, too incomprehensible, it’s a healthy reminder that God is greater than we are . . .

But let it also be a reminder that the God of grace, love, and communion is near at hand. The God who saves the world in Jesus is still saving and replenishing the world in the Spirit.

And if that’s too much to take in, let me put the cookies on a lower shelf and say, “God is alive.” If you remember nothing else about the Trinity, remember that. The Triune God is full of life, abundant life, joyful life, healing life, victorious life, sacrificial life, loving life.

So the question today is, “What does the Trinity have to do with elders and deacons?” What does the Trinity have to do with the leaders of a congregation?  Same answer: everything!  If the congregation is to be alive, it is the life of God that brings it alive, over and over again. And the role of the church’s leaders is to spell this out, to discover and enact the essential practices for us to live together in the life of God.

Sometimes it’s obvious: the Session oversees the worship, the education, the mission and fellowship of the church. The Deacons are the compassion arms and feet of the Risen Christ. There’s always something to do

Sometimes it’s not so obvious, at least until you look beneath the surface to see what’s really going on.

I’ve seen this happen many times, too many to count, but my all-time favorite example was a Session meeting at my first church, back when I was about 27 years ago. There was a major argument at the meeting. It consumed about forty-five minutes of energy, not counting the extra hour of conversation in the parking lot.

Now, you may want to know the nature of the controversy. What might demand forty-five minutes of volunteer time, multiplied by a table full of wise elders? Did we have a moral issue to address within the membership? Was the treasurer dipping into the offering plate? Was the church school curriculum teaching Methodist heresy? Was the building unsafe? Was the pastor skipping out on sermon preparation to play in jazz clubs? What terrible controversy could burn that kind of energy?

I’ll tell you what it was: it was a down-in-the-mud fight about what kind of coffee we would serve at coffee hour. Folgers crystals or fresh-brewed? The lines were drawn, the positions were intractable, the coalitions defined.

And the problem was this: over here, we had a new chair of the Fellowship Committee, a man new to the congregation that nobody knew very well, and over here, we had the former chair of the Fellowship Committee, a dear soul who was burned out from years on the committee. In fact, that entire committee was burned out, so when the former chair moved onto other things, they all quit with her.

That left the new man to do all the work of the committee by himself. Since he was a retired state police officer, a no-nonsense guy, he wasn’t going to fuss about things where he didn’t get any help. So he went out and bought a big jar of freeze dried Folgers coffee, plugged in a hot water brewer before worship, and said, “Here’s your coffee hour.” Since he was also a retired state police officer, he had an in with the local donut shop, so he would also get them to donate a few dozen old donuts for the cause. No nonsense: here’s your coffee hour.

Well, the former members of the committee thought that was terrible and said so. The former chair of the committee agreed with them. Those who actually drink coffee had a strong and well-brewed opinion about the situation. Those who didn’t drink coffee had strong opinions about it, too. I mean, it’s church.

The controversy went on for forty-five minutes. I tried to shut it down a couple of times, but I was quickly told I was merely the pastor, and not entitled to an opinion. So I watched the fire blaze until it flickered into ashes. 

When there was a moment of silence, a wise elder spoke up. “So what’s all this really about?” he said. He had watched most of the proceedings rather than speak; now it was his turn. “I don’t believe this is about instant coffee or fresh brewed. This is about the old versus the new, and I will say to the old-timers if you don’t welcome the newcomers, you’re going to die.”

He went on, a sly smile on his face: “It’s also about the nature of our life together as a congregation. We come to coffee hour to enjoy one another, to welcome visitors, sometimes even to get some work done or to recruit volunteers. Coffee is our third sacrament, so it ought to taste good, and we all have to work together to ensure that it’s a quality event each week that others will want to attend. I’m going to help the new guy next week. Who’s going to help after that?” He waited them out until most folks volunteered.

Then we adjourned the meeting, closed in prayer, and then went out to the parking lot to process his wisdom.

Did you hear what he said? “It’s about the nature of our life together.” That’s a good leadership question. You look at your congregation and say, “What’s going to give this group of people the greatest amount of life?” What’s going to open them up to the fullness of God’s Spirit? What’s going to build upon the old to embrace the new? What’s going to move us together toward the mind of Christ? What’s going to announce that God is real and alive around here?

Maybe it’s expressed in the choice between instant coffee and fresh brewed, but I will tell you this: it is always about the grace, love, and communion of God . . . with us. When we encounter them, discern them, plan for them, or be surprised by them, that's how we know the Trinity is alive.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.


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

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Why Looking Up is Not a Good Idea

Acts 1:4-11
Easter 7
May 28, 2017
William G. Carter

While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’

 So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’


I don’t know about you, but if I saw a man fly up into the sky, I would stand there and watch him too.

It’s not the sort of thing that you see every day. Back when I was a little kid, I remember seeing the movie “Thunderball.” James Bond needs to escape from a chateau. So he straps on a rocket pack and flies up and out, where his car is parked and a pretty girl was waiting. A rocket pack - that was cool.

Just imagine Jesus, lifting up, disappearing into the clouds. I think I’d stand there and watch. Wouldn’t you?

Just imagine the spectacle of the occasion! Like the church in Tennessee that noticed the crowds had dropped after Easter. So they announced that they would re-enact the ascension of Jesus. They put out press releases, invited all the neighbors, brought in television cameras. On the appointed day, they brought in a crane, put a vest on their pastor, and yanked him into the air. Everybody looked up! It was an impressive occasion, one I hope is never repeated..

But I’m intrigued by the retort of the two men in white robes: “People of Galilee, why are you standing there, looking up towards heaven? It’s an unusual line, so unusual that it’s neglected by the Bible commentators. They don’t say anything about it.

Symbolically, we can understand what else is going on. Jesus has risen from the dead. Now he is returning to his Father. Where’s his Father? Up there, somewhere. Isn’t that what we think about heaven? It’s taller than us, bigger than our understanding, just out of sight. We can understand the symbolism of Christ being lifted up, even if none of the cosmonauts saw him when they flew into outer space.

It’s not just a spatial matter. It’s a description of authority: Christ rules over the kingdom of God. He watches over us. He reigns over all the nations and their crazy leaders. That’s very good news. And the Psalms talk that way. Like Psalm 47, a coronation psalm: “The Lord, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth. (47:2).” It does say “over.” Then the psalm says, “God has gone up with a shout (Psalm 47:5).” We all know what “up” means.

And as Jesus goes up, it gives an extra emphasis to his final words. He’s not singing, “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places.” No, his final words are a promise: “The Spirit will come and give you power to be my witnesses.”

And as he departs, two men in white robes are suddenly present, just as they were on Easter Sunday (Luke 24:4). They are standing with their feet firmly on the ground. And they say, “Why are you looking up?”

I’ve been giving some thought to that this week. As I’ve reflected on it, there are at least three reasons why looking up is not always a good idea.

Here’s the first: if you’re looking up, you might be tempted to think that what’s up there is better than what’s down here. If this world has problems, maybe you want to get off of it. There’s no overpopulation on Mars, and if you could go to Mars, you wouldn’t have to deal with the problems down here.

Now, I know that sounds fantastic, even a little bit crazy, but there are a lot of people who think Christian faith is about going to Mars. That faith should be an escape from all the troubles and travails here on earth. There are some people who even think that someday the trumpet will blow and all the true believers will float up into the sky. They believe they will get to escape, and leave behind all the poor shmoes who aren’t as enlightened as they are.

Biblically speaking, that’s nonsense. It’s contrary to everything that Jesus says and does. He speaks truth, he heals the sick, he feeds the hungry – because this life matters, because these people matter, because this world was created by his Word and it matters. According to the Gospels, he says, “The kingdom of God is among you (Luke 17:21).” It’s not up there, but down here, in our midst, waiting to be found. And there’s no escaping the hard work of being a servant to others in the name of Jesus.  

Besides, down here on the ground is where the action is. The heavenly witnesses in white can tell us that. We don’t get to escape by going up. Rather, God is coming down here in Jesus Christ. He came down once, and the witnesses say one day he will come down again. So there’s no escaping this planet while there is Christian work to be done.

There’s a small cemetery over on Lily Lake Road in Dalton. One day I was over there for a graveside service. After finishing the prayer and giving the blessing, my friend Bud, the funeral director, said, “Come here, I want to show you something.” We walked a little bit, and then he pointed to a blue headstone shaped to look like the Starship Enterprise. Apparently the deceased was a Trekkie. According to Bud, his final words were, “Beam me up Scotty, there’s no intelligent life down here.”

I guess you can live that way, but it’s not really living. It’s escaping.

Here’s the second problem with looking up: it entices you to believe that the only power in the universe is trickle-down power.

Now certainly, God is greater than we are. There is nobody here who is qualified to create a solar system, nobody here with the power to create a new species. Those abilities are above our pay grade. We pray, in no small part, because we wish to be in communion with the Holy God who can do all things.

But here’s the problem. That Holy God has often been represented by a kind of vertical theology. God is way up there, and we are way down here. God is holy and beyond our comprehension, and we are thoughtless worms who don’t know very much at all.

Diana Butler Bass describes this as an “elevator theology.” God hands down words of instruction to the clergy, who hand down the heavenly wisdom to the rest of us. The clergy, she says, are professional elevator operators. They go to professional elevator operator school, they learn the right terminology, they learn how to splash baptismal water and dispense bread and wine as gifts that have descended from the elevator. And if people follow their instructions, they could ride the elevator up to heaven when they die.[1]

Her research as a church historian suggests that this vision is outdated. We have different understandings of science, technology, and politics that are not top-down. Communication doesn’t only come down through news authorities; a single tweet will ricochet sideways (even if you don’t know what a tweet is). She says people are increasingly seeing God as part of the web or ecosystem humans inhabit rather than as part of a vertical structure. That is, God is not in some faraway place but much closer to us.

I think she’s right about that. The future of religious communities will not come from reaching toward the heavens, but recovering the mystical reality at the heart of our faith. What’s this mystical reality? It’s looking for the work of God among us. It’s the prayerful perceiving of God in the middle of our lives, in the middle of our struggles, even in the middle of our pain. It’s what the adults on mission trips or kids at Camp Lackawanna call “the God moments.”

It’s making a move from thinking God is detached and indifferent (high and lofty), or worse, thinking God is always ready to spring a trap on us and say “gotcha” (holy and angry), to asking, “God, what are you doing right here? What do you wish to do in my life?” It’s a different set of questions, not seeking top-down answers, but welcoming God’s holy presence.

And that leads me to the third problem with always looking up: if you’re always looking up, you miss what’s going on all around us.

This week, in the aftermath of that terrorist attack at the Manchester concert in England, somebody remembered some wisdom from, of all people, Mister Rogers. You might know that Fred Rogers was not only had an Emmy award-winning show for children. He was a Presbyterian minister, and a rather remarkable human being.

So here’s what he said. "When something terrible happened, a tragedy like an earthquake or a hurricane or something really awful, I would wonder where God was. Where is God? My mother used to say, "Look for the helpers.  There will always be helpers, even if they are on the sidelines. That's where God is.”

Fred said, “To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing there are still so many caring people in this world. If you look for the helpers, you will know there is hope.[2]

And if you’re only looking up at the sky, shaking your fist, and saying, ‘Why aren’t you doing something?” you are probably missing what God is already doing.

So we don’t look up to escape. And we don’t look up in the hope that God might dribble down a little grace if we’re good enough. We look around here, and pay attention, asking to see afresh that Christ is alive and working among us, around us, and through us.

And when we see him, or when we perceive where he is and what he is doing, we will have something to say to the world. We will be his witnesses. You and I – we’ll have something to say.
  


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

[1] See her recent book, Grounded: Finding God in the World. Or watch her at https://youtu.be/tHFsK0BNz7Y?t=13m37s