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

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Is Easter Still Real?

Acts 2:42-47
Easter 4
May 7, 2017
William G. Carter

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved

Easter was a few weeks ago. A good case can be made that it was a lot longer ago than that. The further we get away from the empty tomb, the more the hallelujahs begin to fade. We can keep singing, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” but we all know it didn’t happen today; the resurrection happened a long time ago. The glad shouts, the astonished wonder, the primal fear turned to reverence – all of it can fade as time rolls along.

It reminds me of a conversation between a little girl and her mother. A week or so ago, they were driving around town and passed a church on a busy street corner. The church had put up banners to advertise and attract visitors for the Holy Week worship services, and nobody had taken them down yet. The little girl said to her mother, “Is Easter still going on?”

Luke, the Gospel writer, says, “Yes, it is.” In his second book, the book of Acts, he gives two pieces of evidence. We heard the first last week: the proclamation of the Gospel, the ongoing message that even though the world crucified the Son of God, he has been raised up from the dead. That sin, as with every other, has been forgiven and taken away. God is stronger than the powers of destruction. God’s love is stronger than death. The church keeps proclaiming this for all people, and so Easter is still going on.

And the second piece of evidence comes in the brief paragraph that we heard a minute ago: the forming of a community of Christians. The summary sounds familiar: they gathered for teaching and fellowship, they broke bread around the table and offered up prayers, they shared their lives with one another and ate a lot of food (that detail is repeated, probably for good reason). Easter is still going on, as Christian people come together and stay together.

In fact, the attraction was so strong that they literally did share everything that they had. There were no private possessions, for all things were considered group resources. It was the opposite of the consumerist individualism that all of us know so well. In our day, every home has its own lawn mower, its own microwave, with a television in every room. Imagine people sharing everything in common!

A few years ago, I was in western Pennsylvania. As we drove north from Pittsburgh on I-79, we saw the exit for Zelienople and I said, “Let’s turn off here.” You take a left at the bottom of the ramp, and a right about a half mile down, and you’ll find yourself in downtown Harmony, Pennsylvania.

There’s not much left in Harmony, but there is enough to let you know it was real. Harmony was one of the original planned communities. Lead by a man named George Rapp, Harmony was intended as a community just as it sounded, a place where Christ was proclaimed as Risen Lord and everybody got along. They got along so well that “they sold all their possessions and distributed the proceeds as any had need.” Just like the book of Acts!

It’s one of the curious chapters of American church history. Harmony was a utopian community, where daily life was intended to draw from the life of the earliest Christians. There were community meals, community Bible studies, community farm work, and nothing held back from the life of the whole group. That community flourished and grew to about eight hundred people. It became so profitable that they sold the town to the Mennonites for an enormous profit, and then moved to western Indiana where there was more elbow room. Again they stayed there ten more years in a town called New Harmony, sold off the town for an even larger profit, and then moved back to western Pennsylvania to create a town called Economy.

The whole enterprise continued until 1905, about a hundred years after its beginning. During that time, the community produced high quality cotton and wool, ran mills for grain and lumber, maintained a significant brewery and a productive winery, built a library and ran a large community orchestra. But alas, some of them fell under the spell of a rival preacher and that splintered the group. Some of the younger members of the group also took issue with the expectations for celibacy, an expectation that had the unfortunate effect of keeping the population small and elderly.[1]

Is it possible for Christians to live together in perfect harmony? I guess it can work for a while. Think of it as a rehearsal for the kingdom of God, where people shall come from east and west, north and south, and break bread with glad and generous hearts at the same table. Let this begin with the Christians and spill out into the world.

Some would say this is unnatural, that it’s every person for themselves and survival of the fittest. But those are not Gospel values. “Survival of the fittest” is a biological observation of natural selection, not ever a Christian social policy. Jesus healed those who were sick, whoever they were, regardless of their pre-existing conditions. He fed the multitudes without knowing everybody’s name. And when he put together a movement, a Gospel movement, he called together twelve very diverse disciples to form a community. The assumption, I believe, is that these very different people have to keep working out what it means to flourish together.

And that’s why the earliest Christian scriptures single out two sins that can destroy human community. One is greed, excessive greed, the kind of greed that says, “I’m going to benefit at everybody else’s expense.” Did you know that, in the New Testament, greed makes all the lists of those sins that put people on the highway to hell?[2] And given the shortness of our lives, greed is really a form of foolishness. In the words of a country music song, “I Ain’t Never Seen No Hearse Pulling No U-Haul.”  

The other community-busting sin is indifference. “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or sick or in need, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”[3] Indifference. Indifference looks at a widow and says, “She’s not my mom.” Indifference looks at a struggling child and says, “He’s not my kid.” Indifference looks at a man who has just lost his job and says, “We will pray for the best.”

Greed and indifference – those are the ways of a world that put Christ on the cross. But Jesus is risen from the dead! He is among those who continue the Word and work that he has started. He offers an alternative to selfishness that infects us all. It is possible to have a new kind of life, and it is a life together.

Look how Easter continues. Here are people who gather to keep hearing the Word of Christ, and then they care for one another. They look out for one another. They help one another. They share what God has given them with anybody who has needs. And they do all this in ways that give others dignity, not to merely give the hand-out, but to actually lift people up. They give life, in the name of the One who is alive.

So when we come to this Table today, we gather at the invitation of Christ who is alive. We come hungry, but we know that the food and the justice we gain at this Table are not for us alone. We come because the promises of green pastures and still waters are a promise for all. We come, because thanks to Jesus, the Risen Lord Jesus, we continue to learn that life lived together with an ever-expanding circle of Christian friends is eternally better than the folly of going alone.

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

[1] An account of the “Harmony Society" is here:
[2] See, for instance, 1 Timothy 6:6-19.
[3] Matthew 25:31-46.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

How Far Can Easter Reach?

Acts 2:36-41
Easter 3
April 30, 2017
William G. Carter

[ Peter stood and said: ] “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

There’s the line that I have always liked: “The promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” It’s a line from an Easter sermon that the apostle Peter preached on Pentecost day. We have the words in our baptism service. They remind us that the early followers of Jesus baptized adults and their children.

And then comes the reminder of whom the Gospel is intended for: “everyone.”  Everyone whom the Lord our God shall call.

That was the promise on that first Pentecost day. Fifty days after Passover, fifty days after Resurrection weekend, the city of Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims. We will hear the story again in a few weeks, when it’s fifty days after Easter for us. But suffice it to say, everyone was there.

Luke gives us quite a list of nations: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia. There are visitors from Rome, Libya, the island of Crete, and most of the known Mediterranean world. All of them are Jews, returning home to Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival. The apostle Peter is a Jew, and he preaches this Easter sermon.

What he is saying is this: right outside the city wall of Jerusalem, God has raised a Jew named Jesus from the dead. This event is for everyone, everyone whom the Lord our God shall call. I did check and it does say “everyone.” That’s as far as Easter can reach: to everyone.

Well, maybe not. A couple of years ago, I visited Montgomery, Alabama. One afternoon, driving around town, we passed a building that looked like it had once been a church. Indeed it used to be First Presbyterian Church. Formed in 1824, First Presbyterian claimed to be the oldest Christian church in the city of Montgomery. But now that building houses an employment education center run by the Baptists. So what happened to First Presbyterian?

A lot of things, it seems. In 1956, in the aftermath of the Montgomery bus boycott, the elders decreed, “No member of the Negro race (will) be received as a member of our church or seated in the sanctuary for regular worship.” And then they assigned the deacons to stand at the door on Sunday mornings and turn away any African-Americans who wished to attend worship. This is a true story.

The Greyhound bus terminal was right next door. When the Freedom Riders arrived from around the country in 1961, people both black and white, they boarded a public bus at the terminal, only to be dragged off and beaten by racist thugs, some of them wearing uniforms. The Presbyterians did nothing and said even less.[1]

When President Johnson and the congress passed the national civil rights act in 1964, the news took a while to reach Montgomery and First Presbyterian Church. You have to understand, the church building was located about six blocks from the Alabama capital, where George Wallace was the governor, and where Jefferson Davis took the presidential oath for the confederacy. The church was also about nine blocks from Martin Luther King’s home, which blown up twice by white segregationists who were arrested and acquitted. In that city, there was a long heritage there of what the white people called “our way of life.” 

I imagine First Presbyterian Church reflected the values of its members over the preaching of the apostle Peter. It was OK for black people to empty the church garbage cans, but not acceptable to let them sit in their pews.

So the question is how far can Easter reach? Is it really for everyone whom the Lord should call? Or is it only for the people who are already there?

There is a deep cost when a church is exclusive. First Presbyterian Church didn’t think so; that’s probably why they built their steeple to look like a castle. They were going to stand firm against the outside world. When the rest of our denomination decided to open the way for women to become elders, deacons, and pastors, First Presbyterian of Montgomery left to start a new denomination, the Presbyterian Church of America. They believed their calling was to stay pure to the way they read their Bible.

And sadly, their numbers began to drop. In the 1950’s, that downtown church had over two thousand members. When they declined to about 160 people on the membership list, they sold the building to the Baptists who had a flourishing ministry to the homeless and the unemployed. The Presbyterians moved fourteen miles out of town to the eastern suburbs. They held fast to their beliefs, but their numbers continued to drop.

About the time that once proud, wealthy, and large congregation dropped to fifty people, they got a new pastor. The new pastor listened to the sad tale of woe. When a neighbor found out where he was now serving, the neighbor said, “Oh, that’s the church that doesn’t allow in black people.” And the pastor stood up on a Sunday and said, “Brothers and sisters, I think it’s time we went back and read the Bible.” That’s why I am telling you the story.

Anybody who has been around a church learns pretty quickly that no church is perfect. Pastors are not perfect, the people in the congregation are not perfect, and neither do people join together to act or speak in perfect ways. Recently I came across some thoughts from Craig Dykstra, a brilliant Presbyterian educator who recently retired as vice president for the Lilly Endowment (for those who don’t know, that was a big deal job). Before he gave away million dollar grant for Lilly, Craig also served for a while as a pastor, so he knows how churches can be.

Here’s what he said: “A basic reality of congregational life is that we are engaged in socially acceptable (indeed socially celebrated) patterns of mutual self-destruction.”

Yikes! He goes on to say,

The mere presence of the story, vision, and language of the faith is no guarantee that those powerful patterns will be overcome. The (self-destructive) patterns easily survive in congregational life, no matter how much that life may be filled with talk about sin, crucifixion, the love of God, or the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.[2]

What’s Dr. Dykstra getting at? That church people like you and I are perfectly capable of hurting one another, and that we probably do so on a regular basis – even when the heart of what we say is that forgiveness is real and peace is possible. Sometimes we do serious harm in the name of God. We think we are right when we’re wrong.

And that’s exactly what brings us to the sermon that the apostle Peter concludes in our text today. In the last line of his sermon, he says, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

This Jesus whom you crucified... With that simple slice of resurrection honesty, Peter’s words provoked a collective gasp, for none of the people who heard him could ever claim that they had done the right thing by pushing Jesus out of the city and onto a cross. And it’s this Jesus, the crucified Jesus, that God has raised from the dead, and everything he did, God is going to continue doing. Everything he said, God is going to continue saying. Everybody he loved, God is going to keep embracing, keep calling, and keep welcoming.

Everybody. And it does say “everybody.”

On Pentecost, Peter’s Easter sermon cut them to the heart. And when First Presbyterian Church of Montgomery, Alabama, got a new pastor after they dwindled nearly away and moved fourteen miles out of the city, they started to read the Bible together. The whole Bible, not just their favorite isolated Bible verses, but the whole big complicated Bible that belongs to all of us.

And do you know what happened? The Holy Spirit fell on them, and they were cut to the heart, and with a new unified voice they said, “What can we do?” Even though most of them already knew what they had to do.

To their credit, they read the Bible together. And they read the letter of James, where it declares it is a sin to show preferential treatment to some and not welcome all (James 2). And they read the book of Exodus, where God declares that the sins of the fathers continue through to the sins of the great-grandchildren, that iniquity keeps getting bequeathed to the next generation (Exodus 34:6-7) until it is stopped.

And then they affirmed that the Bible teaches that the only way forward from our sin is by turning around, what the Bible calls “repentance.” So last fall, these Presbyterians said,

Be it further resolved, that we hereby repent for our sins and the sins of this Church in previous generations, in general a failing unwillingness to minister the gospel to the community in which our church resides, and in particular sins of racism perpetrated during the Civil Rights era and following, trusting that in Jesus Christ there is rich mercy and cleansing for First Presbyterian Church of Montgomery, Alabama...

Be it further resolved, that we will henceforth seek to actively minister to all in our community, regardless of ethnicity or socio-economic status...[3]

How far can Easter reach? This is a question that does not go away, not now, not ever. And when we hear the question, it must lift our eyes toward the outsiders, toward the people who feel excluded, and shut out, and shunned, and neglected, and ignored. Some of them have been left out for so long that they have given up on the church.

Can Easter reach the outsiders? I certainly hope so, and I am committed to working among you that we step over our own boundaries to welcome all the people that God loves. All of them! I believe Easter has the power to reach the outsiders.

But here’s the question that I ask: do you think Easter can reach the insiders too?

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

[2] Quoted by Thomas G. Long in The Witness of Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989) p. 14.
[3] Read the remarkable statement on the church’s website at Entire resolution is available at