Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Problem of Seeing Clearly

John 9:24-41
Lent 4
March 26, 2017
William G. Carter

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

How curious that we should hear two Bible stories about people who look and look, and do not see a thing.

In the first story, Samuel perceives the next king of Israel will be found in the house of Jesse. So he goes to the house, only to discover it’s a multiple choice exam. Which one is most suitable to be the king? The oldest? The tallest? The strongest? The smartest?

The answer, as you know, is none of the above. God wants the shepherd boy out in the fields, for God does not regard what the human eye sees.

Then we have the conclusion of a long healing story in John, chapter 9. There's a beggar on the corner every day. People see him but don't look at him. Instead they want to do a spiritual diagnosis: who sinned - this man or his parents - that he should end up blind? Somebody must be at fault, they figure, because look at how this man has been disabled.

You see, they would rather talk about him as if he couldn’t also hear, even though there is no evidence that they even know his name.

So Jesus comes, and Jesus heals him, and then Jesus disappears out of sight. This doesn’t make life any easier on the man who can now see. He has to negotiate his new situation. His parents won’t support him. The religious leaders interrogate him, figuring he and his healer must be sinners since the healing happened on a Sabbath, the wrong day of the week. The great irony is that the man didn’t even ask to be healed!

The man ends up getting excommunicated from the synagogue because Jesus came and opened his eyes. And Jesus comes back to him at the end. That’s how it goes, you know – Jesus opens the eyes, then there’s a lot of trouble, and finally he comes back at the end. And Jesus finds him and says, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man says, “And who is that?” Jesus says, “You’re looking at him.” So there’s a happy ending.

Well, almost. Because the Lord goes on to say what he has said before in the Gospel of John: “Because of me, there is a crisis in the world.” This time, he says the crisis goes like this: those who were blind shall see, and those who see shall become blind.

His pronouncement resembles a lot of other reversals of fortune: the first shall be last and the last shall be first, the proud shall be humbled and the humbled shall be lifted up. And here: the blind shall see and those who see won’t see at all. And to this, the religious people say, “You’re not talking about us, are you?”

Leave it to the religious people to assume that they are the arbiters of clarity. Leave it to the pious and the pure to adjudicate the sins of an unfortunate beggar, much less his parents. Leave it to the holy rollers to presume Jesus is a sinner because he never stops healing, or that the man, once healed, wasn't really without sight in the first place. Leave it to the religious people who believe they see it all: Jesus says they are still bumping into the pews and stumbling on the altar steps.

So what do you think about that?

One of my teachers said you can read the story historically and go back and kick all those Pharisees, even though the Pharisees haven’t been around since the second century or so. The truth of the matter is, the Gospel of John was probably written sixty years after the events it describes, and in that time, even the good-hearted Christians could become sanctimonious and close-minded.

As he says, “To become self-assured, to close the mind to any further word from God, to be the possessors of the final truth with no need to listen to the prophets, to build institutions without the means and occasions of self-criticism would be to write into the script ‘disciples’ instead of ‘Pharisees’ and ‘church’ instead of ‘synagogue.’”[1]

We think we see so clearly, but we have no clue of our blind spots.

Barbara Brown Taylor’s last book is about not seeing so clearly. She said that’s what it means to be spiritual these days. Nobody can presume that they see it all or know it all. And maybe that’s not so bad, she said. She writes about a restaurant in Zurich opened by four blind entrepreneurs. If you want to eat there, you need to make reservations months in advance. The owners were inspired by a blind Swiss pastor who routinely blindfolded dinner guests when they came to his house. He said they paid more attention to the food that way, and they also listened to each other better.

So in Zurich, waiters wear little bells on their shoes. Patrons have to pour their own wine by slipping one finger inside their wine glasses and tipping the bottle until they can feel the fluid on their fingertip. The server coaches them on where to find their food: grilled salmon at twelve o’clock, sir, roasted potatoes at nine, and snap peas at three.[2]

Imagine what that would be like, to presume that you don’t know it all, that you don’t see it all. It would be humbling, which would be appropriate for Lent. It would force you to trust in wisdom greater than your own, which would be appropriate every day of the year. To take a cue from Jesus, the problem with seeing clearly is that we don’t.

I remember a college Bible study group. We had a couple of experts in our group. I don’t intend that as a compliment. These two classmates, a man and a woman, were constantly impressing us with how much they knew. Their faith was vibrant, they were excited, and they were also obnoxious. One or the other kept pointing out what they had underlined in their Bibles. And if we knew as much as they did, we would underline it too.

There I’m sitting on the dormitory floor, my red third-grade Bible open on my lap, listening to all that yammering, all that grandstanding, all that pretentious I’m-holier-than-the-rest-of-you-slobs kind of talk. I’ve never been one for writing something in my Bible, but I did that day. I wrote, “If you think you have learned it all, you probably have.” I didn’t mean it as a compliment.

Those who see shall not see.

No doubt it is a common characteristic. When the Titanic grazed an iceberg, the captain said, “It’s just a scratch.” The man falls down the stairs, breaks two legs and an arm, and says, “I am OK.” The Mafia wife says, “Honey, how come the FBI doesn’t sit outside other peoples’ houses?” And my goodness, who knew a national health care bill could be so complicated?

Let’s say it. If we think you see everything, we are blind – and I don’t mean visual impairment. In fact, we have a Presbyterian elder out in the countryside of our presbytery. He lost his vision as a young man, but went to college and trained to be a counselor. He’s really good. Sometimes we have sent him into a terribly conflicted situation. He taps his white cane, people smirk a little bit, and he disarms them. And when he listens, he is so good that he can even hear what they are not saying. Vision can be overrated.

The Gospel of John is hinting that you can look directly at Jesus and not know who he is. His incarnation is so complete that he totally blends in. And even if you see the signs that he does and hear the liberating Word he speaks, you still might not perceive his identity. I mean, he had splinters in his hands and dirt on his feet. You think this is the Son of God?

By contrast, the man born blind doesn’t know much at all. Listen to what he says. “I don’t know if Jesus is a sinner.” “I don’t know who is the Son of Man.” There’s only one thing he knows: “I once was blind, but now I see.” There is no self-deception in him. And that’s really the important thing. Self-deception is a corruption of our consciousness, a corruption that covers its own tracks. As somebody observed, “First we deceive ourselves, and then we convince ourselves that we are not deceiving ourselves.”[3]

A few years ago, the world lost Brennan Manning. He was one of my favorite Christian writers, if only because his life was a mess. Brennan quit the Catholic priesthood to marry a woman, and she later divorced him. He was a recovering alcoholic who kept falling off the wagon, yet he never gave up on Jesus because he knew Jesus never gave up on him.

Brennan had a simple message, that the best way to save our lives is through honesty, simple honesty, honesty about ourselves, and an even deeper honesty about God. Here’s how he says it:

The Good News means we can stop lying to ourselves. The sweet sound of amazing grace saves us from the necessity of self-deception. It keeps us from denying that though Christ was victorious, the battle with lust, greed, and pride still rages within us. As a sinner who has been redeemed, I can acknowledge that I am often unloving, irritable, angry, and resentful with those closest to me. When I go to church I can leave my white hat at home and admit I have failed. God not only loves me as I am, but also knows me as I am. Because of this, I don’t need to apply spiritual cosmetics to make myself presentable to Him. I can accept ownership of my poverty and powerlessness and neediness . . . My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.[4]

That’s the word for today. To be honest. To get over ourselves. To give up all pretending. To present ourselves to God, as we are, and not as we imagine ourselves to be. If we claim to see, there is something we do not see. God has to deal with us as we are – and the sooner that we can be honest about who we are, the sooner God can get to the hard work of rescuing us in Christ.

And some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”

Well, let me tell them what Martin Luther once said. “Beware of ever aspiring to such purity that you do not want to seem to yourself, or to be, a sinner. For Christ dwells only in sinners.”[5] They are the only kind of people that he has to work with.

Can’t you see?

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

[1] Fred B. Craddock, John: Knox Preaching Guide (Atlanta: John Knox Press), p. 73
[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperCollins, 2014) 93-95
[3] Lewis Smedes, A Pretty Good Person (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990) p. 74
[4] Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publisher, 1990) 25-7.
[5] Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, LCC, vol. 15, translated and edited Wilhelm Pauck, lvii-lviii.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Putting God to the Test

Exodus 17:1-7
Lent 3
March 19, 2017
William G. Carter

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 

The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

"You shall not put the Lord your God to the test." That's what Jesus said to the devil when he tempted him in the wilderness. According to the Bible, he was referring to a text from Deuteronomy which was referring to the story we have just heard. The people of Israel were journeying by stages, somewhere between slavery and the Promised Land. They camped in a place with no water - and then they demanded water.

The problem, it seems, is not merely that they are thirsty. The problem is that their thirst becomes a big "quarrel." That’s how the storyteller describes it. He uses the biblical word for a grumble fest. The people were upset. They aimed their anger at Moses. Moses said, "Why are you upset with me?" It’s a good question.

I’m sure he knows the answer. Moses is the leader of a religious community that serves an invisible God. That makes him an easy target. They can throw rotten tomatoes at Moses, because they can't see God in order to throw any tomatoes at him. All they can see is God's point person, the on-the-ground representative. So Moses has to untangle their resentment when their real complaint is against God.

And it's a real complaint. There's no water. They are thirsty. Some of them say. “What's the point of being delivered from slavery, only to wither from thirst?” Why should God go to all that effort, to send the ten plagues, to bend Pharoah's hard heart, to carry out the Passover, to split open the sea? Why should God do all that if the end result is a heap of dried-up bones? "Come on, Moses, we're thirsty down here. Give us water to drink!"

It’s not the first time religious people complain when they really ought to make it a matter of prayer. It’s not the last time either. Matter of fact, this is actually the fourth major complaint in the desert. It’s getting to be a habit. In the unfolding history of the people of God, it will be a hard habit to break.

They want something – we want something – when it doesn’t appear on demand, they grumble and say, “Is God among us or not?” And the Bible calls this “putting God to the test.” To put it simply, it’s expecting that God will come out of the faucet, on demand.

Centuries later, in another wilderness, the Tempter will take Jesus to the tippy-top of the Temple and say, “Why don’t you jump down? God will catch you. There are Bible verses that say God will catch you. If you are the Son of God, surely God will catch you.” And Jesus expels the Tempter by saying, “You shall not put God to the test.”

It still happens. I recall hearing somewhere that professional clergy make up one of the worst risk pools for auto insurance. They drive too fast, they don’t wear their seatbelts, and they are very distractible. Why is that? Perhaps they just figure that God’s going to catch them. It’s called putting God to the test.

Today we hear of the people of Israel camping in a place with no water. So they say, “Give us some water.” Um, you’re camping in a place with no water. Didn’t you bring any water? Didn’t you plan ahead? And with a single voice they say, “That doesn’t matter. We want water, and we want it now.”

Kind of reminds me of the little country church where I was sent as a peacemaker. Actually it wasn’t so little, and it wasn’t in the country. They were pouncing on their minister because there weren’t any new members. The town was growing, but nobody new was going to that church. So the same old people had to do the same old things. There was no fresh meat. They figured it was the minister’s fault, because he wasn’t from that town, so they had a “big grumble.”

The minister called and said, “What am I going to do with this people? They are about ready to stone me.” So I got sent over there, listened for a while, murmured affirmatively as if I understood where they were coming from. A couple of evenings of that, had to miss NCIS on a couple of Tuesday nights, but hey, it’s the Lord’s work. Nothing was resolved. I couldn’t fix it. They knew their minister couldn’t fix it. So it now had to be my fault, and their minister’s fault. I mean, I love the Lord’s work.

So to wind everything up, I made a suggestion. Maybe it’s not my fault their church was stuck. Maybe it’s not their minister’s fault, since he was a newcomer. Maybe it was somebody else’s fault... and I paused and smiled. One lady said, “What are you insinuating here?” I said, “Maybe it is God’s fault.”

They all said, “What do you mean?” I said, “You want new people with fresh ideas who will do what you’ve been doing, and people like that are a gift from God. And they’re not here. They’re not coming. So maybe … the problem’s with God. What do you think?” And to a person, they looked horrified and said, “Go back to Clarks Summit.”

It is a fundamental conviction of scripture that God provides. That the air we breathe, the food we consume, the water we drink – that all of it is a gift from God. We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and there’s bread. Now that’s a prayer, as opposed to a complaint. And on the days when there is no bread, to say nothing of cake, it should be a matter of prayer. We name our needs and put them before God.

But the distortion comes when we expect the bread, when we declare ourselves entitled to the water, when we drive too fast or jump too far and say, “Lord, we expect you to catch us.” Then, you see, it’s no longer a matter of trust. It’s ordering God to come and serve us. It’s like saying, “Lord, would you please put down that planet and give me a good parking space?” And that’s when things get out of whack.

It reminds me of one of my all-time favorite religious jokes. (If you’ve heard me tell it before, it’s joke number 46. You can just laugh now.) It goes like this: a man is considering the vastness of the universe and says, “Lord, what is a million years to you?" God said, "My child, a million years to me is but only a second." "Hmm," says the man. Then he asked again, "Lord, what is a million dollars worth to you?" God replies, "A million dollars to me is like a penny."

The man lifts his eyebrows and asks a final question. "Lord, can I have a penny?" And God says, "Sure! Just a second."

When we put ourselves in the center of the universe, a prayer of trust will be twisted into a demand. We expect this, we want that, and when we don’t get all our wishes met, we sulk like little children. Or we blame somebody convenient. In other words, it becomes all about us. And if it’s all about us, we feel no need to pray. We simply order God to give us what we want, probably because we’re already getting what we want. Or at least most of it … or some of it. Or we might even convince ourselves that we can live without God. That’s when the temptation of arrogance will almost get us into trouble.

Let me say it. The reason we pray is because our lives are not complete. The reason we turn to God is because we don’t have everything we need. The reason we come into a room like this for worship is because God is greater and wiser than we are. We are not in the center of all things. We are tempted to think we are. And the better off our situation, the more tempted we are to believe that the universe revolves around us.

The story is told of a governor of Massachusetts who was running for re-election. His busy schedule required a non-stop whirlwind of activity, going from town to town, making speeches, shaking hands and kissing babies. On one busy day of campaigning, when he’d had no time for lunch, he ended up at a community barbeque. It was just in time. As he went through the line, he asked the lady serving the chicken if he could have two pieces of chicken. The woman responded, “No, I can’t give you two pieces. My instructions are to give everybody just one piece.”

With his stomach growling and his threshold for complaining lowered, he decided to throw his weight around. He said, “Ma’am, do you know who I am? I am the governor of this state.” The woman stared at him for a moment, and then said, “Sir, do you know who I am? I’m the lady in charge of the chicken. You get one piece.”

Notice he still gets the chicken, but he cannot call the shots. Similarly. Israel would be watered in the wilderness, but only because God was in a better mood than the people were.

The lesson is that there’s a connection between the temptation to our self importance and our desire to tempt God. “God, we’ve wandered into the wilderness where there is no water, and we are thirsty. Give us water.” As if demanding will make it so. How different that is from saying, “Lord of life, you provide for the needs of all the lives you create. Our souls thirst for you, and we need water to drink.” It’s a subtle difference, but it makes all the difference in the world.

In fact, the writers of the psalms knew the difference. Today we read together Psalm 95, which begins so pleasantly. “O come, let us sing to the Lord… O come, let us worship and bow down…” But when God answers, he still remembers Massah and Meribah. God still remembers how the ancient Jews tested him and put him to the test, even though there was plenty of evidence of God’s continuing work all around them.

Those who prayed Psalm 95 thought they were going to worship, but as they did, they received a warning, “Do not harden your hearts.”  Do not forget that every good gift comes from the Lord, our Maker. Don’t come to worship and hear the ancient desert stories, thinking you are smug and so much smarter than those ancient people.” No, oh no; come with your hearts broken open, your spirits thirsting for relief, your deepest needs ready to be expressed in your prayers.

Like the people of Israel, we live somewhere on the road between slavery and the Promised Land. We have been liberated from Pharoah’s brick yard and aimed toward the New Jerusalem. But the journey is going to go on for a while. As we make our own way through the wilderness, we have to learn how to pray for our needs without grumbling.

God will provide what we need, not because we insist, but because our generous God is always in a better mood than we are. Our lives depend on God, but the Lord is not disposed to accommodate our entitlement. It’s hard to keep that untangled, but that’s why we are still in the wilderness. This is our training ground. Here and now we have to work out what it means to trust in a God who is beyond our scrutiny.  

The Lord is indeed among us. Pray for the heart to see what the eyes cannot.

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

Sunday, March 12, 2017

All God's Children Have Traveling Shoes

Genesis 12:1-9
Lent 2
March 12, 2017
William G. Carter

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan.

When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

Beginning with this story, the Bible begins to move. Somehow God gets through to Abram and says, “I am going to bless you, and you are going to be a blessing to others.” But here’s the rub: Abram cannot stay where he is.

Up until now in the book of Genesis, God has been kind of general. God makes everybody and everything, and gives some general commands: don’t eat the fruit from that tree, look at the rainbow and remember my promise, don’t build that tower too tall.

But now God singles out one person from one family. God gets very specific and says, “You… right there, you! Go. Leave your country, leave your kindred, leave your kin, and go to the place where I will show you. I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you. I will magnify your name and make it a blessing.” God gives no reason why Abram is chosen. He’s not the tallest, not the smartest, not the most accomplished – he is just chosen. Then he is told to get moving. There aren’t a lot of reasons why, and neither is a destination revealed. He is simply called to go.

We don’t know anything at all about Abram’s situation - - except that God gets through to him and says, “Put on your traveling shoes, and I will lead you to where you will finally end up.” That’s it – it’s an open-ended invitation. The only way Abram will get there is by traveling with God and listening along the way.

So all of this is going to shape what I talk about today. I want to talk to those who have heard God say, “Follow me,” but they’re not quite sure where they are headed. Maybe you’re making a change in your life, but the change isn’t quite finished yet. Or maybe you’ve heard God say, “There’s something I want you to do,” but you’re still waiting for more directions. Or maybe you know there is something ahead of you, but the place is not yet found on your map.

The story is told of Alexander the Great. The ancient conqueror led his army clear across Asia Minor – but they soon discovered they had marched off their Macedonian maps. They reached the margins, the blank space on the edge of what they knew. Imagine their surprise at reaching the Himalayan mountains, with no guideposts to lead them!

That’s what faith is – marching off the map. So I have a short list of some things to remember when you’re traveling.

The first is this: ambiguity is the first-cousin of faith. Faith is trusting what is not yet clear, seeing what we don’t yet see. Maybe God speaks, or God acts, or God invites – and the rest isn’t entirely obvious quite yet. That’s where faith steps in. Faith does not have it all spelled out in advance. There isn’t always a checklist. For anybody with high control needs, this can be a little unsettling. How many of us would start on a trip like Abram, without a destination, listening for God to give us a clue, wondering what adventures would unfold?

I remember the day when some people showed up in our town for the first time. We got acquainted and they told me the story. It seems opened up an atlas, put a pencil down on a page, and said, “That looks like an interesting place to go.” Off they went and here they are.

This is the story for today. The rest of the Bible is impressed with Father Abraham and Mother Sarah. They packed up and went, because God said, “Go!” One early Christian preacher understood this open-ended journey as a lesson for believers of every generation. His sermon is found in the New Testament book of Hebrews. Listen to a little bit of it:

·         By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.
·         By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents . . . for he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
·         By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old— and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered God faithful to his promise.
·         Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”  (Hebrews 11:8-13)

Faith begins by letting go of old certainties and hanging on to God. That’s the first thing to note. Faith requires us to leave the familiar and follow God.

The second note is that God’s invitation to leave and follow can come at any time. There is no special time in our lives that is better than any other time. But when the time does come, we will know it.  

For Abram, it happened in his seventy-fifth year. That seems risky, doesn’t it? At a time when most people are settling down, playing it safe, and staying close to home, the call comes from God to pack up his tent and go wherever the Holy Wind of God should blow. He’s seventy-five and on the move – maybe you can name somebody like that – seventy-five is not too late.

Of course, this is the book of Genesis, and some people were just getting started at 75. In the chapter before this, we discover Abram’s father was a man named Terah. He became a parent at age 70, and lived to the ripe old age of 205. So biblically speaking, Abram was having, shall we say, a “late adolescent transition.” It didn’t happen too early or too late. The moment it happened was when Abram was able to hear God speak.

Think about the transitions in your life: the subtle nudge, the lingering invitation, the abrupt announcement, the surprising call for you, all of it beckoning for you to pay attention. They can come at any time. What always interests me is how God can speak through these moments, how God is often calling us forward. We often hear it at just the right time. God’s time.

The third note to mention is that the journey doesn’t conclude very quickly. The Lord speaks, Abram answers, and then the rest of it all takes a while. Those of you who were hoping for instant discipleship will be disappointed. When it comes to faith and following, it’s best to take the long view.

Oh, we hear of Abram departing instantly – that sounds so courageous, so daring, so faithful! Sounds like a freeze-dried disciple, just add water. But then we hear the rest of the story: they leave Haran, they go to Canaan. They pass through Canaan and then to Shechem. Then it’s up to the hills, to Bethel, and on it goes. He marks some of the spots along the way as altars, as places of prayer, but he keeps going.

Then for the first of many times in the Bible, we hear that wonderful little line: Abram “journeyed on by stages.” I think that’s the story of my life and yours. The point is he doesn’t get the whole piece, the whole blessing. It comes in stages, as he travels in stages. It will not be rushed. God promises this 75-year-old man that he will be a father; that promise wouldn’t be fulfilled for another 25 years.

Speaking of faith, we never quite arrive. We move along in stages, a piece at a time, a stage at a time, not too fast, but always in motion. There are no instant saints; saints have to be made, and that takes a while.

So that’s a special word to our newest members who join us today. Welcome to the First Presbyterian stage of our Christian journey. It’s not the whole journey, but it’s a stage along the way. And for this chapter of your life, we welcome you as you travel with us and we travel with you.

Finally, and fourth, the call of God is usually a little bit messy. God speaks when there are other noises in the air. God calls us to follow in the thick of a lot of other allegiances. God says, “Abram, leave behind your kindred.” So what does he do? He takes his wife Sarai, which is understandable. He takes his nephew Lot, which turns out to be a questionable decision. And then they pack up all of their possessions, which include all the slaves and servants that they purchased in Haran.

Martin Luther probably had it right when he wrote these words in his great hymn, “Let goods and kindred go.” But Abram can’t quite do that yet. He had to carry what was familiar as he traveled to the unknown.

It reminds me of my stepson when we traveled to Barstow, California for a family wedding. I told the family, “Everybody brings one bag and one bag only.” My wife said, “That doesn’t include my hand bag and my knitting bag.” Well, we are traveling for four days; one bag is all anybody needs. Somewhere between Vegas and Barstow, we pop a tire in the Mojave Desert. The donut spare goes on the rental van, and there’s no room for the flat. That’s the point when we learn my stepson has brought a suitcase containing every compact disc that he owned. Oh well – the flat tire had to go on his lap. And his baggage slowed us down.

The Christian life is a journey. Maybe you think you are going to get away and have a fresh start. And then you unpack your bags to discover you’ve merely packed yourself, in all the curious peculiarities of your life. We never outrun ourselves, much less the baggage any one of is carrying.

The good news is that God somehow uses all of it. Abram took Sarai – Sarai described repeatedly as “barren” – and in another twenty-five years, she is rocking their cradle for the first time. Abram couldn’t have become the father of a multitude if he didn’t take along his wife – his repeatedly-described “barren wife” – who has the first of a series of impossible pregnancies throughout the Bible.

The call of God is always sifted through our life circumstances, but it is not bound by them. It comes to each of us – as we are – but it calls us forward to what God is inviting us to become. This is the road of spiritual growth.

The word today is that it is an unfolding journey. We are called toward a land that we cannot yet see.

Over the last number of weeks, I’ve concluded the sermons with words from notable poets. I may be in a rut, but I found one more poet that fits for today. It’s not  T.S. Eliot, but Theodor Geisel, AKA Dr. Seuss. He wrote a piece years ago called On Beyond Zebra!  

Said Conrad Cornelius O'Donald O'Dell,
My very young friend who is learning to spell:
"The A is for Ape.  The B is for Bear.
The C is for Camel.  The H is for Hare.
The M is for Mouse.  And the R is for Rat.
I know all the twenty-six letters like that...
...through to Z is for Zebra I know them all well."
Said Conrad Cornelius O'Donald O'Dell.
"So now I know everything anyone knows
From beginning to end.  From the start to the close
Because Z is as far as the alphabet goes."

Then he almost fell flat on his face on the floor
When I picked up the chalk and drew one letter more!
A letter he never had dreamed of before!
And I said, "You can stop, if you want, with the Z
Because most people stop with the Z
But not me!
In the places I go there are things that I see
That I never could spell if I stopped with the Z.
I'm telling you this 'cause you're one of my friends.
My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends!"[1] 

"My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends." That’s what the wise teacher says to Conrad Cornelius O'Donald O'Dell. There’s more than we thought, more than we had when we were playing it safe, and it’s all ahead of us. Take heart in the knowledge that God’s wisdom for our lives is greater than we can yet know.

And when God calls, put on your traveling shoes and get moving.

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

[1] Dr. Seuss, On Beyond Zebra! (New York: Random House, 1955) 1-4. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Longing for Eden

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
First Sunday in Lent (A)
March 5, 2017
William G. Carter

In his book on biblical characters, this is what Frederick Buechner writes about Adam:

He let the Times fall to the carpet beside him. It was the usual recital – a new tax plan, the danger of oral contraceptives to women over forty, the mayor’s special committee on child abuse. He posted his glasses back on his forehead and with his thumb and forefinger massages the loose flesh under his eyes. Through the club window he could see a fat woman in slacks waiting for a bus, a boy with a pony tail walking a dog. Somebody had the TV on in another room, and he could hear the rise and fall of canned laughter. He lit a cigarette and the let the smoke drift out of his mouth without exhaling it. The city sky was turning brown with the approach of dusk. Then suddenly, as if it had been only yesterday, he remembered Eden.

The leopard… the starling… the rose – he remembered giving each its name, remembered the green river, the shy, green girl. He could no longer remember why it was he had felt compelled to leave it except that it had something to do with asserting his independence. Beyond that, he had only the dim sense that somehow a terrible injustice had been done, or possibly a terrible justice.

He saw the flame of what must have been the sunset flash like a sword in the upper story windows across the street. When the old steward brought him his third martini he called him Pete. Actually his name was Angelo.[1]

  And just to provide equal opportunity, here’s the first thing Buechner writes about Eve:

Like Adam, she spent the rest of her days convincing herself that it had all worked out for the best….

It was only once in a while at night, just as she was going off to sleep with all her usual defenses down, that her mind drifted back to the days when, because there was nothing especially important to do, everything was especially important.; when too good not to be true hadn’t yet turned into too good to be true; when being alone was never the same as being lonely. Then sad and beautiful dreams overtook her which she would wake up from, homesick for a home she could no longer even name...[2]

Homesick. Homesick for Eden. Have you ever been homesick?

Homesick is the kid on the second night of summer camp, lying in an unfamiliar cot, listening to the owls, longing for the security and protection of some place better known.

Homesick is the freshman on the eve of fall break, wanting to be back in a setting where there are no midterm exams, no sloppy roommates, just familiar faces and home-cooked meatloaf.

Homesick is my mother on her wedding night, at least that’s what she confessed sixty years later. By the time she was sixteen years old, she had lived in sixteen different houses. And the first time she was ever homesick was the first night she was away from her parents’ home.

We know how it feels. It’s the risk of stepping out beyond familiar landmarks, dependable relationships, and recognizable food. Remember back to a time when you felt it. Chances are it’s a glimmer of what it’s like to be homesick for the Garden of Eden.

That ancient story was written down by people who were far from home. I hope you don’t think it was an eye-witness account. Oh no, Adam and Eve are remembered centuries later by people who had nearly forgotten the Garden of Eden. Some scholars think it might been written during the days of King Solomon. There’s evidence that the story was edited in the years after the Babylonian Exile, when the Jews lived in a foreign land. And one of the ways they could make sense of their homesickness was by remembering Adam and Eve.

Most of the time that we remember Adam and Eve, we recall the forbidden fruit, the talking snake, the taking of what they were told not to take, the hiding, the blaming. But frankly, the Jews never spent much time revisiting that part of the story. They knew that they had already been expelled from Eden. Now they had to make their way in the world with the knowledge of good and evil.

It was Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, who said that this is what makes human beings different from other animals: we have the capacity to make moral choices. And we have to make the choices, because it’s no longer Eden, where all the choices were made for us.

Maybe, as some of the Jewish sages have suggested, Eden was never intended as our long-term home. After all, goes the reasoning, if God did not want us to have choices, then God would have implanted an obedience chip in our hardware. We would be good robots who colored within the lines and always did what was respectable.

Like the story Bill Moyers tells:

My mother used to leave her freshly baked sugar cookies right in the middle of the table, warm and inviting but forbidden until supper was over. If she meant the temptation to be a test of discipline, to build character, my brother and I often flunked. I think of this when I hear the story of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Why didn’t God place the forbidden fruit on the very top branch, beyond the reach of innocence?[3]

The truth is we make choices all the time, sometimes by animal impulse, rather than by logic or congruity or faithfulness. Consequently, once again, we find ourselves far from home. The ancient story speaks of this. God gives us room to choose between good and evil. There is no heavenly hovering, no warning sirens when we get too close. God entrusts us with the ability to make good decisions.

And whether or not each decision is good, it comes with natural consequences. So the Lord says, “So Adam, you want to go it alone? Well, here’s your hoe and there are the fields. Eve, you thought you could be fruitful by yourself? Guess what; when you get to be fruitful, childbirth will be no picnic.” Up until now, she hasn’t had to worry about that. Life outside of Eden is going to be a lot of hard work.

So this isn’t a biology story or a science story. This is a diagnosis of our human condition. We are given great choices, in great freedom, and they come with consequences. More important than some philosophical notion of original sin as our genetic condition, there is also a residual homesickness. We have all these choices, that’s what makes us human. And we also long to be united with God. That’s the homesickness.

Jesus points the way. As we heard in the Gospel story, Jesus is pushed by the Holy Spirit to enter the desolation of the wilderness. In his humanity, he has to make his way through a series of risky decisions.

The Tempter plays on his divinity to say, “Why don’t you turn stones into bread?” Not only could he satisfy a hungry belly after forty days of fasting, he could use the trick to feed multitudes of hungry people. But he knows this is not the path for him, for “We do not live by bread alone, but by the Word that God speaks.”

In another minute, he is tempted to impress the crowds, to win them over by leaping from top-most tower of the Jerusalem temple, to do a swan dive and command the angels to catch him. It says that in Psalm 91, you know. But his way forward is not the way of being impressive. It is the way of self-sacrifice and self-giving, all the way to the cross and through the cross. So he rejects the temptation to be impressive.

Then there’s the third temptation. In the twinkling of an eye, if only Jesus will bow down to a foreign power, he will gain authority over all the nations. Without any cross or suffering, he could win over every heart and bend every knee. All it would take is for him to give in to the Devil. And that is not the way of God, either. You love God, and God alone. So Jesus chooses that.

The right decisions take wisdom. They require clarity. They need courage. Because the only way forward is forward. If there is a longing for Eden, it is a desire to be restored and brought back to God. It’s to be at peace with God, and through that, to be at peace with one another.

And there is no greater peace to stand before God guilt-free, and say, “These are the decisions that I have made. I could do no other. I own them and I offer them as the best acts of faithfulness that I can do. God, finish and heal what I cannot.”

That’s why the Table of Christ is such a compelling invitation for us today. It is a way station on the road to the Great Banquet, when all will be restored. When the New Jerusalem comes down for us as a gift, it will come not because we are righteous, not because we are good, but because God is better at goodness and righteousness than we can ever be.

And God is so good to stay with us, and stay after us, until that final day appears. Did you notice the end of the Garden story? I was well into my 30’s before I heard what my Sunday School teachers neglected to point out. After Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, God stitches their first set of clothes. Can’t go walking around out there in those stupid, little fig leaves! So God says, “Here are some real clothes.” That’s unexpected grace. They don’t have to fend for themselves. They are provided for.

Then the grace continues through the ages, as God keeps speaking, offering even more guidance after the very first commandment is ignored. For we do not live by bread alone, but by the Word that God still speaks.

And I’ll tell you the very last words God speaks: “Welcome home.”

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

[1] Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (New York: Harper & Row, 1979) 6-7
[2] Ibid, 35.
[3] Bill Moyers, Genesis: A Living Conversation  (New York: Doubleday, 1996) 39