Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Any Time Now

December 7, 2016 - Ambrose, Bishop of Milan

The great thing about working on the ground crew for the Chicago Cubs is that you get to spend every game day at Wrigley Field, raking the infield dirt, walking up and down the concourse, feeling the energy of the fans. The hard part is that it doesn't pay very well. Actually, as a union job, it pays just fine, but the hours are limited. The game day ground crew (there is more than one ground crew) has to get to the field a few hours before the game to get ready for the start of play, and they have to stay a half of an hour or so after the game to sweep out the dugouts and take out the trash and do whatever is needed to make sure the field will be ready the next day. All told, with a good rain delay or extra innings, it could be six or seven hours, but usually it was closer to four. And that's only on game day.

When it's not game day, most of the ground crew goes to their "real" job--the one that pays the bills. There are a handful of full-time members who work throughout the season, taking care of the field in between home stands, and, of them, there are three or four who work full-time year-round to take care of the park and oversee any improvements that are made over the off-season, but most of us only work when the Cubs are in town. Except when there's some extra work to do on the side.

When the head of the ground crew knows that there's important work to be done whenever the Cubs are not playing, he will ask a few of the part-timers to come in for a few hours and get that work done. It could be replacing some of the sod where the outfielders have worn it out during a long homestand. It could be helping apply fertilizer or fungicide to the grass to keep Wrigley Field lush and green. Or it could be doing any number of maintenance chores in and around the park.

One day, Roger asked me and a few guys to come in to help do some work out in one of the remote parking lots. Weeds had grown up in the cracks in the asphalt, and, along the sidewalk, the grass had begun to spill over its appointed place. We were to take some shovels and get it all under control, but our supervisor encouraged us to take our time.  I needed the hours, and I wanted the boss to continue to ask me to come in for those special jobs, so I went to work with some focus and determination. Most of the other guys worked slowly, chatting and enjoying a day in the sun. "Why are you busting it so hard?" a senior member of our work detail asked. "You heard what he said: 'Take your time.'" I ignored him and kept working.

Now, a Chicago summer is nothing like an Alabama summer, but it still get's pretty hot. After a period of intense work, I stopped to catch my breath, leaning on my shovel and watching while all of the rest of the crew piddled around in the dirt. I wasn't paying attention when one of them whispered to the rest of the crew, and, by the time I turned around to see what was going on, the boss had walked up to see everyone else hard at work except me. I was thoroughly embarrassed. I hung my head and went back to work, sure that I had been caught and labeled a "slacker."

Jesus said, "Be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes." Of course, Jesus doesn't mean, "Look busy in case I show up when you don't expect it." He means, "Stay focused; don't give up; honor the work the master has given you by remaining alert until he comes."

Advent is a season of keeping watch for Jesus. There are seventeen more days until Christmas. Presents must be bought. Meals must be planned. Travel arrangements must be made. But this is not only a season of preparing for December 25 but also for the coming of our savior, whose return is not inked in on the calendar. That's a harder watch to keep. Some would scare us with the prospect of our savior's return. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" becomes "Turn or burn!" on the lips of an angry preacher. Fictional stories of the end times portray the coming of Jesus as a zombie apocalypse for which we must all be prepared. The Book of Revelation, which was originally written to encourage the persecuted followers of Jesus, has become its own source of fear for twenty-first-century Christians. But that's not what this gospel lesson--this passage of good news--is supposed to tell us.

We are called to wait on Jesus the way that servants wait for their master to return from a wedding feast. That's kind of like a babysitter waits on the parents to come home after a party. She or he knows that they will arrive at any minute. Even if they're delayed, the babysitter doesn't leave the kids unattended. She doesn't invite her friends over for a party. She may fall asleep on the couch, but she's ready to spring up as soon as the sound of the garage door is heard. We are called to do our job as followers of Jesus--to wait and watch and hope even when there has been a delay. Jesus isn't inviting us into fear. He's asking us to trust that he'll come and save us at any minute. Our salvation is not far away. It's right around the corner. And we wait and watch for it in hope.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Thy Kingdom Come!

Today's post is also part of this week's newsletter for St. John's, Decatur. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.

I have no doubt that you are familiar with the phrase, “If you give a man a fish, you will feed him for a day, but, if you teach a man to fish, you will feed him for a lifetime.” That’s nice, but what happens if someone is starving? Can a hungry person really concentrate long enough to learn how to fish? And, even if someone learns how to fish, who is going to buy the tackle? And, even if all of the necessary equipment is procured, what happens if the fishing pond is off-limits to those who do not own the land? Or what happens if the only available fishing hole is polluted by a factory upstream? On second thought, maybe we should just hand out fish to hungry people after all.

Ministry is messy, and it gets messier and messier the more meaningful and transformative it becomes. When someone walks into my office seeking financial assistance, it is much easier for me to write a check than it is for me to take time to hear her story. And spending a half an hour listening to someone tell me about the ups and downs of her life is a lot easier than investing in her circumstances by helping her work through a budget and find the job training she needs and line up the childcare necessary for her to start a job. Yet helping someone find those resources is still easier than sitting down with our elected officials to talk about Medicaid reform and organizing the rally that calls for an end to sales taxes on groceries and leading the campaign to educate the public about the need for reforms in state-funded mental health services. And none of that compares with the cost of selling all that I have and giving it to the poor so that, as a disciple of Jesus, I can know a little bit better the poverty that he inhabited so that all might be made rich.

As followers of Jesus, we need to give people fish; we need to teach people how to fish; we need to tear down the walls that keep hungry people from fishing; and we need to sit down and fish together. That is the kingdom of God—all of us gathered around a pond, fishing and talking and laughing and praying and eating together.

We live in a world where people are hungry and where those hungry people are willing to do almost anything to fix their circumstances and feed themselves and their families, yet the structures of our society make it difficult if not impossible for them to do anything about it. Our criminal justice system, which is better at locking up drug offenders than treating them, seems better suited for perpetuating crime than deterring it. Inequality in education, which is largely a reflection of the link between property taxes and education funding, reinforces the divide between rich and poor, black and white, urban and suburban, immigrant and citizen. But we know that God’s kingdom does not look like that. Paul reminds us what Jesus showed us: in God’s kingdom, there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female. We are all one in Christ Jesus. When will the world look like that? And what are we going to do about it?

Advent is a season of waiting and watching for the coming of Christ and his kingdom, but that sort of waiting is not a passive pursuit. We have kingdom work to do! The end of the year is traditionally a season of giving—giving presents to our loved ones, giving alms to the poor, giving money to our churches and our alma maters and our favorite charities. This year, instead of only giving things away, think bigger. Consider what you might do to make a lasting difference in the lives of others. Will you tutor a child so that he might have a better chance of graduating from high school? Will you spend an hour a week helping an immigrant learn English so that she can apply for a job? Will you call your local school foundation and see whether you might join the efforts to petition nearby companies to support pre-K education and after-school enrichment programs? Will you write to your local, state, and national officials and remind them that our health and success as a society depends upon the welfare of all people, including the poor and the undocumented among us? Will you go to the Salvation Army not only to prepare a holiday meal for the homeless but also to sit down and break bread with those who have no family?

Several people in our parish are participating in a ministry that seeks to empower lay leaders to make positive, lasting, and transformative differences in our community. The project is called the Missional Engagement Initiative, and it is being coordinated by the School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee. In its first iteration as Be the Change Alabama, this project helped bring an English as a Second Language (ESL) class to our church, but it has always been about more than that. We see this as kingdom work. By deepening a relationship with the people who live around our church, who attend the elementary school across the street, who call us neighbors, we have the opportunity to partner with them to make this corner of God’s kingdom look more like God’s kingdom. Maybe God is calling you to join in that work.

So far, most of what we do as a parish has been giving away fish. We provide much-needed food to students through the Backpacks for Food program. How might we advocate for greater nutrition programs in our community? We plant a community garden and share the produce with local agencies. How might we include more residents in the planting, maintenance, and administration of that garden so that it becomes as much theirs as ours? We tutor at-risk children in the Homework Helpers program. How might we raise up the issue of inequality in education until the whole community recognizes that it is dragging all of us down?

The church is uniquely positioned to be an agent of transformation because we believe that, in Jesus Christ, the differences and demographics that separate us disappear, and we hear Christ calling us to work in the world until they do. I dream of a church that measures its success not in terms of average Sunday attendance or the size of its budget or the beauty of its buildings but in the health and welfare of the community that surrounds it. Imagine what would happen to our neighborhood if our ministry was as much focused on those who live around the church as on those who walk through the door. That is our mission because that is God’s mission.

This year, be a part of what God is doing in the world. Think beyond the gifts that you will give, and be a part of the ministries we carry out in Jesus’ name. Whether in this church or through another organization, look for a way to be a part of God’s transformative work. Keep watch for the kingdom of God is at hand! Don’t let it pass you by.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Messiah Who?

A colleague of mine, Pam Payne, once told me that she avoids using the term "messiah" to refer to the Christian identification of Jesus. She was glad to use the tem "Christ," but "messiah," she argued, was reserved for an exclusively Jewish context. Of course, she understood that they are actually the same word--one Hebrew and the other Greek--but she still insisted on maintaining the distinction. It was a semi-provocative statement designed to convey a more subtle message: Christians have defined all messianic expectations in the person of Jesus to the exclusion of any Jewish understandings that may not be reflected in his life and witness.

Can we do that? Of course we can. Just like a preacher who "borrows" other people's stories and makes them fit his or her sermon, we can take the story of salvation history and view it exclusively through the lens of Jesus' narrative. But should we? That's another question--one more difficult to answer.

In Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 11:2-11), Matthew will identify Jesus as "Messiah" without any explanation or fanfare. He writes, "When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, 'Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?'" It's as if Matthew sees the term "Messiah" functioning as a part of or substitute for Jesus' name--much as "Christ" does when we refer to him as "Jesus Christ" or just "Christ." It surprises me a little bit that Matthew throws that label out there without bothering to build up to it. In the rest of the passage, we get to explore that messianic identity, but I wonder whether his readers would have found his use of the term provocative--as if it demanded a fuller explanation.

Unlike Mark, who waits until Peter's confession in Mark 8:29 to link Jesus with the title "Messiah," Matthew begins his gospel account by making that connection: "An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah..." (1:1). Five times in his first two chapters, Matthew uses that title to describe Jesus as he recalls his parents' preparation for his birth and the wise men's quest to find him. But then, with regard to "Messiah," Matthew goes quiet. He stops using the word as we read about Jesus' ministry. Perhaps following the example of Mark, Matthew waits until chapter 16, where Peter confesses Jesus' true identity, to use the term again with one big exception: chapter 11.

John the Baptist gets his own moment to make the connection between Jesus and the anointed one upon whom Israel waited, but Matthew doesn't wait long enough to let him (or us) figure it out. "When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing..." We aren't given the opportunity to doubt. We start the passage knowing what the answer will be. The narrator has told us how it will end. Jesus is the one we're looking for. He is the anointed one. He is the Messiah. But what does that mean? What sort of messiah is he talking about? Jesus said to John's disciples, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

On Sunday, when we hear this passage, I think we're supposed to marvel at the surprise-but-no-surprise nature of this revelation. Jesus is the Messiah. Like Matthew, we all take that for granted. But what does that mean? Do we really know what we're saying when we use that label? Jesus tells us that he is the one who restores sight to the blind, allows the lame to walk, cleanses the lepers, unstops the ears of the deaf, raises the dead, and brings good news to the poor. Do we remember that that's the Jesus of the gospel? Do we remember that that's the messianic identity he ascribes to himself?

There are lots of different messiahs upon whom the prophets of the Hebrew Bible wait. Some are like Jesus, but others are not. Similarly, there are lots of messianic expectations within the Christian tradition and within each of our hearts. Some of them are fulfilled by Jesus, but others are not. This Sunday, we have the chance to stop and think about what we mean when we talk of Jesus as the Messiah--what do we mean, what did Matthew mean, and what did Jesus mean? I suspect we'll leave church knowing what we already knew--that Jesus, indeed, is the Messiah--but I also think that if we pay attention we may leave with a clearer picture of what that means.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Reclaiming Repentance

December 4, 2016 – The 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year B
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Last Sunday, a friend of mine from New York reintroduced Rite I to his parish for the first time in decades. He is relatively new there as the rector and decided to try something different during the season of Advent. He was worried that it might be “too much change,” but he reported on Facebook that the ladies in his midweek Bible study are lobbying him to make it a permanent change. Imagine that: a congregation going back to the outdated, old-fashioned, thoroughly unmodern language and theology of the sixteenth century…by choice!

He isn’t going to make it a permanent change, and don’t worry: I’m not planning on doing anything like that at St. John’s. But I do think that it’s interesting to consider why anyone would want to stumble over the “thees” and “thous,” which many of us were thankful to leave behind when the “new” prayer book came out in the late 1970s, and why anyone would enjoy saying and hearing prayers that seem to reiterate how miserably sinful all of us are. As much as I like Rite I, I must admit that repentance is thoroughly unpopular. Although a few of us pine for the good old days, I’m more often met with eye-rolls and silly little coughing fits each week when we say the Prayer of Humble Access at the 8:00 service. “That’s not the future of the church,” some like to argue. “In a world that values individual accomplishment and eschews any sign of weakness, why would people be attracted to a church in which the whole congregation kneels whenever they pray?” Why, indeed?

John the Baptist wasn’t fashionable either. The camel hair he wore wasn’t bought at Nordstrom’s, and the locusts and wild honey he ate weren’t part of a Paleo Diet. He was straight-up weird. And still the people flocked to see him. “Repent,” he cried out, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Why would anyone bother to come all of the way out of the city to see and hear that? Because, despite what the fire-and-brimstone preachers we’re used to would have us think, repentance isn’t about feeling sorry for ourselves; it’s about discovering that we, too, belong to God. Those who wag their fingers and shake their Bibles at the world have hijacked repentance, and I think it’s time for us to take it back. As we read in this gospel lesson, repentance is the path that leads to Jesus—the path that lead us to what God is doing in the world.

There were two kinds of people that went out to see John the Baptist: the crowds of ordinary Jews, who went out to confess their sins and be baptized in the River Jordan, and the Pharisees and Sadducees, who went out to see what the big fuss was all about. Which one are you? The first group heard the message of repentance as an opportunity to start over, to begin again, to turn over a new leaf. They weren’t on the inside track. They didn’t have a reserved seat in the synagogue. The rabbi didn’t come to eat at their house. But John offered them a place in God’s kingdom. He was the only one who was inviting them to take part in what God was doing in the world—the upside-down, topsy-turvy redemption of the world that God was unfolding all around them. John was the first one who had ever told them that even ordinary people like them could receive the fire of the Holy Spirit, and he showed them that the way they could receive it and join in what God was doing in the world was through repentance.

But the Pharisees and Sadducees didn’t need that invitation—at least they didn’t think that they did. They already had a reserved seat. They already had a place at God’s table—a table that was set specifically for religious elites like them. No, they weren’t perfect, but, in the eyes of their society, they were pretty close to it. If God was going to do anything special in the world, it was assumed that God would ask them first. They were the keepers of the religion—the ones whose status in the eyes of the people mirrored their status in the eyes of God: preferred, elite, and powerful. They didn’t need John the Baptist’s invitation to be a part of God’s movement. If anything, he needed their permission in order to talk about it, but he wasn’t interested in what they had to say.

So which one are you? Are you the kind of person who needs to turn around and start all over before you can be a part of God’s counter-cultural kingdom, where the first shall be last and the last shall be first? Or are you the kind of person whom everyone presumes already has a first-row seat? Perhaps it’s easier to think of it this way: what sort of messiah are you waiting to meet—one who establishes God’s reign by turning the whole world upside-down, or one who comes and builds a kingdom that looks like all of the other kingdoms of the world, where the people who already have access get the best seats, where the rich and powerful make all the rules, and where the poor and oppressed are an afterthought? Because I can tell you what sort of kingdom God has in mind. The prophets have proclaimed loudly and clearly what sort of victory God’s anointed will achieve. And this morning John the Baptist invites us to see that the only way we can be a part of that kingdom is by turning around and giving up on the ways of the world and embracing the way God wants the world to be.

There’s a reason that more and more young people are being attracted to old-time religion. There’s a reason that Rite I is being received by many as a breath of fresh air. And it’s not because people want to be miserable. It’s because people want to know that there is something worth holding onto other than the rat race that says that only the strong survive, that only the powerful will thrive, that only the dominant will rise to the top. That’s the way the world works. That’s the way we are programmed to work. But that’s not how God’s kingdom works. It’s not simply Rite I, of course. It’s more than that. It’s about making a break with the ways of the world and clinging to the hope that God himself has given us. That’s repentance: not misery and sorrow but a turning around in order to see real hope.

Jesus came and lived and died a shameful death because in God’s kingdom weakness is made strong, poverty is the path to true riches, and defeat is the gate that leads to victory. The empty tomb shows us that death in this world leads to life in the next. That’s how God’s kingdom works, and, if we want to be a part of that, we must repent. We must change course. We must turn around and look for a new way—God’s way.

Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The great and wonderful thing that God is doing in the world is right here among is. It is manifest in the person of Jesus Christ. It is real to those who walk the path behind the crucified one. But we cannot meet him—we cannot be a part of his movement—if we are clinging to the ways of the world. We must let them go. We must repent. We must discover that we have a place in God’s kingdom—a place reserved just for us. And if we are going to get to that place—if we are going to see Jesus—then we must we turn around and embrace the life God has in store for us. We must bear fruit worthy of the kingdom—worthy of repentance. We must turn to God and live.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Something Needs to Change

A few days ago, I was watching a highlight on ESPN when the commentator offered this dismissive advice for whatever athlete had failed to lead his team to victory: "Go ahead and pick out your Sunday dress." It was his way of saying, "You don't belong on the field on Saturday night. Go ahead and take off your uniform and start getting ready for church." Maybe I'm underestimating our collective appreciation for the tradition of dressing up for church on Sunday morning, but that seemed like the kind of analogy that would have been lost of most of the television audience. I suspect that is especially true for the white viewers, who, again, I would guess are largely unfamiliar with the importance that African Americans place on dressing up for Sunday morning. Maybe I'm short-sighted, but I found the quip both cutting and anachronistic.

What do you wear to church? In my congregation, a few men still wear suits and ties. Most have foregone that formality and wear a coat and tie. A few come with open collars and jackets or no jacket at all. I have always enjoyed dressing up for church, but I must admit that, while I wear a dark suit on occasion, a sports jacket and slacks are my usual attire. In many growing non-denominational congregations, there is an emphasis on coming in casual, street clothes. The clergy wear fashionably tattered jeans and untucked flannel shirts, and the congregation is encouraged to follow suit.

It is too simplistic to say that our church dress necessarily says something about our theology--what do we think about God, what do we think about our relationship with God, what do we think is the purpose of Sunday-morning worship--but, whether intentionally or not, I think church dress speaks volumes. What are we hiding behind our perfectly tailored outfits? What are we hiding behind our perfectly assembled yet haphazardly projected hipster outfits?

Matthew tells us that John the Baptist wore camel's hair. Although this is the perfect season for wearing one, I don't think he meant a nice camelhair coat from Nordstrom's. His dress was bizarre. He ate locusts and wild honey. Again, that's strange. He was the wild-haired, free-spirited, strangely fashionable prophet of his day. The crowds came out to meet him. The multitudes flocked to hear him. And then came the men in suits. "When [John] saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, 'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?'"

Stop for a second and think how backwards that is. The ones whose repentance was questioned were not the ragtag, street-clothes-wearing masses who had come to be baptized but the well-dressed, well-manicured religious elites whose faithfulness would have been assumed by everyone else there. Something strange is going on at the River Jordan--something we wouldn't expect.

In our congregation, when a person walks in with greasy, unkempt hair and dirty, smelly clothing, we make space for him or her. We are quite happy to let that person visit for a Sunday and participate fully in our worship. We may keep an eye on that person. There may be an added tension in the congregation because of that person's presence, but we know how to keep going without letting the intrusion bring everything to a stop. But we--and I mean me, too--don't have the first idea of how to recognize that the homeless person, who clearly doesn't belong amidst the fancy-dressed Episcopalians in the pews, is actually the one whom John the Baptist and Jesus came to meet that morning. We haven't learned how to recognize that we are the well-dressed, religious insiders that the Pharisees and Sadducees were. We are the brood of vipers to whom John says, "Bear fruit worthy of repentance."

We are comfortable in our religious habits. We have a place in the church. We have a pew we call our own. We have nice Sunday clothes hanging in our closets. And we are the ones at whom John the Baptist looks and says, "What the heck are you doing here?" Why? Because the comfort--social, financial, and religious--that we enjoy makes it hard for us to recognize that we are the ones who need to change. What about the ragged man who walks in off the street? His willingness to come through the door to sit amidst the elites and receive their stares and polite-but-stiff greetings shows the kind of fruit worthy of repentance that John was preaching. For him, walking into the church is itself the change God asks for. That's not true for the rest of us. Repentance is a change of heart, a change of life, a reversal of course, a complete turnaround. If we're on the same path we've always been on, we haven't discovered repentance. Something needs to change, and that something is we.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Fishing for People

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Every once in a while, a crazy fish jumps out of the water and right into the boat, but, most of the time, the fisherman has to coax the fish onto a hook and then reel it in. That's how fishing works. Longtime anglers have their favorite spots--places where they know fish are likely to bite, but even they can have trouble. The etiquette of fishing dictates that, whenever you walk past someone sitting on the bank fishing, you're supposed to ask, "How are they biting?" instead of starting out with "Catch anything?" It's a polite way of asking someone if they've had any success without directly pointing out the person's failure. If they aren't biting at all, it's time to move along to another spot or perhaps pack up altogether. The fish don't come to you. You have to go to the fish. You have to find them. You have to convince them that they would be better off biting the tasty worm that you've thrown out for them to eat than swimming along on their own.

In Matthew 4, Jesus looks at Andrew and Simon and says, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." In Deuteronomy 30, Moses says, "Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away...No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe." In Romans 10, Paul writes, "For, 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.' But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?...But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have; for 'Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.'"

From the days of Moses, God's people have seen that God himself comes near to them, to speak to them and to give them clear direction for their lives. Jesus himself is God's Word coming near to us--to be with us, to be one of us. And, in that great coming-near of God, Paul writes, the whole world can see and know that God's will for them is salvation. Think about that: God isn't hiding from us, waiting for us to say the right words, do the right things, and hold the right beliefs before we can find him; for all time and in every generation, God is searching for us, reaching out to us, fishing for us. I suppose the question is whether we are biting.

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle. The one who, at least in John's account, brought his brother Simon to Jesus. He's the one to whom some Greeks spoke about wanting to see Jesus. Those who are members of the Brotherhood of St. Andrew commit to personal evangelism--helping friends and family know who Jesus is. But the feast of St. Andrew reminds us that evangelism isn't about bringing someone to Jesus but about helping them know that, in Christ, God is already searching for them. What good news that is!

God is the fisherman. God is the one who has come to us. God is the one who refuses to give up on God's people. God is the one who searches for the lost and celebrates when they are found. When Jesus commissions us to "fish for people," we do so as participants in God's great love for the world. Isn't it nice to know that you are loved like that--loved with a pursuing, searching, yearning love that has no limits? When we invite people to know God and to know Jesus, we are inviting them to know that they are loved in the same way. So become an evangelist. Share that good news. It's as easy as inviting someone to see that God is already looking for her/him because of God's never-ending love.

Repentance Makes a Comeback

You know that moment when you tell your parents that you are ready to pay for your own car insurance? That you've decided to pay for your own cell phone plan? That you have your own health insurance? That you don't need them anymore? It's nice to be 45, isn't it?

Of course we still need our parents. We crave their love. We want their advice (sometimes). We are relieved to know that if this job doesn't work out they're probably still willing to let us move back in. Still, even if it's only a fantasy and even if it's only for a few months, it's nice to be independent. It's nice to have other options. It's nice to be in control--whatever that is.

Consider Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 3:1-12). When John the Baptist saw the religious elites coming out to see his riverside revival, he cried out to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham." In other words, God doesn't need you. You might be the keepers of the tradition, the scholars of God's word, the ones chosen to propagate his name and word throughout the world, but God doesn't need you. If God wanted to, God could raise up your replacements even from these stones--these lifeless, hard, cold stones.

Your presumptions are getting in the way. Until you know that you aren't needed, you can't see the opportunity that is in front of you. God doesn't need you, but God wants you.

Repentance is a curious thing. We hear that word and imagine it coming on the lips of an angry preacher. It's so outdated, so old-school. Unlike straight-legged jeans and horn-rimmed glasses, there's nothing refreshingly hipster about it. But it's time for repentance to make a comeback. It's time for repentance to be the new cool. Because repentance isn't about feeling sorry for yourself. It's about turning around, making a change, going back to the beginning, getting in touch with our roots.

The need for repentance isn't a simple diagnosis of all the things you've done wrong in your life. Sin isn't a list of misdeeds. The human condition is the wrong-way path that we are on. Repentance is the turning around that we need to get on the right path. As long as we have convinced ourselves that we are good and right, then we're on the wrong path. Until we see that we aren't the authority on all that is good and right, then we can't know how much God loves us.

God isn't asking us to be sorry before he'll love us. While we were still locked in our backward, sinful ways, God sent his Son to save us. That's how much God wants us. That's how much God is willing to give up to get us to turn around. The cross of Christ is God's way of reaching out to show us that the path of our own creation--of our own success, of our own independence--is a ticket to nowhere. And the empty tomb is God's demonstration that his path leads to life. We can't get to peace and wholeness and joy on our own. Repentance is our way of saying to God, "I can't do this by myself." There's something refreshing about that.

Lots of things are making a comeback--ridiculous things that weren't that great the first time around and aren't really any better this time. (Skinny ties, anyone? Who thinks Spandex belongs at a dinner party?) But repentance is the ultimate retro. It says that things were better off back when we didn't wander off God's path. It's a return to our true roots as the children God made us to be. It's an admission that we haven't made things better for ourselves and that God's plan is better than our own. Isn't that a movement we can get behind?