Saturday, January 28, 2017

If the Offering is Not Enough

Micah 6:1-8
Ordinary 4
January 29, 2017
William G. Carter

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

The preacher had lost his stride. It was stunning, because we had just heard a long sermon in a little ramshackle church in Syracuse. We were a group of college students on a weekend retreat. Most of us had lived sheltered, white skinned lives, so our chaplain said he wanted to expand our perspective on Christianity.

Well, this did it. He took us to a Pentecostal Temple in a tough neighborhood. There were people clapping their hands, stomping their feet, and speaking in tongues. Clearly they weren’t Presbyterians. The sermon was seventy-five minutes long. It rambled four or five times, but the preacher wanted to make sure that our group of fifteen was properly instructed in the particular nuances of a denomination that none of us had ever heard of. It was the first time I ever saw or heard a band with a drum set in a worship service, and that stuck with me.

But what I will never forget how the preacher lost his stride. He had taken the offering plates and handed them to the ushers. While the band struck up a song and Sister Louella banged a tambourine, the ushers came around and held out the plates for us to put something in. I put in a couple of dollars and my usher stood there and looked at me. He didn’t move. So I pulled out another dollar or two and put it in. He looked at the money, looked up at me, shook his head, and moved on. It was disconcerting.

As the band and Sister Louella whipped the small crowd into a frenzy, the ushers danced to the front with their offering plates. The preacher called the music to a halt and said, “Praise God!” Then he took the offering plates, looked down and said, “There’s not enough here!” With that, the band started up again, same song but louder. Sister Louella is banging that tambourine. That same usher appeared again, standing a little closer, pressing that offering plate right into my chest, waiting for me to pull out that walled and give him some serious money.

I knew that all I had was a twenty dollar bill. I was a college student. There was no credit card and I needed to get gas for the car to go home. But he stood there, holding out the plate until I coughed it up. So I did, even though I would have to borrow ten bucks from the chaplain for the gas to drive him home.

And when the ushers circled back and danced back up the aisle, this time led by Sister Louella with her tambourine, the preacher took back the plates. This time, before he exclaimed “Praise God,” he actually looked down to see what they had gathered. Then he lifted his eyes toward heaven and prayed, “Holy God, we hope this is enough for you. We pray that nobody is holding back from the Lord. And we know . . . and we know . . . and we know . . .” He paused awkwardly. He seemed to have lost his groove. It was still for a moment.

Then he blurted it out, “We know that you want so much more from us than our money.”

Did you hear what he said?  “We know that you want so much more from us than our money.” 

In my first church, you never would have heard those words come from the finance committee. Money was about all they wanted. They grumbled about the stinginess of the congregation, how tight the budget was, how they weren’t sure they could afford a preacher. In a church with Tiffany windows, it was a remarkable thing to say.

One of the old timers on that committee was Richard. He once said to me, “The only good stewardship sermon is one that makes the people feel guilty.” Then he glared at me. I was too young and eager to please to admit how he reminded me of the usher up in that Pentecostal Temple in Syracuse, pressing a tarnished brass offering plate into my chest a second time.

What was the underlying message? “There’s not enough money, there’s not enough money.” That is the mantra of many churches. It is the recurring word of a great number of non-profit organizations. It is also the refrain in a lot of homes. “There’s not enough money, there’s never enough money.” As if money is the only thing that matters.

So Micah, the small town prophet, hears a word from the Lord. He’s from the village of Moresheth, about twenty miles outside of Jerusalem.  And he sees quite clearly what money is doing to people. Because it’s not enough to say you want more money; if you have more money, it can begin to mess with you.

Micah sees how those who have fields want more fields, so they seize them from the people who live there. They do whatever wickedness they can, he says, “because it is within their power” (2:1-5). They oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance. They dream up the schemes while they lie in bed at night.

Meanwhile, the rulers of the country are confused by lies or tainted by bribes. They are so intoxicated by power that they can’t tell the difference between right and wrong (3:1-8). All the while they are supported by the well-paid clergy, the ones who avoid the hard words of truthfulness, the preachers and priests who live in luxury and look the other way when the plunderers do their dirty work.

So I think of the haltering prayer of the Pentecostal preacher: “We know that you want so much more from us than our money.”  How true that is!

In today’s text, the prophet sees a courtroom scene. God is both the judge and district attorney. The mountains and hills comprise the jury. And God says, “What’s up with you people? Can’t you remember anything?”

  • I brought you up from the land of Egypt.
  • I purchased your freedom from the house of slavery.
  • I gave you Moses the law giver, Aaron the priest, and Miriam with her tambourine.
  • I delivered you from Moab, I brought you to the Promised Land.
So what does God expect of us? What does God require from us?

How about a big offering? Well, that’s one answer. You could bring the young calves required in Leviticus, offered to prove that you love the Lord and want your sins taken away. You could step it up and present “thousands of rams,” just like King David, an extravagant offering to show how rich you are, how much you have to give. You could give “rivers of oil,” when the average person wouldn’t have nor need much more than a quart. You could even to extremes like Father Abraham and say, “Here is my first-born son offered to you.”

Wouldn’t God be pleased with a big offering?  The question is met with silence. Because God wants so much more than our money. God wants lives that do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with the Lord.

Justice is something we do, not something we talk about. In the Bible, justice is acting like a neighbor, a good neighbor, a fair neighbor. It’s working for the benefit of the people around us, especially for the benefit of those who get left out and left behind. Justice is working for them.

Kindness is something for us to love. It’s the word “hesed,” which means “loving-kindness.” It’s a word of affection and loyalty, a dedication to build human relationships, and not to trample on them.

And walking humbly with our God: that’s the alternative to walking arrogantly by ourselves. The only way to walk with God is “humbly,” for God is greater than we presume ourselves to be. Walking humbly is to have a right perception of ourselves: able to walk, and therefore equipped, but doing so humbly, so that we are not intoxicated by a sense of ourselves.

This is what God requires of us.

When President Jimmy Carter took the oath of office at the beginning of his term, he put his hand on a Bible that his mother had given him opened to these words. And in his elegant and hopeful inaugural address, he declared, “I join in the hope that when my time as your president is ended, people might say this about our nation: that we had remembered the words of Micah and renewed our search for humility, mercy, and justice.”

President Carter understood these words as a benchmark for our lives. They capture the essence of what makes a good Jew, and therefore what makes a good Christian. They capture the essence of what it means to be a good human being. To do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with God. That’s what God requires. It’s so much more than money.

Given our current national situation, I will invite you to make your own connections and draw your own conclusions. But I will remind you of a story. In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama after a civil rights demonstration. Eight protestant ministers, all white, wrote an article telling Dr. King that he had to tone it down, take it more slowly, and not push so hard for equal rights.

Like the apostle Paul, Dr. King wrote them a letter which he also sent to the newspapers who might print it. He pointed out that Jesus had been executed as an extremist. In a great line King said, “Jesus Christ was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness, and therefore rose above his environment.” Then he said:

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, “Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,” and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and  soul, the sacred and the secular.

So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a taillight between other community agencies rather than a headlight leading  (people) to higher levels of justice.[1]

That is always our choice, isn’t it? Whether we will be the headlight or the taillight, especially when we know what God requires of us: to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with our God.

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

[1] Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in A Testament of Hope (New York: HarperCollins, 1986) p. 299

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Light in the Shadows

Matthew 4:12-23
Ordinary 3
January 22, 2017
William G. Carter

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles-- the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned." From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea--for they were fishermen. And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

And so Jesus begins his work. He has been baptized, and a Voice from heaven named him as the Christ. He had worked through his calling with a retreat in the wilderness, confronting the voices of temptation and getting very clear about what God wants him to do.

Now he begins a movement. He calls Simon Peter and Andrew to follow him. They leave their nets in the water and they go. He calls James and John, the Sons of Zebedee, and they leave behind their unmended nets and their father, and they go. Here is the teacher and four men who follow him and learn from him. The movement is underway.

All of the Gospels begin his ministry this way. Jesus calls people to himself, and doesn’t particularly describe what they will do. As job descriptions go, “fishing for people” is a little bit vague. Presumably it involves casting a net for the Kingdom and catching whoever you can. But it’s too early to know what they will be doing or what they will be learning. Jesus says, “Come and follow me,” and the journey begins. The movement begins.

What is so striking in Matthew’s description is where the beginning takes place. It’s not in a church, but beside the sea. It’s not in a worship service or a pep rally, but in the workplace of ordinary people. And it’s not in the large city of Jerusalem, but in the outer region called Galilee. What Matthew offers is theology as geography.

What does that mean? Well, I think I know. Many years ago, on my one and only trip to the Holy Land, we took a bus from the town of Nazareth toward the Sea of Galilee. It was late in the afternoon when the bus pulled off the road to a gravel parking area. The Old Testament professor who was one of our trip leaders took us up a grassy path to the Cliffs of Arbel. I wasn’t sure why we had made the stop.

When we got to the edge of the cliffs, his purpose was made clear. The Sea of Galilee was stretched out before us. It’s a fresh water lake, thirteen miles long, just as long as Lake Wallenpaupack, although at points a good bit wider, and surrounded by mountains a good bit higher. Professor Whitaker said, "Put your fingers like this ..." He said, "That's a stretch of about six miles. Within that span is where Jesus did about ninety percent of his ministry."

To put it simply, he was a local boy. Everybody knew him. There was nothing exotic or different about Jesus. He was raised twenty miles away in Nazareth. He blended in because he was just like the rest of the people. He wasn’t any taller or shorter than anybody else, and if there was a halo around his head, it certainly wasn’t obvious to the people of his new home in Capernaum.

Capernaum was the last jumping off place before you got to Gentile territory. In fact, it was a fishing village where Gentiles and Jews lived side by side. The proximity to the Gentiles, the unbelievers, may have been what led the prophet Isaiah to speak of it as the “land of darkness.” That’s how he described it some eight hundred years before Jesus began to shine.

It was the “land of Zebulon and Naphtali,” two of the ancient brothers of old Joseph, the old, old Joseph from the book of Genesis.  The territory was way northeast, far from the intellect of Jerusalem. I imagine if somebody looked at the map, they might have called it the “armpit of Israel.”

And that’s where Jesus made his home. Let that sink in for a minute.

Maybe we thought it was an impressive place. No, not really. In the time of Jesus, if you wanted an impressive city, you could go to Sepphoris, a wealthy and cosmopolitan community where his mother Mary may have had her family roots. But Sepphoris doesn’t even rate a mention in the New Testament.

Or there is Tiberias, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, named after one of the Caesars. These days, it’s where all the tour buses unload. When I visited, they had a Holiday Inn. According to tradition, it was built upon a graveyard, so all the Jews called it “unclean.” That may be why it’s never mentioned in the Bible, even though it was – and still is – a flourishing city.

No, Jesus moved into Capernaum. He had a home in Capernaum. He knew the fishermen. He went to the synagogue. There was only one synagogue, so that’s where he went.  For all we know, he set up a wood shop there and put down some roots. Matthew says it was his home. Let that sink in.

It was only in the crisis of John the Baptist’s death that he began to preach, and his sermon was the same sermon that John preached: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It was a nine word sermon; some of you wish I would preach a nine word sermon, and I would if I believed you would listen to it.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” That’s all he said at first. People began to believe it. They began to trust it was true. Heaven was drawing near. God invited them to let him rule over them. That was all the reason they needed to repent, to change. And the more that Jesus said it, and the more that people believed it, the more it seemed that light was breaking into darkness.

So it’s no wonder that he could walk along the lake shore, see a couple of brothers throwing their fishing nets into the water, not really catching anything, and then he could say, “Come, follow me. Let’s catch some people.” And then, walking a little further, he could see two others, two other brothers, mending a broken net. Standing by the shore with two of their commercial rivals whom they knew, he could say, “Come along with us, come follow me. Let’s catch some people.”

The story goes on to say they always knew how to fish. They went back to fishing now and again. But there was something about announcing the presence of God that began to touch broken hearts and repair broken lives. Because that’s the core of the message: God is here. Not that God is coming someday, which is also true in some final sense, but that God is here, right now. Not that God is everywhere, which in some abstract sense is true the same way that you can say the atmosphere is everywhere, but that God is somewhere, that God is here.  

What would it mean if God is here? Not in glitzy Sepphoris, shiny Tiberias, or holy Jerusalem – but here, in Capernaum?

I like the story of Kathleen Norris. She was a young author living in New York, trying to publish some poetry. It wasn’t going well. The news came that her grandmother died in South Dakota, leaving behind a house that nobody else in the family wanted. So Kathleen said, “I’ll take it.”

Moving there from Manhattan was a huge adjustment. The land is desolate, and there really are more cattle than people. Somehow she started going to a church in a little town called to Hope. So she writes:  

The small metal sign for Hope may or may not be up. The wind pulls it down and it can be a while before someone notices and reattaches it. But you don't need directions... ten and a half miles along the road, at the crest of the second hill, you'll be able to see where you're going, a tiny ark in a sea of land that unfolds before you for nearly fifty miles...You will pass a few modest homes and farm buildings along the way, some in use, others in disrepair. The most recently abandoned, a classic two-story farmhouse, has boarded up windows and an extensive but weed-choked corral. A house abandoned years ago is open to the elements, all its windows and most of its shingles gone.

Then you come to Hope Presbyterian Church, home of 25 members. The place doesn't look like much, even when most of the membership has arrived on Sunday morning, yet it's one of the most successful churches I know. Along with Center School, the one-room schoolhouse that currently serves nine children from ... southwest Corson County, Hope Church gives the people who live around it a sense of identity.

Hope has a noble and well-used upright piano whose sound reminds me of the honky-tonk pianos in Western movies. But when Carolyn plays her quiet-down music at the beginning of a worship service, "Shall We Gather at the River" or "Holy, Holy, Holy," she's as effective as a Russian Orthodox deacon striding sternly through a church with censer and bells. We know it's time now to listen, that we will soon take our journey into word and song, and maybe change a little along the way. By the time we're into our first hymn, we know where we are. To paraphrase Isaiah 62, it's a place no longer desolate but delightful.

There is no indoor plumbing at Hope, but the congregation celebrates with food and drink at every opportunity. Once, when I arrived on Sunday, I noticed several popcorn poppers in a back pew. That was for after church, to get everyone through the annual congregational meeting. (Kathleen Norris, Dakota, pp. 160-163)

Her description makes me wonder how people regard this place: we have considerably more than 25 members, but we're woefully short on popcorn poppers. Yet a good church is still a good church. A good church tells you who you are: it gives you a sense of identity. And when people worship with Word and song, the place is no longer desolate. God meets us as we gather in God's name, as we go out to do God’s work in the world. And the ground beneath our feet becomes holy ground.

So the sermon today is a bit of theology as geography. The light of the Gospel shines somewhere, not merely everywhere. And I invite you to reflect on how it might be shining on you.

Some of the people among us are having a bleak winter. The dark clouds overhead are a mirror for the gloom that threatens their spirits. But a phone call comes from a friend, or a meal is delivered, or a kind word or an unexpected greeting card pierces the darkness of light. For the moment there’s the vision that the kingdom of God has come near, really near.

Some of our church folks marched in Washington D.C. yesterday, a few in New York and Binghamton. They wondered if it would do any good, if their voices would even be heard. One of them said to me, “It was so powerful to surrounded by an enormous crowd, and to renew the conviction that standing up for justice and inclusion is God’s work.” It was as if they were with Christ himself, casting the net and gathering ever more souls into an enormous movement of love, grace, and welcome. For them, an affirmation that God is close at hand, with light that will not be extinguished by darkness.

Or consider whatever unseen forces have brought you here today. Maybe it was loneliness, or a disillusion with the ways of the world, or perhaps needing a safe place where somebody might take you seriously. Who knows how you got here? But you’re here. And my prayer for you is that somehow the light finds you, that the light shines on you – and that somehow, the dawn breaks, the clouds part, and you have the clear and abiding sense that God is here, and not just here, but everywhere you go.  

And why do I have this conviction? Because in the middle of nowhere, in a small fishing village where nothing really ever happened, Jesus comes to four fishermen and says, "Follow me to the kingdom of God." As they set aside what they were doing, they took on the work of gathering others into the net, to join in an unfolding adventure. They set out with Jesus to yet-unknown places and it felt like they were going home.

This is how the Gospel becomes a movement. Those who lived in darkness discover they are now bathed in light . . . and it’s time to invite others to leave the shadows and be healed. For those with eyes to see, it happens all the time.

Years ago, I was honored to serve a few years as the trustee of an Ivy League seminary. After the business meeting, a few of us would gather at a watering hole. Inevitably one of them would ask, “Now where do you live again? Clarks Summit? Where is that?” These were ministers mostly from major cities: Atlanta, Manhattan, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh.

So I’d have to explain where I live: “It’s northeastern Pennsylvania, a few miles above Scranton, between the Poconos and the Endless Mountains.” One of them would smile and say, “Well, we should help you get to a church in a town that somebody could find.” And they would laugh.

I would smile too, and then I’d say, “Jesus has no problem finding the people in my town. That’s good enough for him, and it’s good enough for me.”

Listen, how about if you and I follow Jesus and catch him some more people?

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

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Sanctified, But Not Yet

1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Ordinary 2
January 15, 2017
William G. Carter

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Back in seminary, we had a dean of faculty by the name of Arlo Duba. Dr. Duba was a Presbyterian minister. He began his long career by preaching in a little church in the town of Ideal, South Dakota. He told us that, after preaching in Ideal Church, it was all downhill from there.

He was joking, of course, and those of us who knew about real, live congregations could chuckle at the joke. In the broadest possible sense, where can you find the ideal congregation? And how would you know if you got there?

Now, that’s a question for a lot of people: where is the ideal church? How do you know if you find it? Which church has the most loving people? Which church has the most engaging sermons? Where can I find a worship service that is a good fit? Where can I find a group of people who believe the same things that I do?

This is a relatively new phenomenon. Fifty years ago in America, Christians didn’t go in for a lot of comparison shopping. They went to a church like the ones where they grew up. Catholics went to Catholic churches, the Orthodox stayed in Orthodox churches, and the independent churches were splinter groups who didn’t own property in the middle of town.

I once asked my parents how they decided to go to a Presbyterian church. Mom grew up Presbyterian, and Dad was raised as a Methodist. There was no great light that split through the heaven to shine on the correct place to worship. Rather, my Dad kept passing North Springfield Presbyterian Church on the way to work, and figured he could give in to my mother’s wishes to get me baptized. It wasn’t an Ideal Church, but it got me wet.  

What exactly is the ideal church? And where can you find it?

If all we had to go on were these opening words from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, you might think he’s writing to the perfect church. He begins by calling them “saints” – they are the saints of God in Corinth. He says, “I thank God for you, because you are so full of grace.” That’s a kind greeting, don’t you think? He says, “You are enriched in speech and knowledge. Your testimony of Christ is strong. You are not lacking in any spiritual gift. I’m sure you will be morally blameless on the last day.”

Now, that must have been some church! Enriched, strong, blameless, full of grace, not lacking in any spiritual gift – that is, God gave them everything they needed. Based on this description alone, I think it would be wonderful if we had a New Testament church like that. Everybody is faithful, happy, always getting along. They pray and rejoice all the time. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a New Testament church? Sure it would.

The only problem is that it’s not like any church I’ve ever known. It’s probably not like any church you’ve ever known, either.

Some time back, I was a guest preacher somewhere. It was a big, glitzy place - - twelve hundred people in worship, gorgeous building, brand new organ. The minister said, “If you have any expenses to be reimbursed, please turn in itemized receipts.” He said it three or four times. The last church treasurer stole a million-two from the offering plate, and had to serve the Lord for five years in the state penitentiary. Just imagine: somebody let a sinner inside that building.

It happens, you know. The ideal church is hard to find. A married couple went to a restaurant one Saturday night, and there’s a woman at the bar shouting and carrying on. It was embarrassing, they said, so they left the place right after dinner was over. The next morning, they came here for worship. As the wife began to pray quietly before the service, the husband elbowed her in the ribs. She looked up, startled, to see the boisterous barfly from the night before taking a seat in the very next pew.

Or I think of that bustling congregation across the street from where my grandmother lived. A terrible fire destroyed the sanctuary. Investigators determined it was arson. Then they found out the pastor’s teenage son had started the blaze. They might have been willing to practice the Christian discipline of forgiveness, until the pastor threw his son out of his home. Then the pastor resigned and said, “If I can’t control my family, I don’t think I am worthy of all of you.”

My goodness – where is the perfect church? Where is that Corinthian church?

Ah – but you know what? If you know the rest of this letter to the Corinthians, you know Paul is up to something here. He is not writing this letter to say hello. He’s writing to them because they wrote to him first, and they had a whole list of problems. Scholars think there were only about fifty people in that congregation, but they were splintered into rival factions and competing cliques. There were the Holy Rollers over here, convinced they were intoxicated with the Holy Spirit. Over there was the Peace and Justice committee, wanting to sell what they had and give it all to the poor. And then there was the Wisdom Enclave, who studied their Bibles and professed to know more than everybody else.

Not only did they have their groups, they were fighting about a list of issues. They argued over the Lord’s Supper, they battled over baptism, they disagreed on what kind of worship service they should have, they shoved one another about leadership, and they fiercely debated over spiritual gifts. From chapter 5, we know there was some immorality in the congregation that embarrassed a number of them. And if wasn’t enough, many of the Corinthians didn’t believe in the resurrection. Welcome to the New Testament church!

When Paul sends this letter in response to their concerns, he clears his throat and says, “Why don’t we pray?” And his prayer is full of humor. “O Lord, I thank you for these people. They are rich in speech and wisdom.” Speech and wisdom was about to blow them apart! “They are not lacking in any spiritual gift.” Wait: the Holy Spirit was surging through that church, and they had pennies in the fuse box to keep it from catching on fire! “O Lord, they will be morally blameless on the Last Day.” Yeah, right. Sure thing. Paul’s prayer list is actually their complaint list. Certainly they had to flinch at the satire!

But actually he was tweaking them by the second line of the letter. Remember what he called them? They are “the church of God that is in Corinth, those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be saints.” Let me unpack that: the word “sanctified” means “to be made holy.” The word “saints” is literally “the holy ones.”

Now, no Bible publisher has the guts to translate that directly, but what Paul is saying is, “I’m writing to all of you, Holy Holy Ones.” With a twinkle in his eye, he is rubbing their noses in their own sense of superiority. They aren’t holy at all - - except as God is calling them, inviting them, to live by the grace and generosity of Jesus Christ. They are not holy because they are good - - they are holy because God is at work in their flaws.

The Christian life is not about the presumption of our perfection. It’s about the redeeming grace that slowly, steadily calls us together, invites us to become more like Jesus, and fills us with the gifts that in and of ourselves we do not yet possess…we can only receive them as gifts from God’s love.

So where is the perfect church? I’ll tell you where it is: it’s in the same place where there are perfect people. And do you know where you can find perfect people? I don’t have a clue where that is. The only church is the real church. And in the real church, God is praised, Jesus is generous, and the Holy Spirit is always busy. Even if you can’t see it, the Trinity is dynamically up to something.

The ideal church is the one where you belong, where you are being summoned to be better than you are, where you are invited to take the same journey toward Christ along with all the others who have been invited with you. And if we stay at it, God is faithful, and we keep growing toward Jesus.

Here’s what somebody says about this passage:

Paul is using his satire to tear down their assumptions. He says, “If you think you can stand on a higher moral plain and divide the body of Christ, you have another thing coming. I’m writing to you, you holy holy ones in Corinth.”

But not only is he tearing something down. In a deeper sense, he’s building something astonishing and unexpected in its place. He is replacing a faulty understanding of sainthood with a good one. And he’s using humor as a wrecking ball to tear down what does not need to stand, and to build up what must endure. They needed the wrecking ball because the people in Corinth assumed that sainthood was a position of moral status, a destination to which a person of moral perfection arrived … Paul says no! Sainthood is not a destination, it’s a journey. You are called to be saints. (Tom Long)

This is the journey that you and I are on. Sometimes the best way to make that journey is to realize how far we have yet to go. When somebody calls us “the holy holy ones,” we know we’re not even close to claiming that description. But we keep at it, and this is the great adventure. There is no such thing as a perfect church because there are no perfect people. But there is a God at work in the world, the same God who raised Jesus from the dead, the same God who raises us by the Holy Spirit. And that’s where we keep it.

The emphasis of faith is never upon us, but upon God. No matter how righteous we try to be or think we are, we will never impress God enough to love us – because God already loves us, right in the midst of all our inconsistencies, all our puffed up words, all our reluctance to take any risks. We are loved by God’s redeeming love. The journey can change us.

Where is the perfect church? The ideal church? I suppose people can keep looking for it somewhere. They may jump from here to there, or back again, or hop somewhere else. Some may even pick fights with one other as a way to justify their whims.

But there’s no use looking for a perfect church. It’s much more satisfying to go to a church and look for God. We look for the God who keeps working in imperfect people, a God who invites them on a shared journey, a God who calls them to travel together with all the rest of the saints who are still becoming the saints, all of them chosen and precious of the Lord.

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

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Did They Baptize the Wrong People?

Acts 10:34-48
Matthew 3:13-17
January 7, 2017
Baptism of the Lord
William G. Carter

Down in Charlotte, North Carolina, there’s a cartoonist by the name of Doug Marlette. He draws a cartoon strip called “Kudzu,” and it features the Reverend Will B. Dunn, a Southern preacher with a black porkpie hat.

One day, Rev. Dunn is answering his mail. A woman writes, “Rev. Dunn, how do you feel about pond scum in the baptismal pool?”

The preacher thinks for a minute, and writes back. “Honey, in our church, we will baptize just about anybody.”

Now I know that some of us probably have a higher opinion of yourselves. But I also remember what it says in the New Testament. Paul writes to one of his churches and says, “Remember who you are, brothers and sisters: not many of you are very bright, not many of you are very strong, not many of you are well connected. But God chooses what is ridiculous in the world to shame the wise.”[1] In other words, welcome to the church.

This is the place where God always seems to choose the wrong people. Just to prove the point, God makes sure that some of the wrong people get baptized.

That’s what is going on in that story from the book of Acts. Peter was quite content to let the church be a Jewish institution. Jesus was Jewish. All the first disciples were Jewish. They kept the Passover. They celebrated the commandments. They ate the Kosher food.

One day the Holy Spirit came down upon a large group of Jews. Peter was so full of the Spirit that he began to preach. “Listen,” he said, “we’re not drunk with wine; we’re intoxicated with the Holy Spirit. It’s just like the prophet said: God will pour out his Spirit upon all flesh. Everybody who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

That’s what Peter said: the Spirit upon all flesh, everybody who calls on the name… He did say “everybody.”

But then Peter got an invitation to preach to some Gentiles, and he didn’t want to go. He argued with God about it, and God said, “Listen; argue all you want, but even now there are three Italians downstairs, knocking on your door.”

So Peter goes, and he preaches, and you heard what happens: God gives those Italian Gentiles the Holy Spirit. They start singing and prophesying and praising the Lord. Peter and his bunch are astonished. Finally he says, “I guess we’d better baptize them.”

And that is how pasta ended up on the table of church potluck suppers.

We can be light-hearted about this: Peter preaches, the Spirit comes, the Gentiles get included, the Jews eat spaghetti. But don’t forget, this was church, where everybody has an opinion and no good deed goes unpunished. Pretty soon, everybody back in Jerusalem is criticizing Peter. They said, “Peter, you baptized the wrong people.”  

That can be a problem. You know that can be a problem.

On the next snow day that comes along, I’ve already set aside a couple of favorite movies to watch. At the top of the stack is “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” the wild tale of three hoodlums who escape from a prison farm in 1930’s Mississippi.  They break free from the chain gang and head out to the country.

In one scene, they find themselves by a river where a Baptist preacher is baptizing a long line of pilgrims in white. One of the men, the leader, makes fun of the ritual. He’s so busy making fun of the scene that he doesn’t realize that one of his buddies has broken rank, has splashed up to the preacher, and gets himself dunked.

“Well, I’ll be,” says the third man. “Delmar has gone and gotten himself saved.”

Delmar comes out of the water. He says, “That’s it, boys. The preacher has washed away all of my sins. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out. Heaven is my everlasting reward. … The preacher said all my sins (are) washed away, including that Piggly-Wiggly that I knocked over in Yazoo.”

The leader of the gang says, “I thought you said you (was) innocent of those charges.”

“Well, I was lyin’,” said Delmar, “and the preacher said that sin’s been washed away, too. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. Come on in, boys. The water is fine.” With that, the third criminal hands over his hat to the leader, and splashes over to the preacher to get himself dunked too. When the two of them come out, they’ve been redeemed.

The very next day, all three of them hitch a ride with Baby Face Nelson. They end up robbing a bank. Apparently the wrong people got baptized.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a parable of my spiritual life. God washes us clean in baptism, gathering us with the grace of the Holy Spirit, and joining us to Christ’s work of redemption. Next thing I know, I’m acting as if God baptized the wrong person.
Back to the story. Certainly some of those Gentiles that Peter baptized were good people. And some of those religious people who complained about it were cranky, miserable, and hard to be around. That’s one of the mysteries, too, isn’t it? God has to work with the people God chooses. God has to work with us.

We believe baptism is the starting point. It doesn’t matter when the baptism took place, if we were a little bitty baby fresh from the mother’s womb, or if we were growing up, fresh from the womb of God’s Spirit. What matter is that there is a claim on our lives. God says, “You belong to me, and I have work for you to do.”

That’s where it starts. And sure, by the end of every day, we may have fallen short of God’s dreams for us. Or at least it looks that way. As a wise person once said, “God never gets to work with any perfect people. God has to work in spite of some people who think they are perfect, and God also has to work with the rest of us.”

            Remember Abraham and Sarah? They said they were too old.
            Remember Jeremiah the prophet? He said he was too young.
            Remember Moses? He murdered a man.
            Remember King David? He had a wandering eye.
            Remember Elisha the prophet? He had a bad temper.
            Remember the apostle Paul? He was in an out of jail.
            In fact, remember Jesus? He was condemned as a criminal.

When we baptize people and send them out to serve God in the world, we recognize that God always has to work with the people in front of him. There aren’t going to be any substitutes sent from headquarters. This is as good as it gets. If the world is going to get saved, if the hungry are going to be fed, if mercy is going to win over meanness, it’s going to happen only through everyday people who serve the best they can, even if they serve in incomplete ways. But it’s going to happen, because it is God’s mission to save the world.

There is always been a connection between God’s claim on us in baptism and our call to do God’s work in the world. There can be no ministry without a baptism. Baptism means we belong to God, and it’s out of that prior love that we can live for God and serve him.

At the same time, there is no baptism without a ministry. If we belong to God, there is always something for us to do. The work of the Gospel is too important to leave to the so-called experts.

The only people God has to use are imperfect people, unfinished people, flawed people, even  people who sometimes get it wrong. And if people like these ever get anything done for God’s sake, it’s because they know the work of the Gospel is not about personal perfection. It’s about service beyond self-centeredness. It’s less about trimming our moral fingernails, and more about get our hands dirty.
The work of the Lord is best done by imperfect people who know that they are wanted by God and needed by the world. They can do extraordinary things in the name of an extraordinary God.

Of all the wrong people to ever be baptized, the most significant is Jesus himself. He is all wrong, but for some different reasons. He is not pond scum, although he lives among people who get dirty and work with their hands. He is not between robbing a Piggly Wiggly and robbing a bank; no, if anything, you would never think he was the type to associate with sinners.

Even John the Baptist looked him straight in face and said, “Oh no, not you!” And Jesus said, “Yes, me too.”

“But this is all wrong,” said John. “You should be baptizing me. You should be bringing down fire from heaven to purge the world of evil. You should be splitting the grain from the stalk. You should be chopping down the overgrown tree. But you should not be coming to be baptized. It’s all wrong.”

And Jesus says, “I have come to finish off righteousness.” You know what that means? It means he has come to complete that old idea that we have to be good in order to be loved. It means he has come to flesh out what it means to live in complete unity with God.

Jesus said, “I’m here to be baptized, so I can do what God has given me to do.”

It didn’t make any human sense for Jesus to get baptized – except he put all of that aside and submitted himself to the preacher in the river. And when he stood again, his hair soaked with the Jordan River, he started the good work of saving the world. And he began by calling all the wrong people to himself and giving them something to do. We are here because he has called us.

Today we add one more person to those who are baptized. It’s not for you or me to say if we are baptizing the right person or the wrong person. That’s God’s business. I do know that she comes on behalf of those who are willing and ready to serve Jesus Christ, to offer a hand up to the downtrodden and the dispirited, to offer their time and talents for the greater good. And that is good enough for any of us.

According to our Bible, that’s good enough for God.

Do you know that if you say, “Here I am, Lord; send me,” God will never turn you away? Never. There’s too much love to show to a hungry, needy world. And somebody has to do it.

So let’s stay wet and do this together.

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

[1] 1 Corinthians 1:26-31