Sunday, June 18, 2017

How Much Should We Pack?

Ordinary 11
June 18, 2017
William G. Carter

As much as I like to travel, I’m never sure how much to pack. When my wife and I fly out to Albuquerque for vacation this Friday, we will do our best to keep a week’s worth of possessions down to one suitcase. That’s the goal. It’s not certain that will happen.

Packing is determined by two contradictory principles: how do we move quickly? How can we be prepared for every contingency? How many pairs of pants can we take, or in my wife’s case, how many pairs of shoes? Should we pack an umbrella? Does it rain in New Mexico? How about a suit jacket, in case our hosts take us out to dinner? Meanwhile, we booked a very small rental car – will the suitcase fit in the back?

Packing is an art form. For wisdom, I recently printed off an article: “How to pack like a Ninja.” There’s great advice: roll up your t-shirts, and take one less than you think you’ll need. Roll up your socks and stick them in your shoes. To save space, wear a jacket onto the plane. Don’t waste valuable suitcase space.

On the other hand, it’s possible to forget the essentials. Like the kid who was in such a hurry to get out of the house and spend a Friday night with friends. Around eleven that night, I got a phone call. A sheepish voice whispered, “Dad, could you bring over some underwear? I forgot to bring some. But whatever you do, don’t tell me friends.” Of course I won’t tell your friends; I’ll save that story for a sermon. Ah, Father’s Day!

So I was paying close attention when Jesus sent out twelve of his followers. He gave them the authority to do his work, and sent them out to travel around as he has been traveling around. And what’s the best advice at the heart of his commission? Don’t take anything with you.

In Eugene Peterson’s translation, Jesus says, “Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood… Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously… travel light.”

Well, of course. Too much baggage can get in the way. Like that family trip years ago to attend a cousin’s wedding. On the way through the Mojave Desert, our rental car got a flat tire, about a hundred miles shy of Barstow, California. The tire was changed with a spare, but the punctured tire wouldn’t fit underneath where the spare came from. And there was no room for the tire inside the car because there was too much luggage, so it had to go on somebody’s lap.  

“Travel light is good advice.” Yet Jesus pushes it to extremes: “Carry no bag for your journey. Take no sandals, no walking stick. Forget about an extra shirt. And most of all, take no money.”

That reminds me of the hazing story when my father joined a college fraternity. They blindfolded him late one night and put him in the trunk of a car. Then they drove around for forty five minutes, stopped somewhere, and told him to get out. He had no wallet, no money, no compass, no flashlight. And they said, “See you back at the fraternity house. Figure out how you’re going to get there,” and sped away.

Obviously he made it back, or I wouldn’t be telling the story. He never said how he did it, but he did say it wasn’t easy.

And Jesus isn’t hazing anybody. He’s sending them out to do ministry. He has been healing a lot of people, an awful lot of people, and there’s more work to get done than he can get done. He’s a human being, not a Superman. A human being can only put in so many eighteen hour days, can only be in one place at a time. So he calls out twelve of his followers to extend the work. Jesus gives them direction, commissions them to go, and says, “Don’t pack anything.”

Well, that’s not to say he doesn’t give them something. You know what he gives them? You know what he gives us? A small little sack of words.

“When you go somewhere, say, ‘The Kingdom of God has come near to you.” That is, God is ruling over heaven and earth, and God is right here. And the second thing you say is ‘Peace be to this house!' That’s what I give you. That’s all you have to carry. Nothing else is necessary. You are sent into the world with a handful of words."

In a way, that is a relief. The words Jesus gives are simple words. They're easy to remember. Not too burdensome to carry.  And it's good to know that God's work can be done without a lot of props. We need no bag, no sandals, no purse.  We need no flip-charts, no brochures, no PowerPoint presentations. That's good to hear, because the props can get in the way.

Years ago, when my sister worked at a Presbyterian summer camp, she brought back a book that they used for devotions. It’s a snarky little book, full of wisecracking little parables, which is probably why it is still on my shelf. Here’s one of my favorites:

 In a certain town, an advertising executive decided to sell God.  She invited some clients to a presentation.  Then she got busy.  First she converted the "God message" to a variety of abstract images projected onto a screen.  Next she added a catchy soundtrack with guitars and drums. Finally she hired a caterer to serve drinks and hors d'oeuvres in the softly-lit room. As her clients arrived, she chatted with them casually. Then came the visual pitch. Afterwards people complimented her creative approach. She was pleased and said she was glad they liked it.  With a chuckle she added, "I hope you'll buy my product."  People looked confused and uncomfortable.  Finally someone said, "Oh, are you selling something?"[1]

The props can get in the way. Contrast that to what writer Frederick Buechner reminds us about Alcoholics Anonymous: They meet in basements and spare rooms, because an addiction to alcohol is ruining their lives. They have no budget, no hierarchy, no building of their own. They simply tell their own stories, where they went wrong, how they are trying to go right, how they find the strength and hope to keep going on. There’s not much more to it than that and it seems to be enough. Healing happens. Miracles are made.[2]

This is what Church is meant to be, he says. Sinners Anonymous.

"I send you without a bag or sandals or purse," says Jesus, for God's work is best done with words. At the bottom of it all, we need no steeple, no pulpit, no organ, no blackboard, no office. In fact, we don't even need a coffee pot. Don't get me wrong; these things are nice, but in the ultimate economy of God, all we are given are a few words.  I, for one, find that refreshing.

What delights me even more is that Jesus implies that our words can carry the freight of the Gospel.  I had forgotten that words have such power.  Of course, not just any words will do.  Jesus gives us the right kind of words. He gives us words of blessing and words of truth.

Whenever you go into a house, said Jesus, say a blessing.  Say "Peace be to this house!"  It makes no demand.  It requires no decision.  It simply announces the salvation that Jesus came to bring.  As one scholar puts it, “When you speak like that, you release God's good news into the air.  God offers peace to all within hearing.  Anyone hungering for such wholeness is free to respond on their own terms.[3]

And when you go into a town, said Jesus, tell people the truth.  Oh, you can eat with people and heal the sick.  You can paint their houses and mow their lawns.  But don't forget to speak up and say, "God's kingdom has come near to you."  You see, that's the truth!  Regardless of how effective your good deeds, regardless of whether or not anybody wants you around, you need to speak up and say, "God's kingdom has come near to you." 

After all, it's God's kingdom, not yours, mine, or theirs. Its coming doesn't depend on you. The kingdom is at hand, regardless of how many good deeds we do along the way.  God's reign has broken into human history.  So speak up and say so.  Announce that God is here, that new possibilities for life are at hand.

It encourages me to hear such good news, especially given our circumstances.  The plain fact is that the world is not knocking down our door to hear the gospel.  I checked this morning's newspaper and there's as much pain and suffering as there was yesterday.  All the more reason for Jesus to send us out into the world.  He allows us no bag, no sandals, no purse, and no props.  He sends us out as lambs in the midst of wolves, carrying only a few fragile words. Still the question remains: Are words enough? Do they have sufficient power?  Is there anything we can say in God's name to make a tangible difference in a painful world?  What do you think?

Walt Wangerin, the Lutheran storyteller, tells about his church organist, an imposing woman named Joselyn Fields.  At forty-seven, she was stricken with cancer.  Spring, summer, and autumn, he went out to visit the woman.

He said he didn't know what to say, nor did he understand what he had the right to say.  He wore out the Psalms; the Psalms were safe. He prayed that the Lord's will be done, scared to tell either the Lord or Joselyn what the Lord's will ought to be. By his own estimation, he bumbled.

One day when she awoke from surgery, he decided to be cheerful, to enliven her and to avoid the specter that unsettled him -- the death.  He chattered. He spoke brightly of the sunlight outside, and vigorously of the tennis he had played that morning, sweetly of the flowers, hopefully of the day she would sit again at the organ, reading music during his sermon.  But Joselyn rolled a black eye his way.  She raised one bony finger to his face. And she said, "Shut up."  He shut up.  He kept visiting her.

And so he writes, "The autumn whitened into winter; and Joselyn became no more than bones; her rich skin turned ashy; her breath filled the room with a close odor which ever thereafter has meant dying to my nostrils.  And the day came when I had nothing, absolutely nothing to say to Joselyn."

He said, "I entered her room at noon, saying nothing. I sat beside her through the afternoon, saying nothing.  She lay awake, her eyelids paper-thin and drooping, watchful eyes -- we, neither of us, saying anything.  But with the evening came the Holy Spirit.  The words I finally said were not my own."

Walt said, "I turned to Joselyn. I opened my mouth and said, `I love you.'  And Joselyn widened her ebony eye. And that lady, she put out her arms. She hugged me. And I hugged those dying bones. She whispered, `I love you, too.'  That was all we said. But that was the power from on high, cloaking both of us in astonished simplicity, even as Jesus had said it would.

Joselyn died. And Walt says he did not grieve.  For the yellow fingers of death had already lost their grip.[4]

"Behold," Jesus said, "I send you into the world to do my work.  You don't need a fat purse, or a bag, or brand new sandals." All he gives us are a handful of words. Words of blessing: "Peace be with you!" Words of truth: "God is ruling, and close at hand." Above all else, they are words of love. That's all we need. That's all we're given. 

They are enough.

William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Lois Cheney, God Is No Fool, publisher unknown
[2] Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark
[3] Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel of Luke, p. 848
[4] Told in his wonderful book Ragman (New York: Harper and Row)

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Spelling Trinity

2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20
Trinity Sunday / Ordination and Installation
June 11, 2017
William G. Carter

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Some time back, my friend Jane was ordained by the Presbyterians, not as an elder or deacon, but as a minister of word and sacrament. She graduated from seminary, passed all her exams, and lined up a job. She wanted to be ordained in her home church, over in Dallas, Pennsylvania, and it was a privilege to celebrate that day with her.

She moved out of state, and her ordination certificate arrived in the mail a few weeks later. Jane tore open the envelope and was excited to see her name on the certificate. But her countenance fell when she discovered the clerk of the presbytery has misspelled the name of her home church. If you’ve been over to Dallas, you may remember the name of the church is “Trinity Presbyterian Church.” The stated clerk spelled it, “T – R – N – I – T – I – Y.”

For somebody with dyslexia, all of those “t’s” and “i’s” might be hard to keep straight. Yet the presbytery clerk was a minister, and you would expect a minister to get that word right. So Jane sent back the certificate, asked for a corrected copy, and waited a few more weeks to get one. “After all,” she said, “Trinity is a word that we ought to know how to spell.”

Christian people will agree with her, although it takes a while to learn how to spell that word. The New Testament speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the word “Trinity” never appears in its pages. It took a while for the church to spell out the word for the first time. And its heart, all spiritual growth is about making sense of what that word means.

The two New Testament texts are conclusions of the books where they are found. In Matthew 28, Jesus is risen from the dead and gathers all the disciples that are still around for a final charge. “Authority is given to me, all authority,” he says. “I’ve been making disciples out of you, so I send you to make disciples out of all the people of the world.”

And how do you make disciples? First of all, you baptize them. You claim them for God by washing them with water. And then you teach them everything that Jesus has been teaching: blessed are the poor in spirit, forgive one another countless times, give a cool cup of water to those who thirst, visit the prisoners, heal the sick, have no fear.

A disciple is defined as a Christ follower. It is a person who is claimed by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are baptized in the name of the Trinity.

At the end of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church, he offers a blessing in the name of the Trinity. We hear it just about every week: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.  The order is significant: Jesus is the One who gathers us in grace, that grace brings us to God who is the One whose very being is Love, and “communion” (or “fellowship”) is the ongoing gift of the Holy Spirit.

What’s so striking about that this blessing comes at the end of a very cranky letter. Second Corinthians talks about how hard it is to do God’s work in the world. And not only in the world-in-general, but the congregation in particular. A congregation is full of people, forgiven sinners, yes, but unfinished saints. They will beat you up, and then talk you down when you are gone. They will resist the grace, fight against the love, and break the fellowship.  

That’s why we have to hear this well-worn blessing in its original context. Let me read again the lines that lead up to it:

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. 

He’s talking to a difficult and contentious crowd. They are in competition with one another. They are in love with the enticements of the world. Some of them are saying, “Why do we have to collect money for those disaster victims in Rome? They aren’t Corinthians.” To put it simply, there’s not a single one there who is about to greet another with a holy kiss.

But Paul knows what the Christian life is called to be: a life of cooperative service and compassionate regard, a life that shares in the mind of Christ, the benevolence of the One God who sent Christ among us, and the companionship of the Spirit who is the presence of the Risen Christ. So he says it: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Or to answer the question somebody once asked, “What does the Trinity have to do with us?” The answer: everything! There is no life apart from God. There is no mission, no purpose, if we are not sent to share the fullness of God’s gift of life with others. There is real sense of community unless we share that life with one another, in the presence and fellowship of the God who gives that life.

For a long while, a lot of Christians didn’t talk a lot about the Trinity. It was a concept, an abstract idea, some inherited notion that we were supposed to believe. At best, we might hear a children’s sermon about it, as some dear soul held up a three-leaf shamrock and said, “This is what God is like.” I think I gave that children’s sermon at least once, and when I was done, a bored congregation snapped back to life and went on with its business.

Yet in recent years, Trinity has re-emerged as something more than an ancient idea. It’s an insight into the very life of God, that God’s essential identity is community, that God is anything but static and in constantly motion. And if the idea of Three-in-One and One-in-Three is too big, too incomprehensible, it’s a healthy reminder that God is greater than we are . . .

But let it also be a reminder that the God of grace, love, and communion is near at hand. The God who saves the world in Jesus is still saving and replenishing the world in the Spirit.

And if that’s too much to take in, let me put the cookies on a lower shelf and say, “God is alive.” If you remember nothing else about the Trinity, remember that. The Triune God is full of life, abundant life, joyful life, healing life, victorious life, sacrificial life, loving life.

So the question today is, “What does the Trinity have to do with elders and deacons?” What does the Trinity have to do with the leaders of a congregation?  Same answer: everything!  If the congregation is to be alive, it is the life of God that brings it alive, over and over again. And the role of the church’s leaders is to spell this out, to discover and enact the essential practices for us to live together in the life of God.

Sometimes it’s obvious: the Session oversees the worship, the education, the mission and fellowship of the church. The Deacons are the compassion arms and feet of the Risen Christ. There’s always something to do

Sometimes it’s not so obvious, at least until you look beneath the surface to see what’s really going on.

I’ve seen this happen many times, too many to count, but my all-time favorite example was a Session meeting at my first church, back when I was about 27 years ago. There was a major argument at the meeting. It consumed about forty-five minutes of energy, not counting the extra hour of conversation in the parking lot.

Now, you may want to know the nature of the controversy. What might demand forty-five minutes of volunteer time, multiplied by a table full of wise elders? Did we have a moral issue to address within the membership? Was the treasurer dipping into the offering plate? Was the church school curriculum teaching Methodist heresy? Was the building unsafe? Was the pastor skipping out on sermon preparation to play in jazz clubs? What terrible controversy could burn that kind of energy?

I’ll tell you what it was: it was a down-in-the-mud fight about what kind of coffee we would serve at coffee hour. Folgers crystals or fresh-brewed? The lines were drawn, the positions were intractable, the coalitions defined.

And the problem was this: over here, we had a new chair of the Fellowship Committee, a man new to the congregation that nobody knew very well, and over here, we had the former chair of the Fellowship Committee, a dear soul who was burned out from years on the committee. In fact, that entire committee was burned out, so when the former chair moved onto other things, they all quit with her.

That left the new man to do all the work of the committee by himself. Since he was a retired state police officer, a no-nonsense guy, he wasn’t going to fuss about things where he didn’t get any help. So he went out and bought a big jar of freeze dried Folgers coffee, plugged in a hot water brewer before worship, and said, “Here’s your coffee hour.” Since he was also a retired state police officer, he had an in with the local donut shop, so he would also get them to donate a few dozen old donuts for the cause. No nonsense: here’s your coffee hour.

Well, the former members of the committee thought that was terrible and said so. The former chair of the committee agreed with them. Those who actually drink coffee had a strong and well-brewed opinion about the situation. Those who didn’t drink coffee had strong opinions about it, too. I mean, it’s church.

The controversy went on for forty-five minutes. I tried to shut it down a couple of times, but I was quickly told I was merely the pastor, and not entitled to an opinion. So I watched the fire blaze until it flickered into ashes. 

When there was a moment of silence, a wise elder spoke up. “So what’s all this really about?” he said. He had watched most of the proceedings rather than speak; now it was his turn. “I don’t believe this is about instant coffee or fresh brewed. This is about the old versus the new, and I will say to the old-timers if you don’t welcome the newcomers, you’re going to die.”

He went on, a sly smile on his face: “It’s also about the nature of our life together as a congregation. We come to coffee hour to enjoy one another, to welcome visitors, sometimes even to get some work done or to recruit volunteers. Coffee is our third sacrament, so it ought to taste good, and we all have to work together to ensure that it’s a quality event each week that others will want to attend. I’m going to help the new guy next week. Who’s going to help after that?” He waited them out until most folks volunteered.

Then we adjourned the meeting, closed in prayer, and then went out to the parking lot to process his wisdom.

Did you hear what he said? “It’s about the nature of our life together.” That’s a good leadership question. You look at your congregation and say, “What’s going to give this group of people the greatest amount of life?” What’s going to open them up to the fullness of God’s Spirit? What’s going to build upon the old to embrace the new? What’s going to move us together toward the mind of Christ? What’s going to announce that God is real and alive around here?

Maybe it’s expressed in the choice between instant coffee and fresh brewed, but I will tell you this: it is always about the grace, love, and communion of God . . . with us. When we encounter them, discern them, plan for them, or be surprised by them, that's how we know the Trinity is alive.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

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