Sunday, December 7, 2014

Who Are We Waiting For, and How Will We Recognize Him When He Comes? (Advent 2) Mark

E. Thor Carlson

"Who Are We Waiting For, And How Will We Recognize Him When He Comes?"
The Parish of Calvary - St. George's Church in the city of New York
December 7th, 2014
Advent 2

On May 19th, 1999, Star Wars: the Phantom Menace was released after a sixteen year wait. In other words, an eternity. For years rumors circulated that George Lucas was just about to film Episodes 1 through 3, but, after so much waiting, many began to lose hope. Succombing to despair himself, I distinctly remember my youth pastor throwing his hands up in the air and saying, “Oh, I’ll believe it when I see it.”  But then, after years of anticipation, the original three movies were re-released with new special effects, and while that was kinda cool kinda lame, hope for what came after was renewed. And then it happened. A movie trailer with footage of a new film, a new story, a new hope.  

I remember going with my youth leader and a few of his friends to a midnight showing, filled with excitement, only to have those hopes dashed two hours later. I had waited, I had kept watch, for so long, but when it came, well, I didn’t know what I was waiting for.

Last week you and I were told to keep awake, to keep watch--like watchmen in the night--for a sudden arrival. We’ve been told to keep watch for two thousand years, in other words an eternity. Only, unlike the newer Star Wars films (with the exception of Episode 3, of course), we're promised that it’s going to be worth the wait. This Advent season, as we watch for the Christ, the Son of God, we need to ask ourselves just who is it exactly that we’re waiting for, and how will we recognize him when he comes?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

I Do The Very Thing I Hate (Romans 7:15-25)

Romans 7:15-25
July 6, 2014
Calvary - St. George's Church, NYC

My dad used to smoke three packs of cigarettes a day every day. It used to seem like he was always smoking; it used to seem like he always had a cigarette in his hand.  He smoked outdoors, and, yes, these were the days before most everyone avoided smoking indoors. I remember praying every night before bed with my mom and brother for dad to stop smoking. I even went so far as to raise my hand one Sunday morning during prayer request time to ask the pastor to pray for my dad’s addiction. It didn’t seem to have any effect. My dad kept right on smoking.
One day, while my dad was driving me home, I asked him why--if he hated smoking so much--he didn’t just quit.  In the past my dad had made it very clear to me that smoking was bad for you and that I was never to light up, but until then I had never asked him why he continued to smoke. I had never been that direct before.  In response, my dad told me that the reason he didn’t stop smoking was because he loved it. Loved it. I remember immediately correcting him, “No, you’re addicted to it, but you don’t love it.”  But my dad didn’t back down.  He told me that while he knew it was bad for him, and for that reason he hated it, he also loved it.  I was baffled.  How could he say he loved something that killed him? More than that, how could he say that he loved something he hated? How could someone hate and love something at the same time?  Despite my protests, my dad affirmed his conflicting viewpoints, and my little mind was introduced to the complex irrationality that is the divided will.   
This memory came to mind while I was reading this morning’s epistle lesson. In it Paul writes, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”  How many of you can resonate with this kind of inner conflict?  Maybe for you it isn’t smoking.  Maybe you’ve tried to diet, but you just couldn’t keep at it.  Maybe you’ve tried to deal with your bad temper, but it just won’t go away.  Maybe you’ve tried to stay under your credit card limit, but another month goes by and you’re still in the red.  Maybe you’ve tried to stop resenting the success of others, but when they’re successful in keeping their diet and you aren’t, you can’t help but resent them.  You know the kind of people I’m talking about, don’t you hate them!... “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

"...Or Are You Envious Because I Am Generous" Matthew 21:23-32

Matthew 21:23-32
September 28, 2014
Calvary - St. George's Church, Manhattan
Last week's gospel lesson, the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, reminded me of the parable of the Prodigal Son. In that story there are two sons. One is reckless and doesn’t care about his family; the other is unswervingly dutiful and all about what’s fair.  Many of you know how the story plays out. The prodigal becomes broke, starts sleeping on the side of the road, and ultimately returns to his family and his father (maybe not even all that repentant.) But the father is overjoyed to see this son who had earlier wished him dead.  The father not only receives his son, but gives him a robe and his ring, and throws a lavish party. And, if you read a lot of Christian literature, you might think the story ends there, only it doesn’t.  For the parable of the Prodigal Son is actually a story about 2 sons. When the prodigal's older brother, the unswervingly dutiful and fair son, finds out that his brother has returned and has received a hero’s welcome, he is upset. This isn’t fair, he thinks. So he refuses to join the party; he refuses to join his family. The father hears about his older son, and leaves the party to find him. When he does finds him he tells him to join the family, join the party.  But the older son objects.  He says I have served you unswervingly all this time and here you go and throw a party for your decadent son who deserves nothing more than for you to disown him. I will not come into the party…  At this, the father says "‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” The parable ends with the invitation to the older son to join the feast, to join the family, but we aren’t told what the older brother chooses to do.  As we read the parable, we find that we—the readers—are being confronted with the question.  We, the older brother type—the unswervingly dutiful; those who are all about what’s fair—are posed with the question, “If the undeserving are invited too, will we join the feast?” Or are we envious that the Father is generous?
Last week's parable was very similar. We were told the story of a landowner who went out to hire laborers for his vineyard.  At the beginning of the day he found laborers and agreed to pay them the usual daily wage for their work. Then at 9 am he found more and agreed to pay them the same. At noon the landowner finds more. Then at 5 o’clock—the end of the day—he finds laborers standing around and invites them to work in his vineyard.  Evening comes, and the laborers are paid, the late arrivals first, the early birds last.  When the early birds finally come to receive their pay, they are upset. For despite the fact that they had agreed on receiving the daily wage they assumed that they’d be paid more than the people who came after them. More especially than those who came at 5 o'clock. They cry out in protest, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” At this the landowner replied, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong, did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?... Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Stranger Right in Front of You (Easter 3) Luke 24:13-35

Luke 24:13-35
St. Thomas Memorial Church
Easter 3
May 4, 2014

Have any of you ever seen The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon? It’s the show that replaced Jay Leno's. It's very similar to the Late Show with David Letterman, just with a much younger host—a host not much older than me. Anyway, sometimes on Jimmy Fallon he’ll have a segment where a famous athlete, actor, or musician will walk around the streets of NYC with a microphone in hand ready to interview unsuspecting passers-by. Sometimes the famous interviewer assumes a false identity and asks questions about their true self.  Not too long ago, the show featured New York Mets’ pitcher Matt Harvey. He walked the streets asking New Yorkers what they thought about him. Only, he wasn’t wearing his baseball uniform. He was dressed much like any ordinary New Yorker. Because he was not in uniform few, if any, recognized him right away. It was as if he had transformed.  Ordinary and anonymous Matt Harvey asked his interviewees if they thought baseball star Matt Harvey was any good.  Did they think he was getting lucky, did they think he had what it took to become a real star, and lastly, and most importantly… did they think that he was attractive?

Watching the skit makes you and I, the in-the-know audience, laugh. We see some die hard Mets’ fans either gushing or talking smack about a person that is right in front of them; a person they have gone to see in person or have watched on television countless times. Most of them did not recognize him until, as they began to walk away, he revealed his true identity. For some of them what they said about him during the interview was so awkward that he didn’t even bother revealing his true identity. He let them walk away in complete ignorance.

Thinking about this morning’s gospel reading is what made me think of this skit.  In the reading, Jesus comes up to two of his followers, Cleopas and his friend, and they do not recognize him. Why? We are not told. They are on a walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus. A long walk, about seven miles in distance, so there was a lot of time to talk.  What were they talking about? Their dashed hopes about Jesus, of course. While they were walking, Jesus overhears their conversation and asks, “What are you two talking about?” Jesus, the one whom they loved and followed--upon whom their hopes were placed--was right in front of them and they did not recognize him.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Losing Heart (Holy Wednesday)

Holy Wednesday

Have any of you ever had a mentor whom you long looked up to suddenly grow weary and lose heart?  Maybe you were invested in a cause earlier in life when someone praiseworthy who was heavily involved with it became disillusioned.  Shortly after, you found that your own fire died. No more all-night conversations, no more lobbying, no more passion. To your surprise, your faith in the cause was inextricably bound with the faith of this other person whom you admired.  When he or she lost hope, you came tumbling after.  

Or maybe you’re someone who’s seen those around you grow weary and lose heart, and still you remain. Maybe you’ve weathered these storms and have stayed the course. You’ve continued to run with perseverance, laying aside these weights and pains. You’ve witnessed these disappointments and yet continue to fight the good fight.

I once heard an interview with Bono--the lead singer of U2--about the meaning of his song, “Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own." He said that his father was a man of great faith in Christ until he reached the very end of his life. On his deathbed his faith began to waver. He began to question the basics that he had believed in and lived by so firmly for his whole life. Listening to the interview you could tell that Bono was somewhat shaken by this. You could tell that despite Bono’s firm faith--and he continues to say that it’s quite firm--he was rattled. Whether it be faith in an idea, a cause, or in Christ, watching someone you deeply admire lose heart and grow weary can be crippling.

The author of this evening’s epistle lesson from the letter to the Hebrews is aware of some in the early Christian movement who had lost heart and grown weary.  He writes to people who have given up all kinds of things to follow the risen Jesus. People who were not very popular.  People who had gotten behind a cause--no, a person--that I’m sure many of their friends thought was crazy.  Some of these people were tempted to give in, to throw in the towel.  Maybe they were tempted by the lusts of this world, maybe what had seemed so true at first just didn’t any longer, maybe they simply burned out.  Their once true and lively faith had gotten away from them.  

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Gospel is for Christians Too (Lent 3) Romans 5:1-11

Romans 5:1-11
St. Thomas Memorial Church
Lent III
March 23, 2014

The Gospel is for Christians too... I am not going to preach on this morning’s ‘world’s longest’ gospel lesson. (Yes, it is the longest gospel reading of the year, and you made it through it. It’s all down stream from here.) I have to sometimes remind myself not to preach from the gospels every week so that we’ll all be exposed to the other rich sections of the Scriptures. The gospel lesson is often made up of narrative and so sometimes a bit easier to preach on than the ‘long, complicated’ arguments of Paul.  But we can’t ignore Paul, for as I’ve said before, Paul often times makes explicit what the gospel narratives leave implicit.  In Paul we find the radical gospel--one of his major themes--that Christ is in the business of ‘justifying the ungodly’. Or, to use less churchy parlance, Christ came to rescue suffering sinners like me and you.

This passage from Romans is one of my favorite passages of Scripture--maybe my favorite.  It is this very passage that makes clear that ‘while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.’ This is the announcement of God’s one-way love for rebellious persons like you and me; this is the good news.  

The church that I grew up in used to proclaim something like this message very well to unbelievers.  The church had a thriving biker ministry.  Now if any of you here are bikers don’t think that I lump all of you into one category, but the bikers that came to our church were the bad kind of bikers. The bikers who did cocaine and heroin and who were violent.  Some had wild stories about being at the end of their rope with a needle in their arm.  These people heard about the forgiveness of sins and the offer for a new life at just the right moment, and everything changed. They had a conversion experience.  They found that Christ was interested in failures and burnouts--the ungodly--and they wanted in. The good news really was good for these folks.  

Me, on the other hand, I grew up in the church. My mom was the one who converted from Judaism. I don’t remember ever not being a Christian. I’ve been in church for forever--I could have been birthed there for all I know.  I grew up with regular ‘altar calls', and sermons that seemed to always end with ‘Go, and make disciples of all nations.’ A good and necessary imperative, but after years of the same thing it got old.