Monday, April 21, 2014

2 Easter - The Most Important Sunday

There are a few big days in the church year that always use the same gospel lessons. Having preached on a number of them year in and year out, I often find myself looking for an alternative. Usually, that’s because there’s more to the story than one little lesson. An example of that is Maundy Thursday. We always read the story of the washing of the feet. But there’s so much more that happens at the Last Supper. As we prepare to strip the altar in silence—without explanation—I find myself wanting the betrayal to play a larger role in the lessons. Sure, usually I’d want to preach on the Jesus-mandate, but, every once in a while, I’d like to hear something else.

The Second Sunday of Easter isn’t one of those. Every year, it’s the same story—Doubting Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ—but it’s a story that I feel might never be exhausted. As a curate, I preached on this coming Sunday several times, and I have as a rector, too. Every time, I find myself trying to sort through more than I can deal with in one low-Sunday sermon. I figure I’ve got 30+ years left in active ministry, and I’d guess that I’d need at least 15 of those to feel good about preaching Doubting Thomas.

As John makes clear through the words of Jesus, Thomas’ story is our story: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We have not seen. We have believed—or at least we’re trying to. This narrative is the post-modern, post-metanarrative, post-I’ve-got-the-answers-so-stop-asking-questions-and-just-believe-what-I-tell-you-to-believe gospel. It is the gospel lesson for today’s church. It comes at the perfect time and needs careful thought.

On Easter Day, we proclaim that Christ is risen. We celebrate the empty tomb. And Easter Day isn’t the right time for the preacher to battle the doubts of postmodernism. Yes, we want the resurrection to be real to us, and I tried to stress that in yesterday’s sermon. But Easter isn’t the time to say, “What if he didn’t really rise from the dead?” As a robust treatment of this Sunday’s gospel would show, I’m not afraid of that question, but, if I only have one or two chances to proclaim the gospel to those Christmas-Easter parishioners, Easter Day isn’t the time to do it. But this Sunday is.

The ecstasy has worn off. The shock and awe has subsided. Although the story still begins on the first day of the week—Easter Day—it allows us some time to reflect on the truth we’ve proclaimed. This is the time to let our faith mature—to show how it will resist the healthy, natural, honest skepticism of Thomas.

Of all the Sundays, this is the one preached to the faithful Christian. They are the ones who journey through the busyness of Holy Week and Easter and still come back on the second Sunday of the season. So, preacher, don’t let them down. They are here asking the same questions as Thomas. “Was the hype of last Sunday for real? Were we just caught up in the joy of a prescribed observance, or is there really something here worth putting my faith in?” Tackle the doubts of Thomas and let us be strengthened in our resolve. We aren’t in church this coming Sunday because we’re going through the motions. We’re there because we believe—or at least because we really want to. Help us feel the risen Christ without actually touching him.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Day - Resurrection Surprise

April 20, 2014 – Easter Day, Year A

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

The audio of this sermon is available here.

My wife, Elizabeth, will tell you that I have the maturity of a third-grader. She’s right, of course. I laugh at crude jokes. I pull pranks on unsuspecting friends. And I love to jump out from around the corner and scare people. I do it enough that now my kids have caught on to the act, and all three of them will hide behind a chair or a sofa when they hear the garage door open, signaling that I am home. Although their timing still needs a little work, they’re getting pretty good at jumping out and yelling “BOO!” when I get too close.

The staff at St. John’s is regularly subjected to my little surprises. Eventually, though, after enough times, the victims of my startlings get used to it, and they don’t jump quite as high. Sometimes I can still get them—especially early in the morning when they don’t think anyone else is in the office—and I smile a big, friendly grin when I hear them gasp and then mutter the four-letter words of surprise under their voice. It’s my way of keeping everyone on our toes here at St. John’s. But I’m curious about the rest of you. When was the last time you came to church and were surprised?

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed…

The steps she took toward the tomb were as heavy as any she had ever taken. Mary Magdalene had been among the few women who stood at the cross and watched Jesus breathe his last. The pain and grief that hit her during the crucifixion had faded into a confused numbness. The reality of his death had sunk in, but her heart didn’t even know what it should feel. So she made her way to the place where his body had been laid, walking almost mindlessly, drawn inexorably toward the locus of her sorrow. But, when she arrived, her grief was compounded. The stone had been rolled away, which meant that someone had stolen his body, probably to desecrate it.

So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

Mary’s words of alarm ripped through the mournful disciples, who dropped everything and raced to the tomb. When the first arrived, he looked in and saw the grave clothes lying there, but he waited for Peter to catch up. Then, they both went in and confirmed what Mary Magdalene had told them—that his body was gone—but they still didn’t understand what to make of the empty tomb. So they turned around and walked back home.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.

A woman wracked with grief and left with nothing to do but cry, Mary just stood there sobbing. Through the blurriness of tear-filled eyes, she looked into the tomb and saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying. “Why are you weeping?” the angels asked, and Mary choked out the words of her grief, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” And then, in that place of bitterest pain, a surprise rippled through her heart.

Jesus [appeared and] said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).

In that moment, that split-second when Mary Magdalene learned that everything she had ever feared had been transformed from death into life, Easter filled her with the joy of surprise. In the blink of an eye, her grief was vanquished, and it was replaced with pure joy. But that is how resurrection always happens. It must begin in a place of real death and only breaks through into our lives when and where we least expect it. Easter is the story of God’s greatest surprise—that from the ashes of our darkest, most hopeless hour springs forth new life and new possibility.

But when was the last time you came to church and were surprised? We are all here this morning because we know that it is Easter. We proclaim, “The Lord is risen indeed!” as if it were a well-rehearsed fact. And, even though we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ every single Sunday, rarely does it surprise us. Rarely does what happens in this sacred space, within these hallowed walls, shake us out of the familiarity of the gospel and fill us with the real joy of surprise. But we need to be surprised. Like Mary Magdalene, we need the joy of resurrection to turn us upside down. But what will it take for Easter to break through in our lives and not just in our worship?

We must go forth from here and look for resurrection where it is to be found—in that place where it will surprise us the most. In the garden where the body of Jesus was laid. In the hospital room where our loved-one takes his last breath. In the daughter who refuses to speak to us or in the son who is in rehab for the umpteenth time. In the marriage that has been dead for years. In the elusive job that cannot be found. Or maybe even in the church that hasn’t meant anything to us in longer than we can remember.

Where is resurrection least likely to be found? What relationship is as dead to you as Jesus was to Mary Magdalene? That is the place where you must go and search for new life. In our hopelessness is the very place where God surprises us with resurrection. Is it possible? Can it be? On this day, when we gather at the empty tomb to see that Christ is risen indeed, we proclaim our confidence that God can transform even our darkest moment into the light of Easter. Amen. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday - Jesus' Victory in Defeat

April 18, 2014 – Good Friday

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

 Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

The world loves stories about underdogs. They become the legends that define our culture. We tell them to our children and grandchildren. We make them our own. The upstart American colonists rebel against the tyranny of the British Empire. The hard-working steel driver John Henry matches his strength and skill against a steam-powered hammer. Small-time boxer Rocky Balboa climbs into the ring to square off against the heavyweight champ, Apollo Creed. The small-town high-school football team takes the field in the state championship against the perennial favorite from the big city.

The bible, too, is full of underdog stories. We teach them to our children in order to give them a glimpse of how they might also serve God in extraordinary ways: Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, Rahab the Harlot, David and Goliath, Elijah and the prophets of Baal, the woman at the well, the man blind since birth, and, of course, Jesus himself—the carpenter’s son from Galilee who took on the political and religious establishment of his day. In 1965, the life of Jesus was made into a movie called The Greatest Story Ever Told. You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate the drama and excitement of his underdog story. But the problem with falling in love with Jesus the underdog is that you miss the whole point of the cross if you’re only cheering because you know he’ll bounce back in the fourth quarter—on the third day.

Imagine trying to make a feel-good movie about the 1935 Boston Braves. For sixteen years, they only had one winning season. Then, in 1933 and 1934, things seemed to get a little bit better. Both years, they finished above .500 and in fourth place in the National League. Finally, in 1935, the team did something to end their losing ways. They hired Babe Ruth to be both player and manager, bringing back to Boston the legend who had been sold by the cross-town Red Sox to the New York Yankees in 1919. Everyone thought that Ruth would bring his winning ways back to Boston—that his magic touch would lead the decades-long underdog team to the pennant, but that’s not how the story ended. The team finished the season with a major-league worst record of 115 losses—61 ½ games behind the first-place Chicago Cubs. Ruth retired on June 1—not even able to complete the whole season. Big hopes and terrible losses don’t make for good stories, but sometimes the underdog just gets beat.

What does it mean to cheer for the underdog who loses? What does it mean to follow a savior who is crucified? Those of us who prefer to fast-forward to what happens on the third day inadvertently make the crucifixion a mere detour on the road that leads to salvation. But the cross is more than a momentary setback. The death of our savior is an expression of God’s victory that stands alone. It is a moment of salvation all in itself.

Consider John’s account of Jesus’ arrest and interrogation. The soldiers and officers rush into the garden to take Jesus into custody, but, rather than run or hide, Jesus comes forward to meet them. He asks, “Whom are you looking for?” and, after they say his name, he declares, “I am he,” with enough force to knock them to the ground. Yet, despite his power, he submits to them willingly. Then, Simon Peter draws his sword, ready for battle. He slashes at the face of the high priest’s servant, cutting of his ear. But Jesus tells him, “Put it back in its sheath. Am I not supposed to drink the cup that my father has given me?” When he is dragged before Caiaphas the high priest, he refuses to defend himself, and, when Pilate the governor asks him if he is a king, Jesus makes it clear that his kingdom “is not from this world,” but, if it were, his followers would be fighting to free him. Over and over, Jesus reminds us of his innate power, but he chooses to show it by submitting to the fate that awaits him. In the end, the one who has all the power and could triumph over his oppressors at any moment, chooses the cross because it is God’s ultimate expression of what true power is.

For Jesus, victory is shown in defeat. Power is expressed in weakness. Hope is found in darkness. What happens on the third day is not the reversal of Jesus’ fortune. It does not show that the cross was a mistake. Instead, it confirms that what happened at Calvary was a moment of God’s triumph. In our faith, the underdog does not win in the end—at least not in human terms. And that’s why it’s so hard to recognize the cross as a true moment of victory all in itself. No wonder the crowd responded to Pilate, “We have no king but Caesar.” To look at the bloodied, humiliated figure standing before them, wearing a mock-crown of thorns, was to look at man who had lost—whose fight had been extinguished. But that is where God is to be found. God resides not in the locker room of the long-shot winner but in the defeat of the team that never had a chance in the first place.

What sort of messiah do you worship? What sort of king have you come to behold? The world wants to cheer for the unexpected winner. We like the story of the underdog because, when the underdog wins, we feel like their victory is somehow meant for us. But Jesus’ victory is far more substantial than that. He came not only to bring hope to those whose lives are filled with light and love and joy but also to give hope to those whose despair seems to have no end. The true power of God is expressed through the cross. The powerless are made powerful because that is where God is to be found. The suffering are made whole because that is where God is to be found. The cross of Christ means that our hope is not tied up in moments of worldly victory but in God’s willingness to inhabit our moments of loss.

So bring to the cross everything you’ve ever thought about power and victory and hope, and watch them fall away. Let the crucified one transform you not merely by removing your struggle but by revealing God’s true power: that God is with us in our darkest moments because that is where his love is to be found. Amen.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Thursday in Holy Week - A Meal for Sinners

In the Roman Catholic Church, individuals may not receive Holy Communion without having fasted from everything except water or medicine for at least an hour. That can be reduced to 15 minutes if you’re ill or have another important reason (see canon 919). It used to be that one needed to fast from midnight the night before, but that was relaxed back in the 1950s so that Catholics could receive Communion more often—especially with the introduction of evening services.

In the Orthodox Church, things are still pretty strict. If you want to receive Communion on Sunday, you need to spend the whole week getting ready. You are expected to study God’s word, fast from meat and dairy on Wednesday and Friday, strenuously strive to avoid sin, and on Sunday you are forbidden to eat or drink anything unless medically necessary until the Divine Liturgy.

In both the Orthodox and Catholic churches, there is an expectation that a potential communicant will be free of serious sins before coming to the altar rail. Sacramental Confession is offered as a way of reconciling both the penitent individual to God and also healing the division that a grievous or mortal sin has created between the individual and the Church. Gathering at the Lord’s Supper is about gathering in the unity that he offers us.  

There’s value in preparing for something as important as Communion. The next time you’re in the pew, stop and ask yourself what you did to get ready. I hope my answer will be something more substantial than “I brushed my teeth” or “I reviewed my sermon.” We shouldn’t come to the Communion rail burdened by sin or distracted by worldly concerns. If not literally fasting before Communion, we should at least spend a moment acknowledging our dependence on God alone and our hunger for salvation. We should recall our sinfulness and seek forgiveness. And, if we are so burdened or distracted that we cannot rightly discern the importance of this sacramental moment, we should probably refrain from receiving.

Imagine, though, what was going through the disciples’ minds the first time that they shared this meal together right after Jesus announced, “One of you will betray me.”

I like Mark’s version of this story. He doesn’t identify Judas in this moment. There is no description of how Satan entered into him as there was in yesterday’s gospel (John 13:21-32). Instead, Jesus drops that dinner-party bomb and then moves right on. It’s like announcing to your family at Thanksgiving Dinner that you have been diagnosed with cancer and have two months to live and then asking your son-in-law to pass the rolls. There’s no opportunity for conversation. There’s no chance for them to figure out what Jesus means. They say, “Is it I? Did I do this?” and then they go through the rest of the meal not really sure whether they are the one who somehow, inadvertently betrayed their master.

Why would Jesus do that? Why not wait until after he invites them to share bread and wine in remembrance of what he would do for them? I’m kind of surprised they even remembered to do it after he was gone. Or at least why not identify Judas and chase him out the door as the black sheep, the son of destruction, who is unworthy of receiving the body and blood of Jesus? Why? Because Communion is not a meal for the perfect. It is a sacrament for those in search of redemption.

Yes, we come to his table conscious of our brokenness and earnestly seeking new life. Yes, we try to leave behind the distractions of the world as we gather in Jesus’ name. Yes, we focus so intently on his sacrifice for us that everything else fades away in the background. But we are not perfect when we come to his table. Instead, we are broken sinners in search of perfection. We are in the process of being redeemed.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Wednesday in Holy Week - Never Understanding Judas

I'm grateful to Seth Olson for his sermon this morning, which gave me some clearer focus on today's gospel and which should soon be available here.

I preached a sermon on Judas when I was at VTS. I remember that it didn’t go very well. Partly, of course, that’s because of the preacher. But part of it had to do with Judas. Preachers love talking about Judas because we don’t really understand him, but the fact that we don’t really understand him makes him a difficult subject for a sermon. It’s hard to preach on something that neither the preacher nor the congregation understand.

The gospel accounts work hard to portray Judas as a terrible scoundrel. Given the apologetic nature of their writings, that makes sense. They needed to let everyone know that Judas was bad—as John puts it that “Satan entered into him”—so that Jesus’ triumph over evil would outshine the fact that the Christ had chosen a traitor to follow him. Still, though, questions remain unanswered.

Today’s gospel brings us face to face with Judas’ treachery in heightened, good-and-evil terms. Jesus predicts his betrayal. All of the disciples gasp in horror. Peter asks the beloved disciple to ask Jesus who it was. Jesus says that it’s the one he gives the bread to. Then, he gives it to Judas, and, “after he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him.” Jesus tells him to do what he is going to do quickly, and he runs out to the confusion of the other disciples.

Jesus gives Judas the bread. Satan enters into him. Jesus tells him to hurry up and do his deed. How are we supposed to make sense of that?

Jesus is in charge. Even when he is subjected to the authorities who interrogate, torture, and kill him, Jesus is still shown to be in control. Does that mean he caused Judas to do this? Does it mean he wanted him to? Does it merely imply foreknowledge? How does it work? How can it be that Jesus kept his betrayer that close—even urging him to carry out his betrayal?

We don’t know. We are as confused as the disciples. We are dealing with forces bigger than ourselves. All we know is that Judas betrayed Jesus, yet Jesus accepted what came to him as part of God’s will. We cannot make sense of that, but we are intrigued by it. Why? Because it is our story, too. Why do we betray our Lord? Why do we turn our backs on God? Likely never in as dramatic terms as Judas’ arch-betrayal, we are still guilty of the same. How do we make sense of it? We can’t. But we cling to the fact that despite our treachery God is still in control. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tuesday in Holy Week - Saving Embrace

The readings for today can be read here

I wouldn’t know, but I bet there’s a strange and wonderful sensation that a musician gets when he hears his own music playing on the radio or that an author gets when she sees her own book on the shelf in the bookstore. If you’re on the radio or on a shelf, you must have made it. You’re legit. It’s not just your friends and family who say that you’ve got talent. You’ve been recognized as someone worth noticing. That’s a little bit like what it meant for some Greeks to find Philip and say, “We want to see Jesus!”

Jesus was a travelling preacher. He’d been wandering around the countryside for a few years, offering a strange and inviting message to anyone who would listen. His was a distinctly Jewish movement, and he spent most of his time preaching about what it would take for his people to return to their God. According to John’s gospel account, he had been to the big capital city a few times and had joined the dozen or so other charismatic figures in the temple courts who were trying to make a living by proclaiming a message for the masses, but this time things seemed a little different. These Greeks—these gentile converts to Judaism—had heard about Jesus and wanted to know more. Jesus’ fame was spreading across ethnic and philosophical lines. More and more people were attracted to his sermons. Philip went and got Andrew, and both of them, excited at what this might mean, went to tell Jesus. And what did Jesus do? He went away and hid from them.

It’s not that Jesus was afraid of the spotlight. He disappeared because he knew that the only way he could really draw all people to himself was by being lifted up from the ground and hoisted onto a cross. And no one wants to follow a preacher who is leading his followers towards death.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternity. Whoever serves me must follow me and be with me wherever I am. Things are about to get ugly. But what should I say, “Father, save me from this hour?” No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. This is what it is all about. This is how God will glorify me and glorify himself. I will be lifted up, and then I will draw all people to myself.

There’s a prayer in the Prayer Book that begins, “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace…” Just when it seems like Jesus is going to make it big as a powerful preacher with a potent message, he runs away from his fans. Just when he is achieving real cross-over in a whole new demographic, Jesus ducks out into the shadows. Why? Because he knows that the world needs more than just a preacher with a good message. Because he knows that the only way to really bring the whole world together is by stretching out his arms on the hard wood of the cross. We follow not the one who has huge crowds hanging on his every word. We follow the one who hung shamefully on the cross so that we might be transformed by his death.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Monday in Holy Week - Costly Perfume

Today's readings can be found here.

Three-hundred denarii is a lot of money. It’s 300 days’ worth of wages for a laborer. If you worked six days a week, it’s almost a year’s worth of pay. At minimum wage ($7.25 an hour), and assuming 8-hour days, that’s about $17,400.

I want you to imagine for a minute what would happen if I told the congregation that we were going to spend $17,000 to have a guest vocalist come to St. John’s to sing one song on Good Friday. Or imagine what your spouse would say if you came home and announced that you had spent $17,000 on a bottle of wine for dinner that night. Or imagine what the neighbors would say if you spent $17,000 on fireworks for your next birthday.

As he makes his final trip to Jerusalem, where he will be killed, Jesus stops for dinner in his friends’ house. While sitting at the dinner table, Mary, one of his hostesses, takes a pound of perfume made of pure nard and anoints his feet and wipes them with her hair. I think the value of that gesture gets lost in translation. Three-hundred denarii is a lot of money. And what Mary does with it is an overwhelming statement of humility and sacrifice. It’s the kind of awkward, beautiful moment that two friends will always share together; every time they meet again, they will think of it. Mary’s act of anointing Jesus is a way of showing that nothing else, absolutely nothing else, matters as much as what is about to happen to Jesus.

Judas questions why that perfume was not sold so that the money could be given to the poor. John, the author, tries to give the reader some inside information to clarify the situation, but I partly think he muddies the water. By telling us that Judas said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief, John leads us to believe that his objection was baseless and selfish. That might be true—Judas might have had his eye on the cash—but, when I stop and think about how lavish and ridiculous and ludicrous that gesture was, I think Judas might be right. Why wasn’t the perfume sold and the money given to the poor? And why does Jesus respond, “You always have the poor, but you do not always have me?” How can we justify this kind of expense—the inexplicable use of $17,000 for a one-time, one-person moment?

If you believe that nothing is as important as the death that Jesus will die, then the anointing makes sense. If you can see that the value of what will happen to Jesus is immeasurable, then the perfume is justified. If you can see that the cross is what transforms the whole world, bringing hope to the poor, then the three-hundred denarii is well-spent. Our challenge, therefore, is to become like Mary—willing to give up everything to participate in Jesus’ death. We must lose ourselves in the inconceivable gift that is the cross. All that we have and everything that we are must disappear in the sight of Calvary. The needs and concerns and alternatives must vanish because the only thing that matters is what happens on the cross. This week is about losing everything else so that only one thing occupies all aspects of our being.
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