Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Paul the Nursing Mother

There's a little line in this Sunday's Epistle lesson (1 Thessalonians 2:1-8) that takes me right back to my first-year seminary paper that attempted (poorly) to answer the question, "Was Paul a misogynist?" Paul-lovers and Paul-haters have kicked around different passages from his letters to bolster their case either that Paul's anti-women attitude continues to infect the church or that Paul's egalitarian approach to gender has a place in the feminist theology of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Unfortunately, as I scoured the New Testament for verses that might support my fledgling argument that Paul, indeed, does not hate women, I missed 1 Thessalonians 2:7, where Paul writes, "But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children."

In physically evocative language, Paul takes on the role of a nursing mother. Filled with Christian love for the people in Thessalonica, Paul envisions himself taking them to his breast and nourishing them. Of course, in the literal sense, Paul couldn't do that. But I think he wanted to.

As I often reminded my wife when one of our infants filled the house with hungry screams at 2am, I cannot breastfeed them. But, really, secretly, I was jealous of the intimacy that she had with our kids in those moments. I could hold them and love them and snuggle with them and play with them and change their diapers and even feed them a bottle, but, when it was time for a meal, I could not make them stop screaming. They knew where the real source of their sustenance was.

What does it mean for Paul to care for the Thessalonians so much that he longs to nurse them? What does it mean for us to care so much for each other that we would seek opportunities to sustain them in physical, emotional, spiritual, and relational ways? This is a powerful image--too powerful to let it stay in the realm of metaphor. Love isn't just a feeling or an emotion or a longing. Love is real, tangible, and concrete. No, we might not be nursing mothers, but our support for one another can show up in ways just as vivid, physical, and intimate. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Stop Asking Questions

I'm not a big fan of people who ask questions without an interest in hearing the answer. And I write this as someone who asks lots of questions. In my school days, I was accused more than once of asking questions just to hear myself ask the question or to show off in front of the teacher and class. Actually, I've since grasped that I am an aural learner. I need to hear it to learn it. That's why I say my sermons out loud as I write them--so I'll remember them when I climb into the pulpit. All of that to say that even though I love questions--asking them, hearin them, reading them, and answering them--I don't like it when someone asks a question without caring enough to listen for an answer. 

But isn't that what Jeus does in Sunday's gospel lesson (Matt. 22:33-46)? The Pharisees, having learned that the Saducees had struck out in their quest to stump the brillian rabbi, approach Jesus with yet another question: which is the greatest commandment? Jesus gives a wonderful answer--one we still quote every week in a Rite I Eucharist--that takes the Law and distills it into two basic principles: love God and love neighbor. But then Jesus gives them one of his own. 

"Whose son is the Messiah?" Jesus asks. "David's, of course," they reply. "Then why does David in the Psalms call him Lord? When does a father (implied greater) show such deference to his son?" They couldn't answer him, so they departed, and no one dared to ask him any more questions. But what sort of question did Jesus ask?

It's a dumb question. Jesus is quoting from the Psalms as if David were making a logical statement about the relationship between himself and his future descendant--the one-day annointed one. But that's a very, very short-sighted reading of scripture--especially the Psalms, which are poetic prayers that aren't often subjected to the sort of grammatical scrutiny that Jesus seems to be applying here. No, I don't think Jesus cared about the answer. I think Jesus knew it was a stupid question. I think he asked it to prove a point: that such scrutinizing questions as those the Saducees and Pharisees had asked were misfounded and pointless. 

One great thing about our God is that he invites our questions. Read the "dialogue" between Yahewh and Abraham in Genesis 18. Read the story of Jonah and ask yourself why a book of the bible portrays a prophet wrestling with God's call to go to Nineveh. Read the Book of Job and let his agonizing questions of God's will become your own. The point is that God allows, invites, even encourages our questions. But that doesn't mean that our faith depends on the answers. 

Our God defies our desire to enclose him within a set of doctrinal statements. God's nature and will cannot be subjected to cross-examination. Yes, we are beckoned to ask the questions, but we can't expect the answers. The Pharisees seem to think that faith in God depends on getting the answers to puzzling questions about law and messiah and scripture. But Jesus shows us that those questions don't come with easy answer. 

So, yes, keep asking those nagging, unanswerable questions, but don't give up when the answer doesn't come. That's faith. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Summary of the Law or Grace?

Like many Episcopal Churches, the church where I serve has an early service that uses Rite I and a later service that uses Rite II. Those things never vary. I’ve been in other churches where the later service is sometimes Rite I and sometimes Rite II (my personal preference), but I’ve never been in a church where the early service alternates. It’s always the beautiful and anachronistic language of our Anglican heritage: “…we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness…”

Some people cannot stand the traditional, often more penitential language of our Rite I worship. Others adore it (and by “adore” I mean “cross the line from liking something to worshiping something”). Whatever your persuasion, I hope you can hear the wonderful beauty and simplicity of the “Summary of the Law” that is delivered right after the Collect for Purity and right before the Kyrie/Gloria/Trisagion/Hymn-of-Praise: “Here what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart…” It’s a two-fold approach to all that God has asked of his people that still resonates today.

This Sunday, our gospel lesson (Matt. 22:34-46) is that beautiful thing that our Lord Jesus Christ saith, but this week we get it in context, and, because it’s the gospel reading, we get it at all three services—Rite I and Rite II and the EOW service at 5pm. What will the preacher say?

I could say that it’s a wonderful summary of the two “tablets” of the Decalogue—the Ten Commandments. #1-4 are all about our relationship with God (No other gods, no graven image, name in vain, sabbath) and #5-10 are about our relationship with each other (father and mother, no killing, no adultery, etc.). Surely Jesus wasn’t the first rabbi to make this connection. The Ten Commandments themselves were a summary of the law—the distillation of generations of societal boundaries discovered and wrought in a theocratic context. But looking back doesn’t really excite me. Sure, it’s interesting to someone who went to seminary where these laws and Jesus’ summary of them came from, but what will that give those of us who come to worship this Sunday?

I want to look forward, and, for me, that feels like an exploration of why we still speak Jesus’ summary of the law each and every week. Even if we’ve omitted it from the Rite II service, it is at least preserved in the Rite I service, but why? Although it’s a beautiful summary, I think it actually gets in the way of a message of grace. Jesus’ summary is itself a looking back. The Pharisees come to him and test him by asking which commandment is greatest, and he offers this summary in reply. This is about the law—the Law of Moses, not the grace of the cross and empty tomb.

I have a parishioner who is as committed to the gospel as any man I have ever met. He doesn’t volunteer for everything, nor does he live out his faith in some constant quest for affirmation. He’s a mostly quiet fellow who, as I perceive him, wakes up every morning wrestling with what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. His questions, his comments, his insights are all powerful, but one subject that he confesses continues to trip him up is grace. Often, when we talk about what grace really is, he will point to this summary of the law. “Jesus tells us to love God and love our neighbor, and that’s what it means to be a Christian. That’s what we’re supposed to do.” But is it?

Maybe it’s appropriate that, in the Rite I service, the Summary of the Law is immediately followed by the Kyrie or the Gloria. Jesus delivers to us the distillation of God’s expectations, and then, in light of our complete and utter inability to meet those expectations, we cry out, “Lord have mercy upon us” or, in the Easter season, proclaim “Glory be to God on high…” for that is our only hope.

This week, I’m looking for a sermon on the Summary of the Law that doesn’t put boundaries on my faith—what I should and shouldn’t do. I’m looking for a sermon that proclaims the gracious response to God in light of my failure even to love him or my neighbor. What could be more basic that loving God and loving each other? Well, the fact that I can’t do that on my own. Jesus is God’s response to the greatest commandment. Maybe all the law hangs on those two sentences, but it also hangs on the cross. That’s where I’m headed this week. What about you?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Making God Smile: Teresa of Avila

Do you remember back with WWJD was popular? It was on t-shirts and bracelets and bumper-stickers. It was everywhere. Well, right at the height of its popularity, right when it seemed as if all the real Christians were defined by WWJD and all the pretend Christians were looking at the real Christians’ t-shirts and feeling guilty about it, I heard a preacher decry the whole WWJD movement as anti-Christian. “It’s law, not grace,” he declared in the pulpit one Sunday. I was in college at the time, and it took me a few years of thinking and living to figure out what he meant, but I’ve since found that he was exactly right. Asking, “What would Jesus do?” is to pretend that we’re the messiah and that anything less would be rejected by God. In fact, God loves us even though most of the time we pretty much do the opposite of what Jesus would do. So to try to define the Christian life by would the Christ would do in whatever situation we find ourselves in is only a recipe for guilt-ridden disaster.

There have been lots of other bracelets and t-shirts since then. FROG stands for “fully rely on God.” PUSH reminds us to “pray until something happens.” But I’m looking to start a new movement, and I’m having 1000 t-shirts and bracelets printed that say “WWMJS?,” which stands for “what would make Jesus smile?”

That’s something I can live my life by. What would make Jesus smile? That doesn’t mean, “You’d better get it right or else Jesus will be mad at you,” because I think Jesus smiles a lot when we get things wrong—the way a loving mother might smile even when her son screws us pretty badly. What would make Jesus smile? In my mind, Jesus is the kind of person who liked to smile a lot, who was always looking for a good joke, and who could warm your heart just with a quick radiant smile.

Pretty often, people come to talk with me about the direction in which their life is headed. Usually, in those moments, things are unsettled, and they are looking for a new job or grieving the loss of a loved one or making their way through a divorce. It often seems as if they want some sort of new focus to help them define their lives by something other than the crisis at hand, and, when they ask me what they should do—what God would want them to do—I just shrug my shoulders and say, “What do you want to do?” Is it to take up golf? Is it to run a marathon? Is it to start a new business? Is it to go and spend a week on a silent retreat in the middle of nowhere? Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter to God. All he cares about is you.

The other day, in the middle of one such conversation, I thought of today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 5:13-16). Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” What does it mean to be a light? What does it mean to let your light shine? That isn’t merely a message for apostles and evangelists. Jesus didn’t only mean that you should tell other people about the saving love of God. He also meant that you should play more golf if it makes you happy…that you should go run a marathon if it gives you fulfillment…that you should trek off into the woods if that’s really where you want to be. You have a light to shine. And letting it shine means taking whatever gifts and talents God has given you and using them in a way that brings you joy. The world wants to see you living like that, and Jesus does, too. I think that’s what makes him smile.

A long time ago, in the sixteenth century, a twenty-year-old woman named Teresa entered the Carmelite convent in Avila. During her first few years there, she became very ill and was even partially paralyzed for several years. While sick, her prayers were intense and focused, but she noticed that, once she regained her health, her relationship with God lost its intensity. Her sister nuns, although obedient to their vows, also seemed to have lost their focus. So Teresa set out to reform the order. Under her leadership, the nuns were no longer allowed to leave the convent and socialize with the community. They spent most of their waking hours praying and studying scripture. Teresa even had the nuns go barefoot—a spiritual discipline of humility and poverty that still defines the “Discalced” or “Barefoot Carmelites.” And with this newfound focus, Teresa discovered a deep relationship with God that brought her to new insights, which she wrote down and which have become favorites among many Christians: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours…”

Jesus smiles when we discover the purpose within us. Jesus smiles when we find the joy that is letting our light shine. Living the Christian life—whether as a cloistered nun or as a parish priest or as an interior decorator or as an amateur golfer—means getting in touch with the person God has made us to be and then giving our hearts to become that person more fully. In Christ, God has set us free from the pressure of guilt and disappointment. In Christ, God has declared that we are his beloved children. We are called by Christ to be the people we were made to be, and that is what makes him smile. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Black and White and Gray of Faith

I have a confession to make: I like the Pharisees. I’ve probably written about this before, but I know in my heart that if I had been a Jew in Jesus’ day I would have been a Pharisee. I’m a Type-A, Follow-the-Rules, Make-No-Exceptions kind of guy. I wake up every morning thinking to myself, “I wonder what the objectively correct path of my day will be.” Yes, at times I think it would be more fun to wake up and “go with the flow,” but that’s not who I am.

In Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 22:15-22), we are told that “the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said.” Although it’s clear their motives were impure, let’s at least applaud the care with which they approached their task. They took the time to meet and discuss their options, choosing the best plan. Once they had decided on their trap du jour, they approached Jesus and did their best.

“Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with truth and show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality…” I’m sure Jesus wasn’t at all fooled by their mock-flattery, but it has a nice ring to it. The Pharisees are operating in the world of rhetoric, and they are building a foundation for their trap. It’s not so much an attempt to bring Jesus’ guard down as it was a way of helping any witnesses understand what sort of assault would follow.

And then they spring their trap: “Tell us, then, what you think: is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” Really, it was a beautiful ploy. We lose sight of that because Jesus so handily dismisses them with his own rhetorical skill, but stop for a moment and consider the nature of the question.

First of all, everyone had to pay taxes. Palestine was under Roman control, and it wasn’t held by the Empire because it was a popular vacation spot. It was supposed to generate money for the government—taxes. And that was a part of life that every resident of Palestine had to deal with.

Second, the Romans were not popular among the Jews. No one was thrilled to be governed by the heathen Empire. Yes, the Jews had certain political, economic, and religious freedoms, but they knew that they were not free. During this period, several armed Jewish revolts against the Empire sprung up, and there were people in Jesus’ companionship who likely would have supported such anti-Roman activities (e.g., Simon the Zealot).

Third, the commandment against making a graven image included putting someone’s likeness on a coin. The very fact that official imperial transactions were carried out with coinage that had the face of the emperor inscribed upon them was itself a violation of the second commandment.

So the Pharisees asking Jesus about paying taxes is like going to an AARP rally and asking a candidate whether Medicare spending is out of control. There really is no good answer. If he says, “No, of course not!” the crowd would have loved it, but Jesus would be risking arrest by the Roman authorities for leading an insurrection. And if he says, “Yes, we must,” the crowd would lose interest in this counter-cultural religious authority. Really, there’s no way out of the trap. It’s artfully designed.

But then Jesus dismisses their plot with rhetoric more crafty than the Pharisees. After asking them to identify whose head it was on a coin, Jesus declared, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God’s” How do you argue with that?

Well, actually, he didn’t really answer the question. He’s saying yes and no. He seems to be supporting paying the required taxes but also shifts the focus back to God. Everyone leaves amazed at his wisdom. But think about it for a minute. In what way does the coin on which the emperor’s face is inscribed not belong to God? Jesus’ answer is the kind of straddling the fence that would have driven the Pharisees crazy. They want answers—clear, definite, unequivocal answers. That’s the way religion is supposed to work, right? Is it right or wrong? Is it God’s will or not? Should we do this or do that?

As much as this Pharisee would love for religion to be that simple and straightforward, it’s not. It’s all shades of gray. I’m going to spend the rest of this week pondering this parable—not looking for the answer but searching for a direction. How can I learn to accept the conflicting overlaps of faith? What is Jesus really inviting us to do? There isn’t always an objectively correct path to life. In fact, there rarely is. Maybe that’s the truly powerful teaching here.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

What Did You Wear to Church Today?

October 12, 2014 – The 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23A

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here.

I see that you’ve come to church today. Well done. This is a holiday weekend, so lots of people are either out of town or just lying around their house doing nothing because they figure we’ll assume that they are out of town. But since you’re here, give yourself a pat on the back.

But, before you congratulate yourself too robustly, take a look at what you are wearing. Are you in a suit and tie? A nice dress? A jacket and open collar? Pants and a polo shirt? Jeans? Sweatpants? Pajamas? I wore my favorite white, um, robe and green scarf. What about you? When you got dressed this morning, what were you thinking about? Will it look nice? Will it fit? Will I look cute? Did I wear that last week? How many of us, when we picked out our outfit, thought to ourselves, “I’m going to have dinner with Jesus; I want to look my best?”

As Episcopalians, part of the challenge we face is helping newcomers feel welcome. Things here can be a little bit stuffy. Nothing about our worship space says, “Be comfortable and relax.” We have an air of formality about us, and we’re proud of that. But, at the same time, we want new families to feel like they can come to church just as they are. We believe that God welcomes all people—good and bad, rich and poor, elegant and shabby—and we should to. And, if he walked through that door, I hope that every single one of us would slide over and make room for a ragged, stinky homeless guy in dirty jeans and a sweat-stained shirt.

So why, then, does Jesus tell a parable about the kingdom in which the king throws an underdressed attendant out “into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth?”

For the most part, the first three quarters of the parable make sense. The kingdom of God is like a king who threw a wedding banquet for his son. But, for a myriad of reasons, the invited guests refused to come. It did not matter that the feast was lavish or that the king pleaded with the guests to attend. Those who had been invited responded hostilely to the king’s invitation, so the king, in his rage, destroyed those murderers and gave the banquet to others. He sent his slaves into the streets to bring in all whom they could find—both good and bad—and the banquet hall was filled with new faces.

That part we understand. When he told this parable, Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees—the religious elites of his day, the insiders who thought they had a straight path into God’s kingdom. But Jesus came to challenge that sense of entitlement. He spent his time having dinner with tax collectors and sinners—the kind of street-people who in the parable ended up filling the king’s banquet hall. We know that the story of the cross and empty tomb is a testament of God’s saving love for the lost. Those of us whom society would shut out of the messianic banquet are enthusiastically welcomed by the king of kings. God’s table is set for sinners like you and me, and he beckons us to come to the great wedding feast. But it seems that we’d better remember the dress code.

When the king came into the feast to greet his guests, he noticed that one of them was not wearing a wedding robe. “Friend,” he asked, “how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” But the guest was speechless. So the king said to his servants, “Bind this man hand and foot and throw him out into the outer darkness.” Remember, this was a man whom the king’s slaves had found in the street and invited in. Unlike the original invitees, this is someone who actually showed up. And what is Jesus’ explanation for this surprisingly harsh behavior? “Many are called, but few are chosen.” How unsatisfying!

So what did you wear to church today? Even though it’s a holiday weekend, did you dress for the messianic banquet? Did you remember to wear your wedding robe? Or will we need to ask the ushers to bind you hand and foot and throw you out into the outer not-so-darkness?

Of course, the wedding robe is just an image. It’s a metaphor for something more important than clothing. Jesus doesn’t care what we wear to church. He cares about our commitment to the kingdom. The troubling part about this parable—and the shocking truth about God’s kingdom—is that, even though the invitation is cast far and wide, the requirements for participation in the kingdom are limitless. As one commentator put it, “The unlimited grace of the kingdom always brings with it unlimited demand.”[1] God invites us into his kingdom with no regard for who we are—good or bad, rich or poor, elegant or shabby—but, once we answer that invitation, he expects us to give him everything we’ve got. And anyone who comes into the kingdom thinking that he or she can rely on the gracious nature of the invitation to skip over any need to give of him or herself, Jesus has a word for you: “Bind that person hand and foot to be thrown into the outer darkness.”

Usually, here at St. John’s, when I make the announcements, I invite all followers of Jesus to come to Communion. That is supposed to sound like a gracious and far-reaching invitation because that is the same way that God invites us to his table. The small print in the bulletin, however, will remind you that in our church only baptized Christians may take Communion. Now, it doesn’t matter where you were baptized or what denomination you belong to. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been since you’ve been to church, and it certainly doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. But baptism remains the prerequisite because baptism is the way that we understand how an individual seeks transformation in Jesus.

In the waters of baptism, we are washed clean from our sin and reborn to new life in Christ. In the twenty-first century, there might be ways for an individual to undergo that kind of transformation besides sprinkling water on one’s head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the point is that you may not come to that table unless you are looking to be reborn. This is not a casual gathering for anyone who wants a little snack. This is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. The invitation might be open, but the expectation is total commitment. You cannot participate in God’s kingdom unless you are willing to give him your all, and the same is true every time we receive Holy Communion.

Jesus says to each one of us, “Come into my kingdom,” but, then, in response to that invitation, we must live a kingdom life. We are sinners in need of redemption. We are street-people in need of inclusion. How amazing it is that God would invite you and me to dine at his table! But we must never take his grace for granted. Every day we must remember that we are not worthy because of who we are. We are made worthy only because God loves us. Before you come to the table, ask yourself whether you will seek to live a kingdom life. Look at what you’re wearing—on the inside—and ask whether you’re ready to give God everything you’ve got. Amen.

[1] 2008. Snodgrass, Klyne R. Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. Eerdmans.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Hope in the Shadow of Death

There’s just something about the 23rd Psalm. Comfort, confidence, and hope fill those familiar words. Other than the Lord’s Prayer, it is the only passage of scripture I have encouraged my children to memorize. Whenever I take a funeral, I recommend that the family use the 23rd Psalm as one of the prayers at the graveside because it’s likely the only one we can recite without our prayer books.

Although its words of assurance are perfect for a funeral, it also speaks to many other circumstances in life. Illness, imprisonment, grief, disappointment—the trials of life seem buoyed by the shepherd’s psalm. Why is that? Why are these words still a go-to for people of faith and for people of nominal religious affiliation? I think it’s because Psalm 23 speaks both hope and distress at the same time.

Earlier this week, our Tuesday-morning men’s breakfast and bible study continued its focus on the Psalms by reviewing “prayers of distress” or “individual laments.” Called “the basic material of the psalter” by Herman Gunkel, these are the most numerous and most evocative of the psalms. They are spoken from a place of deep need—illness, attack, imprisonment, etc.—and are petitions to God for help. Psalm 23 is related to this category, but it has been refined into a different perspective, called by Gunkel a “psalm of confidence.” Although its origins are in that place of distress, the prayer has taken on a new focus—of hope instead of turmoil.

Notice in the language of Psalm 23 when and where the calamity is occurring: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” and “…in the presence of those who trouble me.” It’s not happening in the past; the trouble is still unfolding around the psalmist. Yet the language of confidence and faith fill the text. In beautiful language that transcends cultures, the poet says, “Even though death itself is lingering over me, I will not be afraid because of you, O Lord.”

I meet a lot of people who are in that place of trouble. Pats on the back and the “there, theres” of well-meaning friends just don’t cut it. In our moment of distress, we need more than a platitude or an empty hope. We need something that embraces the darkness that surrounds us and still overcomes it. The faith of Psalm 23 is not rainbows and daisies. It’s confidence in the place of trouble. It’s “the walls are caving in, but still I trust that God will save me.” That’s the kind of hope that we cling to. That’s the kind of hope worth sharing for thousands of years.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.