Saturday, April 29, 2017

How Far Can Easter Reach?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yikes! He goes on to say,

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

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

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

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

Everybody. And it does say “everybody.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Joy in Spite of the Scars

John 20:19-31
Easter 2 / Holy Humor
April 23, 2017
William G. Carter

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

On a day like this, everybody is a comedian. Like the guy who said this week, “My New Year’s resolution is to exercise religiously. So I’m going to the gym on Easter and Christmas, and then I’ll be done.”

Or the choir director who announced there were available openings in the choir. She said, “If God has given you a beautiful voice, this is your opportunity to praise him. If not, this is your chance to get even.”

I like the minister who stood up one Sunday and announced, “My good people, I brought three different sermons with me today. The hundred dollar sermon lasts five minutes. The fifty dollar sermon lasts fifteen minutes. The twenty dollar sermon lasts a full hour. So if the ushers would come forward to take the offering, we will discover which one I will deliver.”

Now, I would never introduce it that way, but as they say, everybody is a comedian. Even Jesus seems to get into the spirit of the proceedings. He comes back, not once but twice. And the second time, he stuns Thomas and the others by revealing that he has been listening to the doubts even when he has been invisibly out of sight. “Hey Thomas,” he says, “how about these nail prints?” It would be funny, except for the very obvious detail – the Risen Christ still has scars.

That’s not how he looked in my children’s Bible. According to the artist who painted him, when the Lord returned after Easter, he was glistening. Shiny, even translucent, and otherworldly. When I flipped through the pages, I could tell that resurrection was a little bit weird. OK, it was very weird. Yet Jesus seemed patched up pretty well. The blood stains were gone. He was wearing a bright white robe, and didn’t look one bit like a gardener. And I’m pretty sure his hands, feet, and side were all healed.

But according to the Bible, the Risen Christ has scars.

Maybe that shouldn’t surprise us. Anybody who is alive has scars. Do you have a good scar? I mean, somewhere where you can show it in public?

I have a little scar right here, hidden by my eyebrow. My folks had a coffee table with sharp edges. In fact, Mom still has it. I had a Fisher Price duck on wheels that I pulled around the room. Somehow the duck and the cord that I pulled always got stuck under that coffee table. So, one day I crawled beneath the table to untangle the cord. I was successful, so I threw my head back in rejoicing – and ended up getting three stitches above my eye.

There’s a scar on my left leg, a big scar that had a lot more stitches. That was the day I learned a good lesson: never climb on a swing set after you have been stomping around in the mud. Every scar tells a story!

And then there’s the scar on my tongue. That one came about two weeks after my high school graduation. I should have been wearing a seat belt, and the friend next to me should not have been lighting firecrackers from the cigarette lighter in the car. My parent’s perfectly good Dodge wrapped itself around a large oak tree.

Everybody has some scars, including some hidden scars that others might not see. Each scar comes with a story, and probably a lesson or two. Anybody who lives has some scars.

But here’s the thing I wonder: if you have scars, can you live?

You can call him “Doubting Thomas,” but it would be more accurate to call him Realistic Thomas. Whenever he speaks up in the Gospel of John, Thomas asks the earthy question or speaks the obvious truth. Jesus says, “Let’s go to my friend Lazarus, who has died.” Thomas knows what is at stake. He says, “We will go and die with him.” (11:16)

Or at the last supper, Jesus is bouncing metaphors off the walls, like rubber balls. He says, “You know the way where I am going.” Thomas says, “What are you talking about? How do we know the way?” (14:5)

So when Thomas returns on Easter evening and hears that the others have just seen the Risen Lord, he says to them, “I’m not going to believe a word of it until I can touch his scars with my finger.” He probably didn’t believe it would ever happen, because the kind of scars that Jesus had didn’t lend themselves to a healthy life.

And then Jesus comes back again . . . with the scars. Do you think that’s possible?

The comedian Patton Oswalt lost his wife just a year ago. Her name was Michelle. She was a writer. She was working on a book, writing lots of words late into the night. Michelle was exhausted. Patton said, “Honey, go to bed, get some rest, sleep in tomorrow.” Unknown to both of them, she had a serious heart condition, and the next morning, she never woke up. It was just one of those random, unexpected things.

It’s been a hard year of grief for him. He is a single parent now, had to rethink his work life. There’s been a lot of support from friends. And as a comedian, he says a lot of his act is now drawing upon the emotional scars of losing his wife. “I’ve learned to be really honest,” he notes, “and the honesty leads me into some really funny things.”

His hard earned wisdom is that you can’t rush through the journey of grief. He remembers a line from the movie “Magnolia” – ‘I’m through with the past, but the past isn’t through with you.” That is exactly what it is, says Oswalt. “You can say you’re through with grief all you want, but grief will let you know when it’s done.”[1]

In the meantime, he has decided to be fully alive. “What I’m living on now is comedy, of the most absurd kind. I need it. I’m watching old Steve Martin TV specials. He was like our American Monty Python, where it’s just the dumbest (stuff) you can think of . . . I need that.”[2]

We all need it – to tap into the reality of joy and the fullness of life, in spite of our scars. Maybe that's why some of the funniest people we can ever know are those who have lived through a whole lot of pain, and they are so alive that they can tell about it.

What the church announces is two truths that must be held together: the Easter Christ is full of life and he is scarred. Easter does not remove his wounds; they are real. But Easter is the life of God which does not allow the wounds to define him.

Ask somebody who has spent time with one of our wounded warriors. See the amputee who didn’t know he was walking into land mines. And sometime later there he is, big smile, cracking a couple of jokes. He is proud to serve his country, and we are proud of him, too. And there’s more Easter life at work in him than all his wounds with all their stories.

Philip Yancey wrote a book some years ago called The Jesus I Never Knew. In the book, he admits he always wondered:

Why did Jesus keep the scars from his crucifixion?  Presumably he could have had any resurrected body he wanted, and yet he chose one identifiable mainly by the scars that could be seen and touched. Why?”         

The story of Easter would be incomplete without those scars on the hands, the feet, and the side of Jesus. When human beings fantasize, we dream of pearly straight teeth and wrinkle-free skin and sexy ideal shapes. We dream of an unnatural state: the perfect body. But for Jesus, [the pre-existent heavenly Jesus,] being confined in a skeleton and human skin was the unnatural state. The scars are, to him, an emblem of life on our planet, a permanent re-minder of those days of confinement and suffering. [3]

And then Yancey says,

I take hope in Jesus’ scars. From the perspective of heaven, they represent the most horrible event that has ever happened in the history of the universe.  Even that event, though - the crucifixion – Easter turned into a memory. Because of Easter, I can hope that the tears we shed, the blows we receive, the emotional pain, the heartache over lost friends and loved ones, all these will become memories, like Jesus’ scars.  Scars never completely go away, but neither do they hurt any longer . . . We will have a new start, an Easter start.”[4]

All of us have our scars, because we have lived a human life. It’s the Easter dimension of life that transcends all the scars.

This is what the Gospel of John wants us to see, wants us to trust. For if we trust that Christ is alive, then we will share in his Easter life. If we trust that he loves us, that he loves the whole world, then we will receive joy and peace, forgiveness and purpose – just as he said.

According to the story, the whole Gospel of John has been waiting for Thomas to look at Jesus and say, “My Lord and my God. Ever since chapter one, when Nathanael asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (1:46), we have seen something good has come. God has come on two legs, breathing, speaking, healing, the Word made flesh. And even after he is crucified, he comes back, full of grace and truth … light and life.

So we marvel at these mysteries: light out of darkness, joy in spite of scars, life where death once reigned, and the God who continues to make a new creation through Christ. A new creation! That reminds me of a little story that was left out of the Book of Genesis. Fortunately for you, it provides the perfect ending:

God was talking to one of the angels and said, “I just figured out how to spin the Earth so it creates this really incredible twenty-four-hour period of alternating light and darkness.”

The angel said, “What are you going to do now?”

God said, “Call it a day.”[5]

(c) William G. Carter, except for the pieces that have been plundered from other sources.

[3] Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), p.219
[4] ibid.
[5] Thanks to the Rev. Jim Thyren, who wrote a sermon on this text and theme that was so fine that it could not be improved upon, only emulated. If his sermon resembles this one, there is probably a good reason for that. But I don’t know what it is.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Grabbing His Feet

Matthew 27:62-28:10
Easter Sunday
April 16, 2016
William G. Carter

So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Happy Easter, everyone!

In our Gospel lesson, we hear all the necessary information about Easter: the women are the first to go to the tomb, they discover the stone has been rolled away, they hear the witness of the angel: “Do not be afraid; he has been raised, go and tell!” They depart from the tomb with the same mixed feelings that any of us would have. In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus appears to them and greets them. It’s Easter. He goes to the people who love him.

But just then, Matthew reports a most unusual detail. The two women “took hold of his feet.” What?

After all, the Gospel writers leave plenty of other details out. They don’t mention the hour. They don’t even tell the specific location of the tomb. Matthew is the only one who mentioned that the angel came and rolled away the stone, which caused a great earthquake. Like the other Gospel writers, Matthew leaves some details out and fills in some others. Why did they mention that they “took hold of his feet?”

At a human level, I would guess they didn’t want to lose him again. They had stood at his side on that terrible day of crucifixion (27:56). They had endured the agony of watching him in agony. They heard the taunts of the crowd and the cries of the victims. When he breathed his last breath, they felt the earth shake under their feet. Then they watched silently as Joseph of Arimathea placed him in his own tomb and rolled the great stone into place. They wept so hard they had no more tears.

Now Jesus was back somehow. He stands before them and speaks to them. They grab his feet. “We’re not ever going to let go.” I can understand that, although every embrace must conclude. We have to let go. The car is packed and the motor is running; one last hug and goodbye. The plane is boarding, and there is final embrace. The one we love is in the hospital bed, and the moment comes when we must finally let go of his hand.

And the women take hold of his feet. His feet. Why his feet?

Matthew doesn’t talk a lot about feet in his book. Well, a couple of times maybe. When Jesus was busy healing in Galilee, great crowds of people had come. And it says they brought all the sick people, “laid them at his feet, and he healed them (15:30).” It’s a place of availability.

It’s also a place of authority. When Jesus disputed the religious teachers, he quoted a Psalm about the king’s coronation and it shut down the argument. The verse was from Psalm 110: “The Lord said to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.’” That’s the Old Testament verse most quoted by the New Testament. The verse was used to explain the resurrection. All the enemies of God, including death, would be put under the Lord’s feet.

But these women are friends, not enemies. And they grab his feet. Why do they do that?

The Bible scholars have their opinions. Dale Bruner, the Presbyterian, says this is evidence of a bodily resurrection.[1] The Risen Christ is not a ghost. Resurrection is not a vacuous, ethereal, non-event. True spirituality has to do with the body. There’s a physical reality to Easter. This is not a dream.

So the Gospel of Luke says the Risen Christ appears to the frightened disciples to say, “Do you have anything to eat?” Then he eats some fish (Luke 24:41-43). According to John, Jesus shows up to Doubting Thomas and says, “Put your fingers right here in the nail holes (20:27).” So here, the women grab his feet. Jesus is risen in flesh and blood. Divine, yes – and human.

And then there’s the opinion of Father Raymond Brown. The Catholic scholar reminds us of the obvious: grabbing someone’s feet is a sign of affection.[2]  These two women loved their Lord. This is how they showed it. That’s true enough and appropriate for Easter.

But let’s not forget that the feet are part of someone’s personal space. The Bible says that in some of its stories, but I learned that lesson first from my father.

My dad was outgoing and affectionate, but he guarded his body space. I saw his bare feet only once. He had decided to push a lawn mower along the side of a hill. The mower slipped and ended up trimming the soles of his work boots. So when I went to visit, his opening fatherly line was, “This is why we always wear work boots when we are mowing the lawn.” I wanted to ask (but didn’t dare), “Why were you pushing a mower up a hill?”

Well, there he sat in a living room chair, his legs elevated and his toes intact. There was a scarlet bandage wrapped around his right foot. He did not want me to touch it. He was embarrassed that I would see it. He was a strong, capable man, yet I remember how vulnerable he looked.

When the Bible says the women grabbed the feet of the Easter Jesus, it points to something far more than mere affection.

Eugene Peterson says it best. He reminds us that the women take hold of his feet because they are worshiping Jesus. Here’s how he says it:

Falling to our knees before Jesus – an act of reverence – is not in itself resurrection worship. Touching and holding the feet of Jesus – an act of intimacy – is not in itself resurrection worship. The acts of reverence and intimacy need one another. The reverence needs an infusion of intimacy lest it become a cool and detached aesthetic. The intimacy needs to be suffused in reverence lest it become a gushy emotion. These women knew what they were doing: They were dealing with God in the living presence of Jesus, and so they worshiped.[3]  

That’s why we are here, and that’s what Easter is: this is the moment when we deal with God in the living presence of Jesus. So we draw near to the authority and availability, to the mystery and the intimacy. And we bring everything that we have and hold dear to the One who is both our Source and Destination, both our savior and friend.

So it is in the name of Christ that I greet you on this day of days. We gather to celebrate a mystery beyond all comprehension and a wonder that we can still touch. So whether or not we understand it all, my invitation to you is that you listen for his voice and grab hold of his feet, and that you trust in your heart that he will never let go of you.

He is risen . . . and he is worthy of worship. Happy Easter!

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

[1] F. Dale Bruner, The Churchbook (Waco: Word Publishing), p. 1084.
[2] Raymond E. Brown, A Risen Christ in Eastertide (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991) p. 31.
[3] Eugene H Peterson, Living the Resurrection (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2006) p. 16.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Closer You Get

Matthew 26:1-5, 14-16
Maundy Thursday
April 13, 2017
William G. Carter

When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”

Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

One of the hardest discoveries of the novice Christian is that there are sinners in the church. Perhaps they connect to a community of faith, aglow with the Holy Spirit, excited by scripture, ignited by the music. Then they discover there are people in the church who are selfish, argumentative, self-righteous, and downright mean.

Not only that, there are people in the church who are capable of doing terrible things to others as well as themselves.

There's no reason for me to try to illustrate that point at any length. We would be here all night telling stories and most of us would leave more depressed than we should. All I will do is mention a name and leave it there. The name is Judas Iscariot.

What's he doing in the church? Here's the answer: Jesus invited him, called him by name, and gave him responsibilities. He was the bookkeeper for the group that traveled with Jesus. He handled arrangements for travel. He paid for the bread and wine. He was loved by the Christ and welcomed into the inner circle. He was also a sinner.

Tonight as we hear of the final night that Jesus spent among us, we also hear of the final night of Judas. It's difficult to hear of such stories. We want them to turn out well and sometimes they don't.

One of my family members decided to try a new church. It didn't go well. They put on a good show on Sunday, with lively music, flashing lights, handsome preacher. There was also a creepy person in the nursery who started to stalk their son, and others who denied there was any problem at all, telling her that she was making it all up. She said, "Is it too much to expect Christians to act like Christians?"

It's a hard dose of reality to discover people are not what they say they are, or not what you believe them to be. It's even harder to discover that all of us have some unfinished business in our own souls. And I do mean all of us.

Don't pick on Judas Iscariot, O church of God. Don't single him out or make him the scapegoat. Learn from his temptation, and scrutinize your own spirit.

Sometimes Christian people live with the idea that, if only they work a little harder or push a little deeper, they can actually improve and become better people. A friend calls that "the Methodist fallacy." 

In all fairness, she's a Methodist. She admits that she preaches a lot of sermons with the same basic message, namely, "Let's get out there and be a little better." When her church treasurer was arrested for borrowing fifteen thousand dollars from the building fund with no plan to pay it back, we had a little conversation about the merits of Calvinism and its doctrine of total depravity. 

It is hard to 'fess up, hard to look ourselves in the mirror. In fact, I saw one of our church members at lunch today. She wasn't sure she was coming tonight. She didn't think she was up for the challenge.

But as hard as it is to be honest about ourselves and whatever brokenness we bear, let me say a few words about something that is even harder. Sometimes it is our move toward Christ, our desire to be close to him, that shows us our own weaknesses.

You may know a book called The Screwtape Letters, where C.S. Lewis reports on the overheard correspondence between a senior devil and a junior devil. Screwtape, the senior devil, keeps giving advice on temptation to Wormwood, the junior, and Wormwood keeps screwing it up. It was a popular book, so popular that Lewis’ fans wanted him to write a sequel. He didn’t do it, but he did write an extra chapter called “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.”

All the demons gather for a banquet, and Uncle Screwtape gives a speech. He concludes with a charge for increased demonic activity, beginning in the church. And he says words that continue to haunt me, words that create a lot of work for church sessions and presbytery commissions: “The fine flower of unholiness can grow only in the close neighborhood of the Holy. Nowhere do we tempt so successfully as on the very steps of the altar.”[1]

What's he saying? That there is something about drawing near to Christ that brings out the worst in us. I don't want to be believe that, but it's true.

My sister would return from a week at church camp, so full of Jesus and his love and grace. It made her tough to be around, so I snarled and let her know. And then she would get angry and blow, and I'd say, "Ha! So much for church camp!" What got into us?

There's something about drawing near to Christ that stirs up the dark magic of hell. The 4th century monk Evagrius named it as the power of sloth, what one of the Psalms called "the demon of noon day" (Psalm 91:6). That's the demon that comes when the sun is out, and life is full of joy and success and music, and precisely then you do something or say something that is so destructive. Why did we say it? Why did we do it? What got into us?

The Gospel of John describes it another way. Jesus Christ comes as the light of the world, and that's good news. He comes to uncover all the darkness, to expose the twisted secrets, to reveal what we would rather keep hidden. But as soon as he does that, the darkness cries out, "Turn out the lights." People love darkness rather than the light, and they will do whatever they can to snuff out the light.

As Jesus says, according to John, "If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse . . ." (15:22)

There's something about drawing nearer to Christ that brings out the worst in us. I don't say that to be judgmental - who am I to stand in superiority? Rather I say it as a signpost for our souls. As we grow in grace, we never outrun the possibility of evil.

So I say this as a reminder of two truths. First, let us have the courage to be honest with ourselves, to face who we are and what we are capable of doing.  If there is some form of destruction still active in our lives, have the courage to dismiss it, to send it away, to declare that we wish God to cleanse us and set us free.

Second, let us also have the courage to be honest about God. God already knows who we are, what we have done and what we have left undone. As Judas prepares to do his worst, Jesus hands him the cup, and says, "Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins."

The seductive power of evil is real. It's very real. But there is always a greater grace at work. And it is the grace that will set us free.

Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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

[1] C.S. Lewis, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” in The Screwtape Letters (New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1982) p. 172.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Saddle Them Up

Matthew 21:1-11
Palm Sunday
April 9, 2017
William G. Carter

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

In a Bible study on this passage, a woman suddenly exclaimed, “Wait! That can’t be right!” The teacher paused. Everybody turned toward her as she quickly flipped through the pages of her study Bible.

One of her friends said, “Why? What’s up?” And she said, “Were there really two donkeys on Palm Sunday?” With that, everybody took a closer look at the Gospel of Matthew.

There’s nothing like the Bible to get you to take a closer look at the Bible. Matthew says, “They brought the donkey and the colt. They put their cloaks on them. Jesus sat on them.” Two donkeys, not one.

Them? Two donkeys on Palm Sunday?  The teacher lost control as the people around the table began to thumb through their Bibles. One of them  asked, “Where else are the stories of Palm Sunday?”

Somebody said, “Here’s one. Mark, chapter 11. It only mentions one donkey, and it’s the colt, the little donkey.” (Mark 11:2)  Another said, “That’s what it says in the 19th chapter of Luke too. It’s a colt. That’s like a foal, isn’t it?” (Luke 19:30).

“I’m looking at the Gospel of John,” said somebody else. “Here it is, chapter 12. Jesus has dinner with Mary and Martha, along with Lazarus whom he raised from the dead. And the next day, he finds a ‘young donkey.’ That’s what it says in the Gospel of John. One donkey, and it’s young.” (John 12:14).

With that, all the heads snapped back to look at the study leader. One of them said it, “What’s up with the Gospel of Matthew? Why does he say two donkeys, when the others say one? Did he make a mistake?”

The teacher said, “You’re missing one more account of Palm Sunday: Zechariah 9:9-17.” Somebody said, “Where’s that?”  The teacher said, “It’s right before the Gospel of Matthew, the next-to-last book of the Old Testament.” And they found where it was written:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9)

Somebody said, “Oh, this is like a prediction. Someday the king will come and he will ride a donkey.”

The teacher said, “Not quite. It’s not a prediction, it’s a fulfillment. The prophet Zechariah was speaking in the present tense: Rejoice! The king comes. He already believed the king was present, in some way. And 600 years later, Jesus comes and chooses to ride a donkey into the city of Jerusalem. No doubt, he knew this verse and he was intentional to ride a donkey. He was that kind of king.”

“Wait,” another one said. “Zechariah said, ‘on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ So maybe there were two animals after all.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” another said. “Jesus is not some circus rider, straddling two animals at once.”

So everybody looked back at the teacher. He was smiling. “Let me tell you about Jewish poetry,” he said. “It often uses parallelism , an intentional echo, to let the thought sink in. It happens a lot in the Psalms. Sometimes it also happens in the prophets, if they’re feeling a little poetic. Zechariah is talking about one animal, not two. And my opinion is that Matthew is so excited that Jesus is coming to town that he jumps past the nuances of Jewish poetry to say Jesus is choosing to be Zechariah’s kind of king. He is triumphant and victorious – and he is humble.”

By this point, the teacher had them in the palm of his hand, so he kept going.

“Let’s look at what kind of king Zechariah could see. The king ‘will cut off the chariot and the war horse.’ He ‘shall command peace to the nations.’ His ‘dominion shall be from sea to sea.’ This king will save ‘the flock of his people.’ And in a wonderful line: he shall return the ‘prisoners of hope.’” (Zechariah 9:12).

It was quiet for a moment. Then somebody said, “We still need a king like that.”

Well, certainly we do, especially when the leader of Syria is gassing his own people and American missiles are exploding at a Syrian airbase in response. The world is still in a mess. And a primary reason is because a lot of people are hell-bent on having the kind of leaders who swagger around and brag of their strength, rather than welcome a humble king whose primary weapons are the word of truth, the deeds of healing, the establishment of fairness, and the practice of kindness.

Welcome to Holy Week. This is the week when we feel the awkward clash between power and humility, when we sense the distance between telling the truth and getting your own way.

A very large crowd was there, says Matthew. They went out to see the Lord, singing Passover psalms about deliverance and freedom. They pin their hopes on this man who has healed their diseases and confronted public hypocrisy. He has taught of the higher righteousness of the ways of God and punctured the puffed-up pride of those who pretend to speak for God.

The people in the crowd really want him. They really need him. By the end of the week, they push him out of the world and onto a cross. In a nutshell, that is our human condition. Welcome to Holy Week.

But we can come to this Palm Sunday defined by the words of Zechariah, as “prisoners of hope.” That’s a wonderful phrase, isn’t it? It is also a title of a memoir by two recent Christian missionaries, Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer. After hearing about Jesus, they volunteered as aid workers in Afghanistan in 2001, their primary desire being to serve the poorest of the poor. Talk about entering an antagonistic city! They were arrested by the Taliban and imprisoned for a hundred days.

But here is what Heather said about her sense of God’s calling:

I was not confident I had much to offer a devastated nation like Afghanistan. I had no experience to qualify me – only average talents and abilities. In prayer I felt God ask me if I could do three things: Can you love your neighbor? Can you serve the poor? Can you weep as I weep for poor and broken people? I came to see God didn’t need someone with extraordinary gifts and achievements. He just needed someone who could love, share life, and feel for others as he did. He was looking for faithfulness, not fame.”[1]

We are prisoners of hope, captives to a greater calling and a deeper service. We are held by the Gospel, claimed by God to serve in a world that still resists the grace and justice that Jesus brings. In spite of living in a world of cruelty, nevertheless we persist, because we have seen Jesus come into town, seen him just as he is – triumphant, victorious, and humble.

And we will see him again. Oh yes, we will see him again.

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

[1] “In Taliban Hands,” Adventist Review, 2002