Monday, July 27, 2015
Last Friday, my friend and colleague Joe Gibbes mentioned that he was preaching on John 6 for each of the next five Sundays. Personally, I can't imagine anything less exciting for my homiletic focus as I really don't like the Bread of Life discourse--too much talk and not enough action--but Joe made a very convincing point. He remarked that lots of people tell new Christians to go read John as a foundation for their nascent faith, but he disagrees. And why? Because of John 6.
Yesterday, we started a succession of gospel lessons that take us through one of the most difficult, confusing, counter-intuitive chapters in the gospel. John 6. The feeding of the 5,000 was a gentle but central introduction. The rest of the chapter is a rhetorical back and forth between Jesus and the crowd and the disciples about his identity, God's mission, and our response. In the coming weeks, we'll hear Jesus say, "Eat me." (Well, sort of.) He will tell the people they must eat his flesh, and, when they object and ask him to clarify or soften his hyperbolic message, Jesus refuses. It's hard. And I think Joe might be right--this is a time to preach a five-part series on this tough sequence of passages. But our preaching schedule isn't set up that way.
This week, my colleague Seth Olson will have the opportunity to preach on John 6:24-35. I don't know if he'll choose to focus on the gospel, but, as I anticipate preaching the following week, I'm focusing on this particular exchange because I think it's an important framework for the rest of John 6.
The crowd who had been present for the feeding of the 5,000 sought out Jesus. "When did you come here?" they asked, unaware (or perhaps unable to believe) that he had walked across the water. Side-stepping their question, Jesus responded, "You're only looking for me because your tummies were full of bread." For me, their pursuit and Jesus' response is the central theme of this chapter. In John 6, Jesus is being identified as the one who provides for God's people, but the people are only interested in the provision itself.
Perhaps this should passage should inform our approach to evangelism. When we introduce people to Jesus, are we presenting the provision or are we directing them to the one who provides? When we preach forgiveness, are we merely offering absolution or are we presenting a transformative encounter with the one who forgives? When we talk about love, are we giving out hugs or are we inviting people to be embraced by God?
People are hungry. People are poor. People are lonely. They are burdened with guilt. They are confused. As Mark put it (alas, though, not John), they are like sheep without a shepherd. What are we offering? Food? Money? Companionship? Relief? Guidance? But then what? People don't need a Band-Aid, they need rebirth. And we--the church--cannot offer rebirth. That comes only from God.
As I explore the rest of John 6 and suffer through the interminable Bread of Life discourse, I'm trying to avoid the same trap into which the crowd fell. I'm trying not to focus on the bread but on the one who provides life. This isn't a time to preach Eucharistic theology. This is a time to invite people to see the real Jesus--God's ultimate answer for the world's ultimate need.
Sunday, July 26, 2015
July 26, 2015 – The 9th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here (link corrected on 7/27).
Over the last two weeks, I’ve almost forgotten how to cook. Our family has been inundated with delicious meals, brought to our house by you—people who love us and care for us. Thank you. Y’all have done such a wonderful job that neither of us has needed or wanted to cook. Usually, though, when we’re not dealing with a newborn, Elizabeth and I enjoy splitting that responsibility at our house. If I get home in time to make dinner, I delight in preparing a meal for our family. Often, however, I’m not there in time to help, and Elizabeth prepares a wonderful meal. But, on those occasions when both of us have been too busy to cook, we rely on an old, familiar dish to get us through the evening meal: leftovers.
If I call Elizabeth on my way home from work and ask her what is for dinner and the answer is “leftovers,” it takes me a minute to figure out whether that is good news or bad news. “What have we already eaten this week?” I think to myself. “Oh, that sounds good,” I might say, recalling that we had had a family-favorite a few days earlier. Or, I might say, “Oh, that sounds good,” realizing that reheating a so-so dish isn’t going to make it any better. For the most part, though, I like leftovers. Both of us are pretty good cooks, and, if we stick it in the fridge and not the trash can, it’s probably worth eating again.
Some of us, though, look upon leftovers with disdain. My grandfather refused to eat them. He came from another generation—one that started without refrigeration—and to him leftovers were a sign that the household cook had not done her job. But my grandmother was clever and persistent, and she knew that if she was going to recycle a Sunday roast, she had to disguise it as beef stew. Everyone around the table knew where that stew had come from, but somehow casting it in a new form was good enough for my grandfather. Maybe you’re like that, too. Maybe in your house leftovers represent a defeat instead of an economic victory. But, in God’s house, leftovers, it seems, are always a sign of God’s blessing.
I chose to add a verse to the beginning of today’s first lesson because I wanted all of us to hear that miracle story for what it really was: a sign of abundance in a climate of scarcity. “Elisha the prophet came to Gilgal during the time of a great famine.” For an agricultural community like ancient Israel, a persistent drought could mean the deaths of thousands. In times of famine, people lived literally day to day. They hoped and prayed that their crops would yield even enough to keep their family alive. No one could predict exactly when the rains would return, so everyone lived cautiously—as frugally as possible.
Yet, in this climate of scarcity, a man from Baal-shalishah brought to Elisha a sack full of bread and ears of grain—the firstfruits of his harvest—to support the work and ministry of this holy man of God. Think about that for a moment. The bible tells us that this offering was of his firstfruits—the very first cut of grain that was taken from his field. He did not wait to fill up his barn. He did not stop to be sure that his family would have enough. He did not hold back some of the bread in case he needed it. He did not know whether the rest of harvest would be fruitful. Someone could catch his field on fire. A sudden storm could blow and wash his crop away. Through his offering, this man trusted that God would provide. In a climate in which every single grain was precious, this man gave it away, and his faithful offering, though small, became enough to feed a multitude.
Without hesitation, Elisha told his servant to set the bread and grain out for the people to eat. “But master,” the servant objected, “How can I possibly feed a hundred people with so little?” And the prophet declared, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” Some left over, Elisha declared, enough even for leftovers. With God, we discover that even our scarcest offering is an opportunity for abundance.
The sun rises and sets. The rain falls from the sky. The seed sprouts and grows and bears fruit. Children are born. They grow up and have children of their own. We study and learn and work. Our work bears fruit, and we support our families and one another. And we smile, and we laugh, and we breathe, and we grow old, and eventually we die. And, in both life and death, God will always provide. God is giving us an unfathomable abundance. Our lives are a testament to his blessings. There is always enough—enough even for leftovers. Signs of God’s abundance echo all around us. They resound throughout the generations. The invitation to believe that God will always provide is a gentle, easy call. So why, then, do we let an attitude of scarcity choke our faith until it is dead?
So what if there is a famine? Is God not bigger than a drought? So what if there are wars or rumors of wars? Is God’s reign threatened by the affairs of humanity? So what if our country is politically divided? So what if our people are killing one another in the name of hate? So what if there are terrorists who seek to do us harm? Is God held hostage by any of that? So what if the stock market tanks? So what if inflation flies through the roof? So what if everything we have been saving evaporates overnight? Will God abandon us because we are poor? No. God’s abundance is always—always—bigger than our scarcity. And the problems of this world will not be solved until we learn to trust in God. The challenges we face cannot be overcome until we recognize that God himself is the only way those challenges can ever be defeated.
Are you holding back your life, your heart, your treasure, your ego because you are worried that you might be left empty-handed? Are you budgeting your relationship with God because you want to be sure that you’ll have enough for yourself and your family and the life you’ve always dreamt of? As you plan for the future, is your first priority making sure that you won’t outlive your fortune or is your financial plan a recognition that God’s abundance can never be exhausted? If you think it’s up to you to have enough, you’ve missed the point of being a Christian. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has shown the world that what we have and what we do doesn’t matter—that the only way to true, abundant life is through God.
Stop holding back. Stop living in fear. Stop filling your barn first. Open up your whole life to God—your heart, your mind, and your wallet. Let faith in God and God’s abundance be the rule for your life. Let him take your attitude of scarcity and transform it into a confidence in his abundance. Let God show you that there will always be enough—even enough for leftovers.
Thursday, July 23, 2015
I don't blame Arius, the arch-heretic who refused to accept that Jesus was fully divine (of the same substance as the Father) despite also being fully human, for struggling to understand how to reconcile what would become orthodox Trinitarian theology with the logic of the Judeo-Christian monotheistic tradition. I don't blame him, but, still, he was dead wrong. If you have your own doubts, go read the Athanasian Creed--that theological statement that attempted once and for all to settle the Arian controversy. In so many ways, the Christian faith is built upon the foundation of Jesus' dual-nature, one-person identity. As the Athanasian Creed declares of this doctrine, "This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved."
That might be foundational, but we still do a really bad job of talking about Jesus Christ in ways that embrace that two-nature, one-person belief. That was true in the fourth century when the Arian controversy was unfolding, and it is true today. And this Sunday's gospel lesson gives us a great example of that struggle.
Out in the wilderness, surrounded by a crowd of hungry followers, Jesus looked at Philip and said, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" That's a reasonable question. What do you do when more people turn up for your revival than you expected? What do you do when you don't have enough to feed the crowd? "Quick!" Jesus said to one of his lieutenants, "We need to get some food for these people. Where are we going to get it?"
But for John a question like that doesn't belong on the lips of Jesus. In John's understanding, Jesus is God among us. (Yes, that's still an unfinished antecedent of the Trinitarian orthodoxy that will be declared three hundred years later, but it's a start.) And, as far as John is concerned, the God-among-us shouldn't be asking questions like that. He should already know the answer...which is why John--not Jesus, not Philip, not Peter, but John--goes out of his way to add an editorial explanation that not only excuses Jesus from this moment of uncertainty but also completely changes the nature of this exchange between master and disciple. John writes, "[Jesus] said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do."
Do you remember The Princess Bride--that great cult classic from the 1987 in which the narrator (Peter Falk) reads a wonderful story to his grandson (Fred Savage)? Early in the movie, when the princess (Robin Wright) jumps in the water to escape her kidnappers, she is nearly attacked by the shrieking eels, which, as Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) explains, always get louder right before they feed on human flesh. Well, right as the drama reaches its height, the narrator interrupts the story and tells his grandson, "The eel doesn't get her." It's a total shock to the audience, including the grandson, and the narrator explains that the grandson was looking nervous. Instead of letting the story play out--instead of letting the child and us discover for ourselves that the eel doesn't get her--the narrator steals that moment from us and explains it in an editorial fashion. That's the charm of The Princess Bride, but, from my vantage point, it isn't so charming in John.
worth watching the whole clip for that moment of interruption
So what if Jesus asks Philip where they will buy enough bread to feed all those people? Is that really such a bad thing? Sure, maybe Jesus was saying that to test him. The reader can figure that out on her own. Or maybe Jesus wasn't so sure. Maybe Jesus had a moment of unease. Maybe he even had a moment of panic. Can't the Son of God get nervous every once in a while?
I know that John was fighting a remarkable uphill theological battle. It's hard to convince the 1st century world that a man, Jesus of Nazareth, was God among us despite having been executed on the cross. I know that John is making a case for Jesus divinity. I know that little tidbits like this are important to him. But I miss the opportunity to embrace the humanity of Jesus while also embracing his divinity. He multiplies the loaves and fishes in a way no human being could do. This is God's work among us, clearly. So is it really all that bad to let us see his human side, too?
Not surprisingly, Mark's version of this story is more sparse. The disciples plead with Jesus to send the crowd away so that they can buy food, and Jesus' response is, "You give them something to eat." What does he mean? Did he mean to test them? Did he intend all along to feed them? Or was the discovery of the loaves and fish an unplanned opportunity? We don't know for sure, and that's ok. We don't have to know.
It isn't easy believing in the God-man. It isn't easy writing, teaching, preaching, or talking about one who is fully human and fully divine. As a Chalcedonian Christian (and unless you're from Ethiopia, you're one, too), I believe that those natures come together in one person without confusion or mixture. One does not dominate the other. They coexist. They are united. Let's look for ways to hang on to that mysterious union and not let our language deny one of Christ's two natures.
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Today is the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, and today we celebrate the fullness of faith.
I am sure you have heard the story of Alfred Nobel and the impetus he had for establishing, through his estate, the prizes that bear his name. His brother Ludvig died, but the paper accidentally published Alfred’s obituary instead. The inventor of dynamite, Alfred was hailed as one “who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before,” as the paper reported that “the merchant of death is dead” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Nobel). Nobel did not like what he saw. He did not want to be remembered for his contribution to the forces of destruction, so he decided to change his legacy. As if equipped with a time machine, Nobel reversed the course of his life and left the bulk of his estate to establish the Nobel Prizes, thus securing him a legacy as a great promoter of knowledge and the betterment of the human race. Not bad for a revisionist’s first attempt and changing history.
How will you be remembered? How will I be remembered? I don’t mean that as a vain exercise of writing one’s own epitaph—of trying to control one’s legacy from the grave. There’s a funny, poignant take on that in the film The Royal Tenenbaums, in which Gene Hackman’s character memorializes himself as having died while “rescuing his family from the wreckage of a destroyed sinking battleship”—a complete lie…just like most self-written obituaries. I mean those questions as a reflection on the present. What matters to you? Where is your focus? What is the object of your life? How do you measure success? What drives you?
Royal's epitaph shown at 1:15 and following
In the business of religion, we often hold up supreme examples of faith and righteousness and ask—whether implicitly or explicitly—are you as good as that? What do you think WWJD is all about? It’s a movement built upon the belief that we are supposed to be as good as Jesus. Think about that for a second. Who wants to be a part of a church that says, “Our measure for personal success is perfection itself?” No thank you! Likewise, the veneration of the saints is often an exercise in remembering just how not-good-enough we are. There are exceptions, however, and today’s saint is at the top of my list of people worth remembering.
Mary Magdalene is the patron saint of failures like you and me. The gospel accounts of Luke and the longer ending of Mark remember her as one from whom seven demons were cast out. The tradition gets a little muddy, and some people confuse her as the “woman of the city” (i.e. a prostitute) who Luke reports as anointing Jesus’ feet, even though Luke doesn’t actually make that connection. In the Middle Ages, that tradition grew, and, after the Reformation, her penitent identity was held up by the Roman Catholic Church as a model for the church—an icon for the Council of Trent. But, pulling all of that aside, sifting through all of the extra baggage, we are still left with a woman whose grief is magnificent and whose faith is imperfect yet complete.
Mary Magdalene is one who looked on while Jesus was crucified. She is remembered as having seen the place where his body was laid. When the disciples fled and hid out of fear, she was among the women who went to the tomb carrying spices to anoint his lifeless body. In John’s account of the Easter story, Mary is the only one at the tomb—still weeping over her loss. Even when the stone was found to be rolled away and the grave was empty, Mary wept. Angels in white appeared to her asking why she wept, but all she knew was that the body of her Lord was gone. Jesus himself appeared to her and asked her what she was looking for. Still blinded by her grief, she could not see him and pleaded with the supposed gardener for the return of Jesus’ lifeless body. And then her patient, tireless, agonizing grief was rewarded, and Jesus revealed himself to her in a simple word: “Mary.”
Mary Magdalene is remembered as the faithful one—not because she anticipated the resurrection but because she remained at the tomb even through her grief. She is the first to behold the resurrection not because of her understanding but because of her faith—a faith that brought her to the tomb in tears, a faith that made enough space for God to transform those tears into joy. That is the faith that the Magdalene commends to us. She does not ask us to perform miracles, heal the sick, or brave the firing squad for the gospel. She does not invite us to be crucified upside down or travel to far-away lands so that we can be remembered as faithful servants of Christ. She is a reminder to us that we need not be superheroes or understand the deep mysteries of our faith. Her call is that we should faithful in our own time and have a quiet, patient faith that waits. We need not be perfect—far from it. Faith is what makes our meager offering beautiful to God.
Tuesday, July 21, 2015
I could spend all day and night staring at a magician who uses slight of hand to pull a coin out of someone's ear or to make a rubber ball disappear or to slide a playing card out of his sleeve. Just give me another chance to stare even harder and be fooled even deeper by the misdirection of the master. When my eye see what my brain does not expect, I smile that gleeful satisfaction of having been fooled. How did he do that? Exactly.
On Sunday we will hear John's version of the Feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:1-21), and, buried deep within the miraculous passage, is a tiny moment of misdirection which may be hard for the preacher to tease out, but I'll suggest that it is worth it.
As the miracle unfolds, Jesus feeds 5,000 people with only five loaves and two fish. There's a conversation between Jesus and Philip--poor Philip--about the need, and then Andrew shows up to offer the meager supplies to the cause. The tension is built. Can he do it? Will he do it? How will it work?
In the afterglow, as the reader settles into the post-prandial satisfaction of what has happened, it is tempting to process the miracle from the pulpit. I could dissect the event. I could tie it in to the reading from 2 Kings. I could explain what it meant for Jesus to feed the multitude in the wilderness a la Moses (but be careful not to overstep next week's reading, too). I could use numerology to describe the significance of the 12 baskets full of leftover bread. I could preach on over-abundance. I could locate this miracle in the line of "signs" that John has used to make the case for Jesus' messiahship. I could do all of that, but I'd rather talk about the crowd's reaction.
Buried in the middle of this passage, hidden in plain sight, John writes, "When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, 'This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.' When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself."
Unless I preach on 2 Kings (see yesterday's post), that's where my homiletical focus is falling this week. The crowd saw what Jesus had done. They said to themselves, "This is the prophet who is to come into the world!" And Jesus runs away before they could make him their king. More importantly, somehow between John 6 and John 19, the crowd changes their minds and, in a moment of mob violence before Pilate, declares, "We have no king but Caesar!" That's either the world's greatest fall from grace or a messianic nosedive of unfathomable proportions.
There are two opposite forces at work in the gospel accounts. On the one hand, the gospel writers need to demonstrate that, despite the shameful crucifixion, Jesus is God's Son--the long-awaited messiah, the king of all creation. But, at the same time, the gospel writers also need to show that, despite being God's Son, the shameful crucifixion is central to Jesus' identity and God's plan for him. That is, the gospel must make the case both for Jesus' exalted identity and his cross-bound destiny. John 6 is a great example of both.
In the feeding of the 5,000, the case has been made that Jesus is the one for whom God's people have been waiting. One cannot experience the fullness of that feeding miracle and not make that connection. But the crowd cannot yet also know that Jesus' destiny is on the cross--that what it means to be the king is to wear the crown of thorns. So Jesus runs away.
We worship Jesus as both king and crucified one, and we do so with integrity and without confusion. We cannot have one or the other. We cannot make Jesus the king we want him to be. We must accept him as the king God has given us. If we put all our hopes on the one who feeds the multitudes to the exclusion of the one who dies on the cross, our cry becomes, "We have no king but Caesar!" We need both. This Sunday, we get both, but it's easy to miss it.
Monday, July 20, 2015
I'm a fan of RCL Track 2. In the season after Pentecost, we get a choice--either Track 1, which is semi-continuous reading through parts of the Old Testament we might not otherwise get to hear in church, or Track 2, which offers Old Testament readings that usually have a thematic tie in to the gospel lesson. Track 2 is closer to the old BCP lectionary. Someday, I'll give Track 1 a try, but, for now, I'm enjoying Track 2.
Or I was until this Sunday.
Here is this Sunday's Track 2 Old Testament reading (2 Kings 4:42-44) in its entirety:
A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, "Give it to the people and let them eat." But his servant said, "How can I set this before a hundred people?" So he repeated, "Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the LORD, `They shall eat and have some left.'" He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the LORD.I get the connection. The gospel lesson (John 6:1-21) is the feeding of the 5,000. This is an isolated story of a miraculous feeding, so it ties in, but it leaves us with too many questions. Who is the man? And who is the holy man? And why was he bringing all of that food? And in what way is this a miracle? Bottom line: this lesson needs some more text.
I suggest expanding this lesson using Steve Pankey's favorite rubric on BCP p. 888 ("Any reading may be lengthened at discretion"). That might, however, pose a quandary as to whether to we are allowed lengthen the lesson only by adding 2 Kings 4:38a ("And Elisha came again to Gilgal when there was a famine in the land") or whether we have to add all of the verses between 38a and 42, which tells the story of Elisha purifying the poisoned pot of stew by throwing flour on it. (I've got three days until the bulletin is printed, so I don't have to make that decision today.) Regardless, we need some context.
This is the time of a famine. Elisha is a prophet--the holy man of God. And this unnamed man brings to the prophet the first fruits of his harvest despite the fact that there is a famine in the land. Now the story takes on new meaning. This little offering is a sign of abundance--even in a time of scarcity. This story isn't just about a miraculous feeding. It's a story about stewardship.
As I prepare to preach on Sunday, I'm drawn to this passage from 2 Kings--the expanded passage. Yes, the bit about the poisoned stew might be a little distracting, but we desperately need the opening line of that paragraph. Don't print your bulletins before you add it. Don't miss the opportunity to celebrate abundance in a climate of scarcity.
Thursday, July 16, 2015
The other day, someone asked me if God grants us things for which we do not ask. I was finishing a hospital visit, and, as is my custom, I asked if there was anything in particular for which I should pray. I ask that question for several reasons. First and foremost, I want to be sure that the "patient" is given the chance to name precisely what is on her/his mind. But I also want to gauge what the outlook is for the "patient" and the family. What are they hoping for? What are they expecting? How can I provide pastoral care that is appropriate for a particular situation. For example, when a person stops asking for healing and starts asking for peace, it tells me something.
When I asked if there was anything for which I could pray, she said that she wanted us to pray for healing. It was a bold request. No one--doctors, nurses, specialists, family, patient, or priest--expects this particular situation to end with a cure. Before I could react to her request--either verbally or physically--she followed up with her question. Should we ask for it? If we don't ask for it, will God give it to us? Doesn't the bible say that God only grants our prayers if we ask for it?
As I said to her, I don't know where that is in the bible...or if it is in the bible. Perhaps it's a particularly limited interpretation of passages like Mark 11:24: "Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours." I explained that I didn't know the scriptural warrant for that approach to prayer, and, although I'm not one to disagree with the bible, I don't think that's how prayer works.
On Sunday, we will pray a collect that says a great deal about what we believe prayer is all about:
Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.I wish I had been quick enough on my feet to recall this prayer in that bedside moment. These words are very familiar to me, but they escaped me when I needed them. In fact, I say a form of these words almost every time I offer a concluding collect after the prayers of the people in our liturgy, and still they were just beyond my grasp. And perhaps that is the point. Sometimes we don't have the right words, but we trust in prayer that God knows better than we do.
I believe this statement is a gateway to meaningful prayer, and I hope it will become more permanently engrained on my heart. We are ignorant and sinful. We cannot see the big picture well enough to know what to say to God, and, even if we could, we still wouldn't have the spiritual composition necessary to ask for the right things.
Prayer is fundamentally an acknowledgment of our weakness. We say to God, "I need help. I need something." And, when we pray, we are making those requests to the one who is always able to help. We are not directing our prayers to a store clerk who may be out of stock or a magistrate who may have fallen asleep. We are praying to God, who always knows what we need even before we ask--and even if we fail to ask.
As I explained in that hospital room, God is not waiting for us to say the right words before he will take care of us. God's love and provision and blessing is always, always bigger than the words we use. When we search for the right words, therefore, it is not to make our request more powerful or specific but so that we can better recognize the source of the answers to our prayers. We ask for healing so that, when healing comes, we recognize that it is from God. We ask for healing so that, when healing does not come, we recognize that God is still answering our prayers though perhaps in other ways. But we never, ever conclude that God withheld his healing, blessing, or love simply because we did not ask for it. Unconditional love means just that--unconditional. God's love isn't conditional on our behavior, our recognition, or our requests.