Sunday, February 26, 2017

If Only We Knew Then . . .

Matthew 17:1-13
Transfiguration Sunday
February 26, 2017
William G. Carter

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.

Well, I warned some of you about the weather. You thought spring was here already, and I told you it was a scam. We’ve been tricked into seeing something that hasn’t happened yet.

It reminds me of a really bad church joke. Ever hear about the kid who keeps misunderstanding all the Bible stories? Little Joey means well. He shows up every week but he keeps getting the stories mixed up. The teachers kept asking him questions, but he kept getting the answers wrong.

He would say things like, “God got tired of making the world, so he took the Sabbath off. Adam and Eve were created from an apple tree. Noah’s wife was called Joan of Ark. Lot’s wife was a pillar of salt by day, but a ball of fire by night.”

So one day the topic was Easter. Who knows what Easter is? Joey shot up his hand, the teacher groaned. “Yes, Joey?” And Joey said, “Easter is the day when Jesus wakes up again.” The teacher said, “That’s pretty good, but tell me some more.” Joey said, “Yes, Easter is the day when Jesus wakes up again. He comes out of a hole in the ground. Then he sees his shadow and we have six more weeks of Lent.”

For us, the time for us couldn’t be more appropriate, not just because of the weather, but because the season of Lent is almost here. It comes on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, and lasts until Jesus comes out of the grave. And wants any more Lent? Lent is six weeks of self-denial, six weeks of reflection on suffering, six weeks of hearing about the cross. Who wants six more weeks of that?

Yet it appears that Jesus knew that self-denial, suffering, and the cross were all going to come. He didn’t run away from the demands. He did not turn aside. The Gospel of Matthew says, he knew all of that was coming on the day when he was transfigured.

Now, that is an odd truth about a very odd moment. There was nothing ever like the transfiguration. Jesus takes his inner circle, Peter, James, and John. They hike up a high mountain. Suddenly Jesus begins to shine. It wasn’t the glistening perspiration on his brow. He really began to shine. Like the sun, like a flare, like something they had never seen ever before. It’s such a strange moment, the Gospel writers have to invent a word. It’s the word “transfiguration.”

Did Jesus become a solar flare? Or was he always that way, just disguised? Matthew doesn’t know. I don’t know. Who knows?

In one of her poems, Madeleine L’Engle says, “Suddenly they saw him the way he was,” the way he always was. Yet he was veiled in flesh, disguised.

Others say, no, it wasn’t quite like that. Rather, Jesus was busy doing the work of God. In a momentary pause, God honored him, God rested on him – or in him – or something. You have to agree it’s a moment that defies explanation. And then it was over, just like that. Who can describe what happened?

The artists, the poets, and the musicians among us may try. They labor at their crafts for years and years. The painter picks up the brush, dabs the colors, and tries to touch the beauty before it slips away. The poet bounces rubber words against the wall until a metaphor is shaped, then scratches it down on paper before it disappears.

The musician breathes through the scales, playing them up and down four octaves, so that when the right moment comes, they can play the right note in the right way, and then the note evaporates like perfume, leaving behind a trace of transcendence. Then it’s gone.

People with imagination know exactly what this transfiguration is. It’s the a-ha moment, the moment when the sun slices through the clouds, the moment of deep insight and profound awakening. And even if you thought you could capture it, like Simon Peter wanting to build a monument, you can never quite do it.

Like the man who ran up to Louis Armstrong after he blew some hot notes, and said, “Mr. Armstrong, was that music recorded?” Pops looked at him and said, “It was only recorded on your heart, baby.”  

So Peter, James, and John are there for the moment, for the solar flare moment, for the sunburst on earth moment. Moses is there, too, because time and space don’t matter in a moment like that. The great prophet Elijah is there, too, but nobody asks him to speak a new sermon. All that matters is that they are all there. They’re there!

And then it’s gone.

The most surprising thing for me as I hear the story this time is what Jesus says when it’s over. “Don’t tell anybody about what you’ve seen.” Keep silent for a while. Guard the vision in your heart. Don’t give it away quite yet.

Doesn’t he remember that visions evaporate after a while? That a-ha moments slip away? That a burst of insight gets rusty? That ecstatic events diminish in a half-life? I don’t know.

But he does say, “Keep mum about this until my resurrection.” Wait a second, what’s a resurrection? He has mentioned it only once so far in this Gospel, and he certainly doesn’t explain what it is, how it happens, or what it looks like.

Yet that seems to be the key for grasping what they have just seen in that vision. When Jesus started catching fire, it’s a glimpse of they are going to see later on. The moment will come again when they see the fullness of his glory, when everybody everywhere will see the fullness of his glory. They will perceive that he is the One who was before all things, and he is the One before whom all things will be finished.

And when the gazillion-watt spotlight snaps off and they see plain old Jesus again, when they hear his unamplified voice, when they feel his familiar tap on their shoulders, when they hear him say, “Don’t be afraid,” they have the invitation to believe it. I think that’s the key.

I used to think this was some kind of fantasy, a thin slice of science fiction tossed back into a 2000-year-old book. Now I think it’s so much bigger than that. At very least, Matthew is trying to point to the truth about Jesus, that contrary to all observations, Jesus is both human and divine. It would take the Christian church another 350 years to get some language together to talk about that.

Even then, the language just points. Our creeds and confessions never capture the truth of the Christ that is bigger than human words. Suffice it to say Jesus is more than we thought he was and he is just like us. That’s a pretty good Christological statement.

But there’s a helpful word in this for us too. “Don’t tell anybody about this vision until after the resurrection.” What are you saying to us, Lord? He goes on to say it plainly: “I’m going to suffer. The Son of Man will suffer at their hands.” He knows that, he says that, but he is not afraid of that. For he know there’s so much more than suffering.

How else could he come down from that mountain to carry a cross? How else could he knowingly or willingly face rejection by his own people? How else could he continue his work unless he had the clear sense that there’s something more?

There’s something more than pain.
There’s something more than illness.
There’s something more than lingering sadness.
There’s something more than hostility.
There’s something more than division.
There’s something more than suffering.
There’s something more than death.
There’s something more than the heavy cloud of grief.
There’s something more than darkness and confusion, even if we’re not totally sure what it is.
There’s something more.

Picture the clarinetist that saw in Preservation Hall. He hobbled onstage so slowly, I didn’t think he was going to make it. He sat in a wicker chair, fiddling with his reed. The drummer announced the tune, began to count it off, and this ancient, withered man sat completely still. He closed his eyes. Then the melody started and he played. Oh, did he play! And when he blew a solo, he began to sway, and then he danced. I never thought I’d see anything like it. He was so completely alive.

When the music was over, he was back in the wicker chair, eyes closed, completely still. The set was over, the Bourbon Street tourists were being ushered out, but I wanted to say something to him. I didn’t know what to say. His eyes opened in thin slits as he began to dismantle his horn. I pushed forward to say, “Thank you.” The thin slits opened a little wider, the irises connected, and he said, “I play it every time like it’s my last.”

Where did he get that passion, that energy, that excitement? I think you know.

In her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson tells of old Reverend Ames. Near the end of his hard and complicated life as a preacher in Iowa, Rev. John Ames writes a letter to his young son. At one moment he writes,

It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light… I have reflected on that … and there is some truth in it. But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?[1]

And then, a bit later, he declares,

There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.

If only we knew. If only we knew in moments of suffering what we see in the glory of Christ. If only we knew when times are difficult that there is something more, so much more. If only we could have the courage to see the glory and trust that it’s there. If only we knew that the day is coming, when through the love of Christ, every last one of us will be “bright shining like the sun.”  

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

[1] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, 2004, p 245.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Why Not Curse the Deaf?

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Ordinary 7
February 19, 2017
William G. Carter
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.  ...  You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord . . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Say what you want about the Jewish scriptures, but they instruct us in how to live. The instruction comes through stories, as we hear of people like us who have lived faithfully and unfaithfully. Instruction comes through the preaching of the prophets, who stood up in complicated circumstances to tell the truth about God and God’s wishes for the human race. Sometimes the instruction comes in bite-sized sayings called proverbs, deep wisdom compressed into small nuggets.

And as we heard today, instruction comes through commandments. “Thus says the Lord" and there it is. You shall not steal. You shall not lie. You shall not defraud your neighbor. Any questions? God speaks directly, sometimes through a teacher like Moses. This teaching, this Torah, is for our well-being. As we heard Moses declare last week, “Do these things and you will live abundantly.”

Yet stuck in the middle of all the commandments that we’ve heard today from Leviticus is one that simply sparkles for me. It stands out. It seems different from the rest. I would say that it’s even my all-time favorite Jewish commandment. In case you missed it, it goes like this: “Thou shalt not curse the deaf.”

If you have ears to hear, let that one sink in. It names a specific human condition, a disability. Stealing, lying, and defrauding can be done by anyone to anyone. Sabbath breakers and idol makers come in all shapes and sizes. But to single out the deaf is curious, to say the least, and we don’t know why. Is it because, by accident or physical decline, to hear the word of the Lord? Moses doesn’t say.

But the reason it’s one of my favorites is because of its inherent comedy. “Thou shalt not curse the deaf.” As somebody said, “Why not curse the deaf? They can’t hear you any way.” Taken just like that, it’s ridiculous.

But maybe not, and I’m sure you know why.

A few months ago, I took my wife to a local grocery store. As I'm looking for a parking space, I see two men walking toward the store from the parking lot, probably a father and son. Neither is paying attention. They are walking in the middle of the lane. The son is fiddling on his cell phone, not looking around. The father is waddling slowly.

In the time that I pulled up behind them, I have lost two parking spaces in front of them. My impatience in moments like that is legendary. I start talking with an emphatic voice. "Come on," I say, with the windows rolled up. "Get a move on." The two of them plod along.

Finally they move on and I go around them. I say to my wife, "Ever feel like you want to lay on the horn?" She is much kinder than me and says nothing. So we park the car, walk to the store, get a cart, and push it up the aisle. A few minutes later, that same father and son wander in. They walk right down the middle of the aisle, and park it there, and pretty soon people are backed up behind them.

I start thinking of some wisecrack I could make, when the son turns to the father and begins to communicate in sign language. The father responds with his hands. With that, my wife leans up to say, "I don't think it would have done any good if you had honked the horn"

Oh, did I feel pretty small. And the reason I felt small was not merely because I had discovered their disability; it was because I had demeaned them in my heart as children of God.

That’s how the whole commandment plays out: “You shall not curse the deaf . . . for I am the Lord your God.” It is God, in whose image we are made, who is the standard for our conduct. That is, you don’t curse the deaf because God is God, and God made that person in the divine image.

Maybe that’s why the same verse, verse 14, goes on to extend the same kind of prohibition for how we treat those with another disability: “You shall not curse the deaf, neither shall you put a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear the Lord, for I am your God.” Fourteen times in this chapter, we have the refrain “I am the Lord your God.” It is a persistent drumbeat through this text. And it teaches us that all ethical action is grounded in God’s identity and authority.

Now it’s true that if you’re reviling the deaf, you are cursing them behind their backs. And if you are rearranging the furniture for those who cannot see, it is an act of cruelty. That is true enough. But it is this deeper spiritual dimension that makes the Bible more than a mere rule book. The character of God determines what our character can be. The way God is determines what we are called to be.

Jesus says as much in the Sermon on the Mount. “You’ve heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies…” (Matt. 5:43-44)  How can he say that? Because that’s what God does: God loves his enemies, and sends the prophets, and finally Jesus, to the enemies who resist God.

Jesus says, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” How can he say that? Because that’s what Jesus does on the cross: he prays for those who persecute him and says, “Father, forgive them.” (Luke 23:34).

Then he looks at us and says, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48)  The character of God determines what we are called to be. And do you know where Jesus gets this? From Leviticus, chapter 19, the theme verse for the entire chapter: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God is holy.”

So we’ve quickly moved a long distance, from not cursing the deaf to being holy. Or to frame it as a question, what does “not cursing the deaf” have to do with being holy?

I mean, we all have opinions about what holiness looks like. There was a kid in my high school. He went to a church called a “holiness church.” What did that mean? It meant he wasn’t allowed to smoke, he wasn’t allowed to drink, he wasn’t allowed to stay out late at night, he wasn’t allowed to hang around with kids diagnosed as “troublesome.” In other words, straight and narrow, never have any fun.

It was that same kid who dated a cheerleader secretly and said, “Don’t tell my parents.” It was the same kid who handed a shoebox full of marijuana to a classmate and said, “Can you hide this for me?” He brought the tequila to the high school football party. When his parents found out about the secret girlfriend, he ended up marrying her. So is that what holiness is all about?

To read Leviticus, it’s about keeping the commandments. We think we know what that means: make a checklist and mark the boxes. Keep the Sabbath? Check! Don’t worship other gods? Check! Leave your extra vegetables in the garden so the poor can come after dark and get something to eat? Check! Pay the wages of your workers on time? Check! Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal? Check, check, check.

In the history of keeping commandments, there are a lot of people who have made the lists. They love to do all the things on the list, because then they can feel superior to those who don’t even know there’s a list. And they can hold themselves higher that those who try to keep the list but keep falling short. And as I have said to you many times, if we reduce the Christian life to items on a list, we don’t need God - - because we have a list. Somehow I don’t think that’s what holiness is all about.

So what does it mean to be holy, as God is holy? What does it mean to be perfect, as God is perfect?

I think I know, because it’s there in the text. In chapter 19 of Leviticus, it’s there in almost every single line. It doesn’t have to do with checking the boxes on an ancient list. And it’s not about cardboard obedience and moral superiority. No, it’s about growing into the character of God, about having the same mind as Jesus our Lord.

And in a word, holiness is love. Love leads us into holiness, holiness leads us into love. It’s written all throughout this chapter.

“When you reap the harvest of your land,” says the Lord, “don’t take everything out of it. Don’t strip your vineyard bare or gather the fallen grapes for yourself.” No, restrain yourself, and leave the abundance for the poor and the outsider: for I am the Lord your God. Now, that’s love. And it is totally contrary to the notion that we should plunder the land for our own profit and benefit while some of the children of God are going hungry.

This text is over three thousand years old and we can’t seem to get it right. That’s because our love is not complete, it’s not perfect, it’s not holy. Love leads us into holiness, holiness leads us into love. They can’t be separated.

Or that famous line, the commandment that Saint Paul said is the summary of all the other commandments of the Bible (Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14). He was a Bible scholar, so he should have known. You know the words: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the place where that appears in the Old Testament. It’s Leviticus 19, verse 18.

But take note of where it appears. It’s the second half of verse 18. The first half says, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people.” Back it up one more verse and it says, “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin, you shall not reprimand your neighbor.” Wait a second: you mean to say there’s difficulty in families? That people in the same family can hate one another? That is the context of “loving your neighbor as yourself.” If there’s no love, there cannot be holiness.

Our closest neighbors are those in our families. Holiness includes loving them. A few years ago, I cam across an article in The Atlantic monthly. For all of you romantics on the Sunday after Valentine’s Day, it’s an article about why relationships either thrive or break up. It is based on research about marriage, but it’s really about all kinds of relationships. Why do they flourish or die? Listen:

Contempt is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there. People who give their partner the cold shoulder - deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally - damage the relationship by making their partner feel worthless and invisible, as if they’re not there, not valued. And people who treat their partners with contempt and criticize them not only kill the love in the relationship, but they also kill their partner’s ability to fight off viruses and cancers. Being mean is the death knell of relationships.

Kindness, on the other hand, glues couples together. Research independent from theirs has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved. “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,” says Shakespeare’s Juliet. “My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.” That’s how kindness works too: there’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.[1]

Contempt or kindness? It’s the difference between life and death.

“Thou shalt not curse the deaf.”  It’s not too far from that to conclude, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the shape of holiness, to love others as God loves the world and all who dwell within it, both enemies and friends. Love of God and love of neighbor are held together in the possibility of human holiness. As an early church teacher declared, “Love one another . . . those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20)

As for me, I draw on the words of the Harlem poet Langston Hughes, because holiness can never be separated from love:

I dream a world where man / no other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth / and peace its paths adorn
I dream a world where all / will know sweet freedom’s way,
where greed no longer saps the soul / nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white, / whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth / and every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head / and joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind - / of such I dream, my world!

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

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Loving God on Either-Or Mountain

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Ordinary 5
February 12, 2017
William G. Carter

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Next week, I am looking forward to meeting with one of our women’s circles. They are doing a Bible study on the letter to the Hebrews, a document that probably circulated as a sermon in the early church. So they have invited me to spend some time talking about sermons. How do you put a sermon together? Where do the ideas come from? Where do sermons come from? It’s a wonderful invitation, because a lot of sermon construction happens in isolation.

Where do sermons come from? The quick answer is this: a blue wingback chair in my living room. That’s the sermon writing chair. Most Saturday mornings, that’s where I am. A lot of thinking happens in that chair. A good bit of procrastinating happens in that chair. Sooner later, I start tapping out words on a rapidly aging laptop computer. The sermons come from the blue chair.

Of course, there’s more to the answer. Before the words ever getting written down, there are books to read, thoughts to organize, prayers to offer, and rhetoric to arrange. That blue chair is located close to an imaginary compost heap, where I dig up the words that have been fermenting for a while. A lot of the sermons begin to percolate during a week in January, which I spend studying the Bible with my friends. In a deeper sense, that’s where sermons come from.

But here’s the thing I wonder: how do sermons end?

It’s a good question. I know the answer for some of you: “The sermon should end as quickly as possible.” I happen to agree. There’s no need for any extra blathering. Say what you need to say and sit down.  In fact, there’s an old dictum about making speeches: Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them. In my mind, that speech is three times as long as it needs to be. Why not tell them?

But how should the sermon end?

My friend Jim and I visited Yale Divinity School back in October. The setting was the Lyman Beecher lectures in preaching, the most important lectures in preaching in the world. The lecturer was Dr. Tom Troeger, a longtime friend. In addition to sermons, he writes poetry and lyrics for church hymns.

The title of the lecture series was this: “The End of Preaching.” Not just the question, “Will this sermon ever end,” but what’s the end of it all? What follows the sermon? And Tom’s answer: “The end of preaching is prayer.” What should follow the sermon is an expression of honest prayer, a life of prayer, a relationship of devotion and commitment. That’s how the sermon should end. I like that.

As for me, I have often followed the advice of Fred B. Craddock, a short little man who was a giant of a preacher. Fred used to say, “Always end your sermon about two minutes early.” Some of you may have noticed I like to do that. End the sermon before you’re done, and then the congregation has to end it for you. They have to complete it in the lives that they live. They have to finish it in the work that they take forward.

That is to say, the end of the sermon is in what we do with what we have heard.

What started me on this rabbit trail was not the invitation from the Presbyterian Women. It’s the passage we heard from Deuteronomy. You see, the book of Deuteronomy is a sermon, a very long sermon by Moses. The passage from chapter 30 is the end of it. Before we talk about the ending, let me give you the whole sermon in a nutshell.

Ready? Got something to write this down? Here is the sermon of Deuteronomy: If you follow the ways of God, it’s good for you.  

Saints of God, some of you will notice Moses takes thirty chapters to make his point. No doubt, many of you are accustomed to a preacher going on far too long to say too little. If I may defend the preacher, sometimes the preacher needs to repeat things in order for them to sink in. And sometimes the preacher has to spell it out in depth in order for the message to have any gravity.

Welcome to Deuteronomy! The theme of the long, long sermon: If you follow the ways of God, it is good for you. So the conclusion of the sermon is “Choose the ways of God.” Do the commandments. Walk in God’s ways. Choose the ways of abundant life. Love the Lord your God by doing what God says . . . and it will be good for you. 

That’s the end of the sermon. At least, that is the end of Moses’ sermon. I’m not quite done with you yet. I want to reflect with you on the connection between living in God’s ways and the experience of well-being.

You see, Moses has two assumptions here. The first is that we are able to follow the ways of God. The second is that we don’t always follow the ways of God. There you have it – the human situation. We’ve been told what’s right, we know in our bones what’s right, but we don’t always do what’s right. Our greatest challenge is dealing with our own resistance to the ways of God that would make us well.

God says, “Don’t lie. Tell the truth.” Sounds good; but if you make up a story to explain to your friend why you didn’t want to go to her birthday party, she could find out the truth and it would damage the relationship. You might not be friends anymore -- because you lied.

God says, “Honor your father and mother.” The commandment is not spelled out, so we have to figure it out anew in every season of life. When we are young, it means honoring them by not sassing and talking back. When we are teenagers, it means we honor our parents for their authority, even if we tell our friends that we think they’re crazy. When we reach midlife, we honor our parents as partners in wisdom. When our parents advance in years and decline in strength, we honor our parents by ensuring they are safe and cared for.

What I like about that commandment is what it goes on to say: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long, that it may go well with you (5:16). Ever notice that? Taking care of our parents is not only good for them, it’s good for us.

The assumption here is that we can do these things, that we can choose to follow God. Daily life does not have to be random, it is intentional. If God says do not lie, then don’t lie. If God says, “Don’t take away somebody’s  life,” then don’t take a life.

And this is intended in the deepest possible sense. As we heard from the Gospel reading, Jesus pushes the commandments beyond a superficial application. “You have heard it said, ‘don’t murder,’ but I say to you, don’t let your anger toward another person linger. Don’t ever attack another child of God through your words.” (Matt. 5:21-26).  Why? Because living in deep resentment or murderous rage is not really living. As somebody once quipped, “When you’re angry, you lick your chops at somebody else’s misfortune, but the skeleton at the feast is you.”[1]

Every day is full of choices. Thousands of years ago, Moses knew that. And do you know when Israel remembers him giving this sermon? When the nation is on the brink of going into the Promised Land! After forty years of camping in the wilderness, now it’s time to receive the land that God wants them to have. It’s stretched out in front of them, all that milk and honey.

That’s when Moses says, “Watch out. Don’t forget about God. Choose the life that is given to you as a gift. Never take it for granted.” He says this on the mountain as they face the temptation of unlimited possibilities. “You can either do this, or do that.” Either life or death, either blessing or curse, either love God or forget about God. That is the choice. We make that choice a hundred times each day.

That doesn’t mean it is easy. I remember a season when I was feeling worn out. As I thumbed through a magazine one day, I saw a good review for a book about taking care of yourself. So I bought the book. Chapter one said: You are a person who makes choices. If you want to live a balanced, healthy life, you have to choose that every day. When you’re tired, choose to take some rest. When you’re hungry, choose something to eat. If you’re bored, choose to get up and move around. If you are eating too much, choose to practice restraint. It’s really quite simple. That’s why it’s so difficult.

So Moses stands on the mountain and says, “I am setting before all of you a choice, a life or death choice. If you love God enough to follow his ways, you shall live. And if you don’t, well…”

So what are you going to do?

My friend Terry Chapman sent along a poem the other day. It’s a poem about saying no to death in all its many forms, and about saying yes to life. The poet is Edwina Gately, a woman of faith who works in Chicago with homeless women and victims of domestic abuse. The title is “Called to Say Yes.”[2]

We are called to say yes / That the kingdom might break through
To renew and to transform / Our dark and groping world.

We stutter and we stammer / To the lone God who calls
And pleads a New Jerusalem / In the bloodied Sinai Straights.

We are called to say yes / That honeysuckle may twine
And twist its smelling leaves Over the graves of nuclear arms.

We are called to say yes / That children might play
On the soil of Vietnam where the tanks / Belched blood and death.

We are called to say yes / That black may sing with white
And pledge peace and healing / For the hatred of the past.

We are called to say yes / So that nations might gather
And dance one great movement / For the joy of humankind.

We are called to say yes / So that rich and poor embrace
And become equal in their poverty / Through the silent tears that fall.

We are called to say yes / That the whisper of our God
Might be heard through our sirens / And the screams of our bombs.

We are called to say yes / To a God who still holds fast
To the vision of the Kingdom / For a trembling world of pain.

We are called to say yes / To this God who reaches out
And asks us to share / His crazy dream of love.

That’s the sermon. When you depart the sanctuary, your job is to finish it.

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

[1] To paraphrase Frederick Buechner.
[2] Edwina Gateley, There Was No Path So I Trod One, (Trabuco Canyon, CA: Source Books, 1996)

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Should Church Feel Good?

Isaiah 58:1-14
Ordinary 5
February 5, 2017
William G. Carter

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

I don’t know what kind of response that the prophet Isaiah received, but I know the kind of things that people say to me at the back door. They say a lot of things: they tell me their children are getting married, or volunteer to bring a crock pot of chili for the Ice Festival, or about an upcoming surgery or a recent head cold. It’s all good information.

Most of them speak about the hour-long worship service that they have just been through. “The choir was good today,” someone will say, or “How about those bells?” A couple of weeks ago, when I used a stolen prayer for the service, a number of people asked for a copy. They rarely ask for a copy of my own prayers, which is good because I don’t always write them down, so I was glad to give it to them.

Once in a while, someone may say something about the sermon. That’s a good corrective for me, because they will often quote a line from it that I didn’t even say. As one of my teachers said, “That’s good preaching. You stirred up something in them that they’re still chewing on.”

But as I’ve told many of you, of all the comments at the door, my favorite is when somebody says, “That was a good worship service. I felt good about worship today.” I like that. It’s not just about the sermon, or the music, or prayer, or the good looking ushers. It’s the quality of the whole worship service. That’s what really matters.

Worship is what gets God’s attention. What matters is not merely the show up front, or the quality of singing in the pews – but the whole thing. Worship nurtures our faith. Worship expresses our faith. Worship responds to the grace of God by expressing the grace of God. So I always hope to hear somebody say, “That was a good worship service. It felt good to be here.”

But today Isaiah sounds a warning to us. He’s been sitting in the back row of the sanctuary for a while. He can watch what has been happening in here, but he can also get a pretty good view of what’s happening outside the door. And he begins to see that there is a serious disconnection between what we do in this room and what we do when we go back to the neighborhood.

Now, what’s been happening inside the sanctuary has been pretty important. The people gather to praise Yahweh, the God of freedom, the God of love. They sing. They give. They listen to the scriptures tell of God’s long-standing relationship with his people. They support one another in taking on spiritual disciplines, like praying for the needs of the world, or fasting from food as a way of focusing on God.

But back there in the last pew, the prophet Isaiah can overhear a little grumbling from the people. “Why isn’t this working? We come and tell God what we want, but God doesn’t seem to be listening. We voluntarily give up a meal in order to pray, but God isn’t paying attention. We humble ourselves, and take on all of these practices and disciplines, but God won’t even stifle a yawn. Why won’t God look at us?”

That’s an interesting thing to hear, because from where he’s sitting, Isaiah can watch some of these very same people as they go about their business outside the door. These are the very same people who come into the sanctuary, humble and committed to prayer, while under their breath they are murmuring about how demanding the priest is.

These are the same people who sponsor task forces on peace and justice, but continue to pay their cleaning ladies less than minimum wage. They live in their big house on the hill and dress in designer clothing as they go to worship. Meanwhile they conveniently seem to forget they are funding the mortgage on their vacation house from wages that should be rightfully be going to their underpaid factory workers, and those designer clothes are stitched offshore for nickels a day in some sweatshop.

There is no question in Isaiah’s mind why God isn’t listening. Among God’s people, there is a disconnection between what happens in the sanctuary and what happens out on the street.

In an important article on worship and ethics,[1] Nicholas Wolterstorff reminds us that the God we worship is a God that loves justice. According to the scriptures, justice is not about punishment or prisons or law and order. That’s not the Bible’s view of justice. Biblical justice is looking out for the people who get trampled on. The Bible keeps pointing us to the widows, the orphans, and the aliens, because traditionally they were the ones who didn’t have access to the same basic services as everybody else.

To these ancient categories of people, in our day we might add the single parent, the homeless child, the mentally ill, the physically disabled, those with chronic illness, the victims of prejudice and exclusion, to say nothing of those who come from a different land or speak a different language. God says, “A holy people will look after these folks, and bring them into the community so as to enjoy its bounty.”

For instance, take the whole discipline of fasting. In many spiritual traditions, for thousands of years, people have voluntarily skipped some meals as a way to devote themselves to God’s purposes. That’s a wonderful and pious thing to do, and Jesus himself fasted for forty days in the desert.

But when you are fasting to pursue God’s purposes over here, and then you neglect your neighbors and ignore God’s purposes over here, there is a serious spiritual disconnection, and God won’t pay you any attention. As someone comments on Isaiah’s text, “The God of Judaism is not a God who likes to be flattered in a more or less passive routine of worship; this God is out working the neighborhood and wants all adherents doing the same.”[2]

“What kind of fasting do you think I prefer?” asks the Lord. “Isn’t it to loosen the bonds of injustice, to break the yoke of oppression? Isn’t it to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless and the poor under your own roof?” If we come here to worship a God who makes every person, a God who declares that each of these persons resembles the divine image, there isn’t a person alive who is not our own kin.

In his book called The Dangerous Act of Worship, Mark Labberton tells about his experience as a guest preacher. He’s a seminary president, so he gets around. And Mark often sees what the congregations take for granted.

One Sunday, he says he was preaching in a big, big church. It was a fancy place. Everything was elaborate stone work – the sanctuary, the pulpit, the communion table. Mark had finished his sermon, and then joined the host pastor right behind the communion table. They stood together and led the congregation in the communion prayers. Then, in his words, this is what happened:

The elders went up and down the stairs to receive the trays of each element. One of the elders lost his balance as he reached the top step and accidentally collided with another elder. Both silver trays crashed onto the stone steps, making the loudest reverberation in the quietest moment, communion bread tumbling all over the steps. It was a noisy, messy, awkward situation. It was also just an accident.

I saw such a look of fury and hatred pass between the two men as I have rarely seen. It was an embarrassing and painful exchange. The hatred was far more of an offense to that communion meal than the accident itself. For an instant it seemed the curtain was pulled back and I saw what our instincts often reveal: it’s about us more than about someone else.[3]

And while all that fussing is going on, there were people outside that big stone building, homeless people, hungry people, who would have given anything to have a piece of bread to eat . . . while the elders are upset with each other about spilling the trays.

Do you know what God wants?  I think you know what God wants.

·         God wants a connection between Sunday and Monday.
·         God wants a connection between a warm sanctuary and a chilly homeless shelter.
·         God wants a holy people who care about all the people.
·         God wants us to stop wasting food, especially when others are starving, and to step up the distribution program.
·         God wants those who have a lot to stop taking advantage of those who have little.
·         God wants the hungry to be fed, and the cold-hearted to be strangely warmed.
·         God wants the Sabbath to be about God’s concerns, and not merely a day off from human responsibility.

I think we know what God wants. And it is a privilege to be part of a church that seeks to be what God wants.

In fact, when we gather for worship, hear God speak, and then take our neighbors as seriously as we take our Lord, we might just hear God say, “Now that was a wonderful worship service!”

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

[1] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Justice as a Condition of Authentic Liturgy,” Theology Today, April 1991, pp. 8-9.
[2] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) 189.
[3] Mark Labberton: The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice (Downer’s Grove: IVP Books, 2007) 44.