Monday, March 23, 2020

Jesus Christ: God-Incarnate, Lover of Sinners


March 22, 2020 – Lent 4A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here.

Normally, we would be entering that stretch of the year when there’s only one thing that comes on our television at night: baseball. Elizabeth and I don’t watch a lot of television, but, from late March through October, there’s a good chance that we’ll be watching a Cubs game or a Braves game or just about any team’s game in the evening. That means that any other shows we’d like to watch have to wait until the World Series is over. Of course, baseball ends right when the football season is getting interesting, so, really, the only time we try to watch a show is in between the Super Bowl and Opening Day—February and early March. A week or so ago, we finished the first season of True Detective, and, since it’s become clear that baseball won’t be starting anytime soon, we’ve decided to give something else a try.

Have you seen the HBO miniseries Chernobyl? I figured that the middle of a pandemic was the perfect time to immerse ourselves in a fictionalized docudrama about nuclear fallout and government conspiracy. We’ve only seen one episode, but it’s already clear that the Soviet authorities’ response to the crisis will mirror that of today’s skeptics, who would rather downplay the significance of COVID-19 than tell the world the difficult truth it needs to hear in order to mitigate its terrible effects.

In that first episode, the nuclear reactor core explodes. A violent shockwave rocks the community, and then a fire erupts at the plant. The only problem is that nuclear reactor cores don’t explode. They melt down. So, when plant workers report to their bosses that the core had exploded, their bosses respond by saying that those workers must be delusional. Reactor cores don’t explode. They melt down. In order to get a clearer picture of what happened, those bosses send a different team of employees into the reactor to get a look at the problem, and, when those employees come back, marred by radiation, and report that they saw an open-air reactor core fire, the bosses again dismiss the reports as stress-induced fabrication. When another worker reports seeing graphite fragments of the reactor core amidst the rubble, his report is rejected as a mistake. Even when the boss himself is doubled-over and vomiting because of radiation poisoning, still the truth cannot be accepted. Why? Because reactor cores don’t explode. They melt down.

Sometimes disbelief like that is a choice. We refuse to believe even what we see with our own eyes because we refuse to accept it as true. Other times, though, the truth is so astounding, so truly unbelievable, that, even if we wished to believe it, we couldn’t. The question for us is whether we will acknowledge why we won’t or can’t believe.

In John 9, when Jesus heals a man born blind, we encounter two irreconcilable truths: If Jesus was able to give sight to the blind man, he must be from God, yet, if he ignored the religious laws about the sabbath, he cannot be from God. When Jesus spat on the ground, made mud, and spread it on the blind man’s eyes so that he could be healed, Jesus broke the laws governing the sabbath. That’s irrefutable. But, when he gave sight to a man who had been born blind, he did something that had never been done before—something only God could have made possible. So which is it? Is Jesus a sinner, or is he a man of God?

The religious authorities were perplexed by that strange collision of truths, and they tried every way they could think of to explain it. First, they asked whether they were dealing with the same man or with a look-alike. “He looks like the blind man who used to sit here and beg, but maybe it’s someone else,” they said to themselves. But the man kept telling them, “It’s me! I am the man,” but they didn’t understand how that was possible.

So they started to ask questions about his blindness. If it really was the same man, maybe they were wrong about his condition. Maybe he wasn’t actually born blind. So they asked his parents, “Is this your son, whom you say was born blind? How is it that he is now able to see?” But the parents didn’t give them the answer they wanted, saying, “All we know is that he is our son and that he was born blind, but, if you want to know how he is now able to see, you should ask him yourselves. He’s old enough to give you an answer.”

But, when they interrogated the man a second time, their confusion quickly became impatience, and they began to turn against the man who had been healed. “Give glory to God!” they demanded, using a religious formula that requires an honest response. Now, the man who had been healed was on trial. If someone was being dishonest, it must have been him. After all, he was born blind, and the religious authorities knew that a just God wouldn’t let a child be born without his sight unless he or his parents had done something to deserve it. It was easier to lay blame upon the man who was the embodiment of sin than to try to answer unanswerable questions about Jesus. It was easier to expel the source of the confusion than to live with the ambiguity and inexplicability of how God was at work in him. So, when that once-blind man began to turn the inconsistencies back on his interrogators, they refused to listen and drove him out.

It’s easy for us to see the truth because we know who Jesus really is. We live in the light of the resurrection. Even in Lent, we know that, after Jesus died on the cross, on the third day, God vindicated him by raising him from the dead. In the resurrection, God shows us whose side Jesus is on, so, even if we don’t understand how to explain what happened, we know the answer to the irreconcilable conundrum that the healing of the blind man represents. But I wonder whether we know how it is that we get to that point of knowing the answer.

Whose side is Jesus on? In our own day, we encounter a fresh version of that same irreconcilable conundrum. Either Jesus is God’s Son, the Incarnate One, the sinless redeemer of the world, or Jesus is the radical rabbi who looks down on religious leaders and prefers the company of notorious sinners and social pariahs. Surely it can’t be both. “We know that God does not listen to sinners.” We know that God does not dwell in sin. But we know that Jesus spent his time hanging out with the ungodly people of his day. So which is it? Is Jesus God-among-us, or did he enjoy spending his time with sinners? If we can’t figure out how to make sense of that collision of truths, we won’t understand who Jesus really is.

There are lots of ways that Christians try to make sense of that paradox. Some find it easier to give up the traditional understanding of Jesus as God incarnate. They think of him as a wise teacher who taught us how to love the unlovable among us, but they don’t have much use for the miracles or signs that point to his divinity—supernatural feats of wonder that defy explanation. More often, though, Christians make sense of Jesus by forgetting his preference for the poor, the powerless, and the sinful. After all, it’s easier to identify with a God who works in powerful ways than a God who stoops down to embrace the kind of people we’d rather not see or smell in our churches.

So who is Jesus, really? The one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, or a prophet whose association with outcasts reminds us that we, too, must care for the poor? Of course, we know the answer is both, but, to get there, something has to give. And that something is us.

We cannot know Jesus Christ if we separate God’s power and God’s humility, if we divorce God’s majesty and God’s emptiness. Jesus doesn’t just teach us about God. He shows us God. He brings God to us and us to God. In Jesus’ love for sinners, we see God’s love for sinners. In his preference for the poor and marginalized, we see God’s preference for the same. To see that, though, requires the impossible—a change within us that we cannot accomplish on our own. It means leaving behind everything we’ve ever known about holiness and goodness and rightness and believing a truth about God that we cannot believe even if we want to—even if we see it with our own eyes. To see what God would show us, we must become blind. To live in that truth, we must die with Christ and be raised by God into new life. That’s what it means to be a Christian.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

God Is With Us


March 15, 2020 – Lent 3A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here.


The whole congregation of God’s people journeyed through the wilderness in stages, from one camp to the next, as they made their way toward the land that God was giving them. A tremendous mass of people and property—women, men, children, livestock, and goods—were being carted across the land. Everything that they owned was with them, being carried or dragged through the desert. They were on their way to a life that none of them had known before, but it was a life full of hope and promise. The uncertainty of it all made everything feel a little risky, but so far God had been with them every step of the way, and surely God would not leave them now. But, then, the great horde of people came to a new camp, and, when the people looked around, they discovered that something critical—something essential to life—was absent from this new place, and they panicked. They came to Moses and cried, “What are we going to do without any toilet paper?”

Things are getting pretty serious, aren’t they? Stores aren’t just out of toilet paper. People are lining up outside of stores before they open to be sure that they get some only to find out when the doors open that there isn’t any. Although a few patients have reported related symptoms, the coronavirus isn’t causing widespread gastrointestinal problems. Instead, people are stocking up on toilet paper because they’re worried that they may be stuck at home for weeks on end. That’s the reality that we are facing—a world in which people are cut off from one another and from any reasonable supply of toilet paper for the foreseeable future.

Have you ever actually run out of toilet paper? When I was a freshman in college, I went to Thailand and Vietnam with a group for a month. At the end of our trip, the night before we flew back to the States, after a month of eating some pretty bold dishes, we decided to play it safe and eat in a local shopping mall. Halfway through the meal, the trip caught up with me, and I had to excuse myself to find a bathroom. I asked someone who worked in the mall for directions, and he pointed me downstairs—three floors down—where the public restroom was. I hurried down two escalators and across the courtyard and entered the facility only to discover that there was no toilet paper in the stall. I checked the next stall—nothing. In fact, there wasn’t even a toilet paper holder anywhere to be found. Confused, I looked on the wall of the restroom by the door and saw mounted upon it a toilet paper vending machine that only took coins. I frantically reached into my pocket but found none.

I raced—as quickly as I could—back across the courtyard and up two escalators to my colleagues, who were still eating dinner. “I need some change,” I said pointedly. No one asked me why. Coins in hand, I shuffled all the way back down to the restroom, put my coins in the vending machine, pulled the lever, took out the small cardboard box, and dove into the nearest stall. Safe…or so I thought. But, when I opened the box, I found two translucent-thin squares of tissue paper no bigger than the palm of my hand. I had no more coins. So I did the best that I could with the two squares that I had, and then I tore up the cardboard box and used it, too. And afterwards I washed my hands really, really well.

The truth is that most people in the world don’t use toilet paper. That dispenser in the restroom was put there for westerners like me. In Thailand, as in most countries throughout the world, people use squatting toilets and clean themselves with buckets of water and ladles that were provided free of charge in every stall. For me, the lack of toilet paper was a crisis, and, in the midst of that crisis, it became exceedingly difficult for me to keep everything in proper perspective. Isn’t that so often the case with God’s people?

The story of Exodus is a tale that is propelled by profound irony, but little snippets like the one we read for our first lesson make that irony hard to see. In Exodus 17, we read that the people of Israel had journeyed from the wilderness of Sin until they got to Rephidim, where there was no water to be found. “Give us water to drink!” the quarrelsome and parched people said to Moses. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our livestock with thirst?” Their crisis was real. Unlike toilet paper, people and livestock really do need water to survive. But their need for water isn’t what makes this story ironic. It’s how quickly they forgot what had happened before they got to Rephidim.

In Exodus 16, the previous chapter in the story, the people had grumbled about another problem. This time, it was hunger that had them upset. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread,” they had said to Moses. “For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Sound familiar? In response to that crisis, God had given them quails and manna. By God’s mighty and miraculous hand, God had caused food to appear out of nowhere to make sure that the people did not starve. After that, just one chapter later, did they really think that God would allow them to die of thirst?

In Exodus 14, the people had grumbled about yet another crisis. This time it was Pharaoh and his army that had been pursuing them. “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” the people had cried out to Moses. “What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” Can you hear a pattern? Of course, God had not abandoned them that time either. Instead, God had told Moses to lift up his staff and stretch his hand across the Red Sea and divide it so that the Israelites could cross through the sea on dry ground.

In Exodus 15, the people had sung a song of rejoicing to their God—to the one who had “triumphed gloriously,” who was their “strength and their might,” who had become their “salvation.” But, anytime the people of God journey out into the wilderness, a crisis is bound to find them, and, each time it does, it is our nature to forget everything that God has done for us. “Why did God bring us out of Egypt, setting us free from Pharaoh’s yoke by God’s mighty hand, only to only to kill us and our children and our livestock with whatever crisis will come next?” Why, indeed.

God has not brought us this far only to abandon us now. Yes, the crisis we are facing is real, and, no, I’m not talking about toilet paper. There are so many things for us to worry about. I am preaching to an empty church because our congregation cannot gather in person but must assemble virtually. We don’t know how long this pandemic will persist. We don’t know when we will have enough testing supplies to determine who is infected and who just has allergies or the flu. Will our hospitals and pharmacies and other medical institutions be able to handle the crisis? What will those who depend on schools and churches and other community agencies for food do if those organizations are forced to stay shut for weeks or even months? What will you do if you are exposed to the virus? What will you do if someone you love, someone you depend on, someone you can’t live without, tests positive for COVID-19? I don’t know. We don’t know. But we do know that, through it all, no matter what happens, God is with us. God has not brought us this far only to abandon us now.

“The LORD said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’” We do not know how long it will be before the answer we seek springs forth from the rock like a gushing stream, and we don’t know whether that answer will come instead as trickle—just a few drops at a time. But we do know that God will be standing there in front of us. The record of our faith is undeniable: God is always with us—most of all when God’s presence is hardest to perceive.

In a crisis like this, it is easy to forget that we are not alone. Cut off from our church and from one another, we begin to think that our problems might win, that the crisis might get the best of us. But it won’t. It can’t because our God is with us. No matter where we go, no matter what happens, God is with us. Even if we make the grave our bed, the psalmist says, God is there.

Before the people of Israel left that place, Moses called it “Massah and Meribah”—literally “Testing and Quarrelling”—because that was the place where the people had tested and quarreled with God. The crisis that they had faced became a monument not to the answer God gave them but to the fact that they almost allowed themselves to believe that God had forgotten them completely. At times, this crisis may make us feel a little like that. It may cause us to lose our perspective and forget that we belong to the one who has always come to save God’s people. Do not lose heart. Do not let your worries keep you from seeing the truth that God is with you. Do not forget that, no matter what the test, our God will save us.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Proclaiming Faith in a Fearful Time


This piece appeared in this week's newsletter from St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, AR. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.


As the church, we proclaim hope in the midst of trouble, peace when faced with a crisis, and faith in a time of fear. Because, in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has saved us from the terrors of sin and death, we share with others the good news that nothing has the power to defeat God’s unbreakable love for the world. That confidence—that faith—is not only what we say; it is who we are. Our belief in the saving power of God’s love is the foundation of everything we do as a congregation. It is why we come together on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. It is why we serve meals to hungry people who walk through our doors. It is why we teach children, youth, and adults about the way of Jesus. And, now as much as ever, our faith in God’s saving love must be at the center of our life together.

Being a community of confidence in uncertain times has never been easy, yet that has always been the church’s gift to the world. During persecutions and plagues, blitzes and blowups, the church has reminded its members and the world that God’s love cannot be defeated. Whether facing personal crises or societal catastrophe, people among us are desperate for the good news that, because of God’s love for them, they have reason to hope. In this time of pandemic, when vulnerable individuals have withdrawn from us and daily essentials like toilet paper are gone from store shelves, we must find ways to be a sign of hope for ourselves and others around us. Even in a moment of panic, we must be a church that reminds the world that God will triumph.

In order to do that, we must adapt to the concerns that COVID-19 is presenting us. Starting on Sunday morning, instead of celebrating Holy Eucharist, we will offer Morning Prayer at all three services, and, starting on Wednesday night, we will offer Evening Prayer in place of the usual Eucharist. The Eucharist is the church's principal way of expressing Jesus’ victory over sin, sickness, and death, but sharing Communion itself has become a sign not of that faith but of our fear of contagion. The bishop has forbidden the use of the common cup. Members of our congregation are preoccupied with legitimate concerns about physical contact during worship. Individuals are choosing to stay at home rather than come to church. Although it has not been an easy decision and will be disruptive to many, I believe that offering Morning Prayer in place of Communion is the right decision hygienically, pastorally, and theologically.

Morning Prayer is foundational to our tradition as Anglicans, and it is already a part of our parish’s daily worship. For many years, it was the principal weekly service in the vast majority of Episcopal churches. Although for us it will take the place of Holy Communion, this will not be a second-class service. As with every service at St. Paul's, it will be beautiful, holy, and rich. It will include readings, hymns, prayers, and a sermon. It will also allow for individuals who choose to stay home and watch online to participate fully in the service. And, more than anything, by minimizing physical contact during worship, it will allow us to continue to gather and proclaim our faith in a time when our community needs that as much as anything.

We are having to make other changes, too. Although we are committed to continuing to worship together, if local public schools close, we will take that as a sign that we need to suspend most of our other in-person programs. We are already taking steps to minimize the spread of germs, but we plan to cancel parish meals and other Sunday and weekday offerings if Fayetteville Public Schools close. That means some of our favorite things about St. Paul’s—Sunday School, coffee hour, weekday choir rehearsal, EYC, Bible studies, and many more—will have to suspend or, when feasible, to use online media to convene. Recovery groups will still be invited to meet on-site, and we hope to continue to offer Community Meals and Sunday Suppers as to-go meals. Pastoral visits will still be conducted, but clergy and other visitors will check to be sure that vulnerable individuals are open to receiving them. Through all of this, even when we need to limit our programs and ministries, we must continue to be a source of encouragement, strength, and hope for our community, and that requires all of us to do what we can to carry out the work of the church but in ways that keep each other safe.

What can you do? Again, wash your hands, and stay at home if you are sick or have any symptoms like a cough, runny nose, or fever. Stay at home if you are particularly vulnerable to illness, and let the clergy know how we can support you. You can use our YouTube channel to worship with us on Sundays and Wednesdays and watch the adult forum online, and we are hoping to adapt the Rector’s Bible Study and other offerings for online viewing.

If you are not worried about coronavirus and continue to come to church in person, remember that others around you are vulnerable, so consider avoiding interactions with at-risk groups and maintain increased social distance with everyone. Hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes are in short supply, so bring your own with you to church activities, and, if you have a surplus, consider donating some to the church. Stay tuned to St. Paul’s website, Facebook page, and email communications to know whether our offerings have changed. Throughout it all, pray for one another and for those among us who are sick or vulnerable and look for ways to be the church in new and different ways.

O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and in confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, p. 832)

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Born Again?


This past Sunday, I heard our guest preacher, The Rev. Winnie Varghese, tell the congregation that they shouldn't let Christians who like to talk about being born again as if it were a test of true faith take that language from us. Being born again is too important, too beautiful of an image for salvation for us to allow it to be stolen from us. I like that.

There is no such thing as a Christian who is not born again. And why is that? Because to belong to Jesus Christ requires us not only to figure something out, not only to see the world in a new way, but to live and move and breathe and think and love and act in a way that is foreign to this life--a way of being that requires us to be children not of the flesh but of God. And how in the world can any of us obtain that totally new life? As Winnie put it, by being born again...and again and again and again and again and again.

In John 3:1-17, Nicodemus comes to Jesus and says, "Rabbi, we know that you have been sent here from God because no one could do the amazing things you do apart from God." In other words, Nicodemus isn't trying to figure out whether Jesus is the real deal or not. He already knows that. He can see that. He trusts that. But something is missing. Something isn't quite right. Something doesn't add up. Did you notice that Nicodemus didn't actually ask Jesus anything at the start of their exchange? All he did was say that he and his colleagues--the other religious leaders--knew that Jesus had come from God. And that recognition was enough to get things started--to get Nicodemus' foot in the door--but Nicodemus needed more than that.

"If you want to see the kingdom of God," Jesus said to him, "you must be born again--you must be born from above." Nicodemus is confused, and well he should be. "Can an adult climb back into the mother's womb and be born a second time?" he asked Jesus. "No," Jesus replied, "if you want to see the kingdom of God, you must be born of water and the Spirit--you must be born again not of an earthly mother but as the child of God."

I bet all of us know the insight Jesus gives Nicodemus near the end of this encounter: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." What does that mean? What does Jesus mean when he says that God sent God's Son into the world so that eternal life might be given to those who believe in God's Son? Believing means more than saying the right prayer with our lips or doing the right thing when other people are looking or going to church our whole lives. It means giving all our hopes, our dreams, our plans, our efforts, our relationships, our love, and our lives to the one who reconciles the world to Godself in Jesus. And how do we do that? How do we stop trusting in our efforts, our jobs, our bank accounts, our investment portfolios, our retirement accounts, our resumes, our families, our friends, ourselves? We must be born again.

Eternal, abundant, overflowing life is given to those who put their whole faith in God through Jesus Christ, but Jesus teaches us that we can't do that even if we want to. You can come to Jesus the way that Nicodemus did and ask him to explain it again and again and again, but that won't help you figure it out. Faith doesn't work like that. It's not about what you think or say or do. It's about who you are. You must be born again. In the same way that your earthly birth was all about you and yet had nothing to do with your conscious choices, be born again. See within yourself the new life that God is giving you through Jesus Christ. Embrace the identity that has been given to you as a child of God, born again of water and Spirit.

Monday, March 9, 2020

The Source Of Our Enough


March 8, 2020 – Lent 2A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

There’s a scene from the political drama West Wing in which Toby Zeigler expresses his amazement that each of his newborn twins is given a hat. You know the little pink and blue knit beanies that every baby in the hospital is given? It’s one piece of the standard equipment that every child born in an American hospital is given. I’m sure there are some institutional variations in the bag of kit each hospital gives, but I bet the collection is more or less standard across the country: hat, tiny diapers, wipes, brush, comb, bulb suction, pacifier, and formula (if the child isn’t being exclusively breast-fed). But each child also gets some other stuff that doesn’t come in a cute newborn package.

Last Sunday, Suzanne reminded us that, when God breathes the breath of life into humankind, we become a living hunger. Our “nephesh,” she explained isn’t just something God gives to us. It’s who we are. It’s what it means to be human. It is that hunger or passion or desire that sets us apart as the species made in the image of God. Part of being human—our human condition—is being born with a rapacious and insatiable desire for more. We are, in effect, given at birth an invisible basket we spend the rest of our life wanting to fill. The search for enoughness, as David Zahl puts it in his book Seculosity, is a quest that is written into our DNA. And Zahl argues that in religious circles the outdated and, perhaps, jargony word we use to describe that concept of enoughness is “righteousness.” Righteousness is the state of having enough, of being right, of being full, of having one’s invisible basket filled to completion. And, whether or not we use a religious framework to describe it, that’s a quest we’re all on.

In the Book of Genesis, Abram set out in search of his own full basket by going where God had sent him. Expanding the biblical narrative, the Jewish midrash tells the story of Abram working in his father’s idol shop and experiencing within himself a deep dissatisfaction with the idea that one could worship an object made by human hands. Into this longing for a true encounter with the divine, the one true God appeared to Abram and spoke to him and told him to go: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” In other words, if you will leave the people and the place and the mindset you know and set out to the land that I will show you, I will fill you richly—full enough that you will overflow and become a source of blessing for others.

The apostle Paul seized upon this moment and made the story of Abraham the foundational story of how he explained the power of the Christian faith. What our parish’s namesake had been shown in his transformative encounter with Jesus was the fact that our hunger for enough—our quest to fill our basket and achieve wholeness and completeness—is not completed through works but is given by faith. And Paul turned to Father Abraham as the biblical model for that truth. Quoting Genesis 15, Paul wrote, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” This sense of completeness didn’t come to Abraham because he earned it the way a worker earns a wage. It was given to him because he took God at God’s word. When God promised that God would bless him, that God would give him a son, that God would make him the father of a great nation, Abraham believed it—believed that his completeness, his future, his destiny, his progeny would all be fulfilled by God as a gift. And, when Abraham found that it possible for him to believe it as if it were already true, he discovered that, in God, it was already true. His basket was full. His hunger was satisfied. Believing in God, Abraham had enough.

That has radical implications for us that run contrary to our most basic human nature. We’re all trying to fill our own basket in one way or another. Some of us use what David Zahl refers to as “capital-R Religion” to try to fill it. We go to church. We say our prayers. We fast during Lent. We teach our children that what it means to be a Christian is to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. In other words, we sacrifice things of value—time, money, emotional security—to help us feel whole and complete. We measure our sense of enoughness using the comparative standards of “old-time religion.”

But Zahl’s book argues that there are so many other ways we seek to fill our baskets and attain that mythical sense of completeness. In the post-Christian world we inhabit, we turn to parenting, politics, physical fitness, diet, busyness, and wokeness in our search for enough. These “small-r religions” are substitutes for the faith our parents and grandparents maintained—quests for measuring up to completeness by using other standards that are no less religious than the mechanics of corporate Christianity. People who want nothing to do with organized religion, he notes, usually don’t like being described as “religious,” but is there any other way to describe the fanatical pursuit of self-justification and righteousness that is the contemporary American experience?

Yet none of that is what Paul and Abraham and Jesus teach us. On the Damascus Road, what Paul learned was that he could never fill his own basket. He had done everything he was supposed to do—zealous for the faith, a keeper of the tradition, a Hebrew of the Hebrews—and still, when Jesus appeared to him, it all came up short. Abraham trusted God and set out for an unknown land, and, even though God did bless Abraham richly, that fulness wasn’t something that could be measured in earthly terms as he died somewhat estranged from his sons and owning no more land than the burial site he had bought for his beloved wife Sarah. Jesus shows his followers that the kingdom of God is manifest not in victory but in defeat, that we inherit everlasting life not when we seek to save our own lives but when we give them up for the sake of Jesus. That isn’t some secret code or shortcut that leads to your best life now. Following Jesus really means giving up everything—even our own lives. That’s how we find that our baskets are full to overflowing. That’s how our insatiable hunger is finally satisfied—by giving up our quest to fill it ourselves and believing that, by letting go, God fills us.

In this congregation, we have a tendency to try really hard to fill our own basket. We have been given eyes to see the needs in the world around us and the desire to respond to those needs through advocacy, effort, and generosity. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we will satisfy our own hunger for righteousness—for completeness, for enoughness—by working to make sure those around us who are in need get their fair share. But that’s like trying to fill up a basket with a big hole in the bottom of it. It doesn’t work. And it’s not what it means to be followers of Jesus.

Our efforts must begin not from a place of our own spiritual deficit but from a place of God-granted abundance. Our quest for enough can’t begin with us but only with God. As much as we love the kind of world that Jesus stood for, it is very threatening to believe that we are good and right and complete not because of anything we have accomplished but because of something we have been given. But, if we are going to believe in God’s infinite and unconditional love for the world, then that is where we must invest our faith—not in ourselves but in God. Like our namesake, we must let go of the privilege of our accomplishments and, instead of trusting what we have done or what we can do, trust the only one who can fill us to overflowing. Like Abraham, we must believe in the one who blesses us so that we might become a blessing to the world.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Just You And God


February 26, 2020 – Ash Wednesday

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon will be available later. Video of the service can be seen here.

Jesus tells us to beware of practicing our piety before others in order to be seen by them—that we’re supposed to go into our room and pray in secret and wipe our faces clean before we walk out of church. But, if we’re hiding our piety from other people, how in the world are we going to impress them? What good is a Lenten discipline if I don’t get to tell everyone about it? Why bother coming to church on Ash Wednesday if I don’t get to enjoy the smug satisfaction of seeing people give me funny looks when they notice the smear of “dirt” on my forehead? Right as we begin our Lenten practices, Jesus tells us that we’re supposed to carry them out in secret, where only God can see what we’re doing, in order that, by foregoing any earthly reward, we might obtain in its place a heavenly treasure. Heaven forgive me for disagreeing with Jesus, but I think someone should tell him that it’s a lot harder to impress God than other people.

God hears everyone’s prayers. God knows when we’re focused and when we’re rambling. God recognizes when we really mean it and when we’re just going through the motions. God sees when we start our morning with the Daily Office and when we prefer to piddle around on Facebook. Do we really think that our spiritual disciplines, when stacked up against those of every religious person from across the globe, are supposed to earn us a reward in heaven? When we give up chocolate or meat for Lent, do we think that makes a difference to God? When we give money to charity, do we think that the same God who sees how much money we spend on Amazon is all that impressed when we give $50 to help those in need?

Lent isn’t supposed to be a season to renew our relationship with God by impressing God or one another. It’s a season to renew that relationship by being honest with ourselves and with God. Something happens when we go into our room and shut the door and sit alone—just us and our Creator. A new possibility for spiritual growth and renewal unfolds when we push away all of the distractions and all strip off all of the pretense and sit down with the one who knows us better than we know ourselves. Lent isn’t a time to put on a good show. It’s a time for spiritual deconstruction—a chance to be stripped down to the bare bones of our faith and remember who we really are so that, come Easter, God might put us back together again.

We fast to remember that we are mortal and yet sustained by the giver of all good things. We give alms to remember that we, too, survive only on the bountiful goodness of our maker. We pray not to fill the space between us and God with our own utterances but to make space and silence for God’s Spirit to speak in us and through us and thus beckon our hearts back into the heart of God. In every way, Lent is about giving up—the surrender, the yielding, the mortification of ourselves before God so that we might reconnect with the one who loves not the person we pretend to be but the person we really are.

Lent, therefore, is a season to live with dangerous honesty. It is a time to stop pretending and seek our true selves and to let that true self sit exposed before God. For our whole lives, we have been putting on layer after layer of pretense—so much so that we have forgotten that it is possible for God to love the real self inside of us. And so, this Lent, we go on the terrifying yet liberating journey back inside ourselves, into our room, behind shut doors, in order to encounter the one who comes and meets us in that scary and vulnerable silence—the one who sees us and knows us and loves us anyway.

These forty days are a chance for you to practice the spiritual art of allowing the inside of your life to shape the outside instead of trying to do it the other way around. You can’t make God love you any more no matter how beautiful and impressive your spiritual practices might be. And you can’t make God love you any less no matter how empty and pretentious they are. God already knows who you really are, and God loves you just the same anyway. No matter what, at your very core, you are a beloved child of God—the God who hates absolutely nothing that God has made. How will your Lenten journey be a return to that fundamental truth? What shape will your Lenten disciplines take if your spiritual practices aren’t an attempt to convince anyone that you are worthy of love but a reflection of your faith in the one who already loves the real you?

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Ash Wednesday's Sermon on the Mount


Every third year, Ash Wednesday comes at the end of a lectionary stretch that focuses on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. This is one of those years. As I noted last week, we skip ahead on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany in order to hear the story of the Transfiguration, but, before that, we have several weeks to hear from Jesus' longest recorded teaching. His sermon starts with the Beatitudes, then moves to an explanation of how the Mosaic law applies to his followers, before touching on challenging subjects like avoiding anger and lust.

During that stretch, it's easy to focus on the pieces instead of the whole. For example, how does a preacher tackle Matthew 5:21-37 without offering a pastoral explanation that Jesus' teaching on divorce and remarriage is hyperbole even if that's bad exegesis? Similarly, one is tempted to talk about being the light of the world without linking that image to the Beatitudes--the gospel text that is proclaimed the week before (except when that Sunday is the Feast of the Presentation). But we can't hear what it means to be the light of the world without hearing that God sees as blessed those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, and those who are meek. And we can't even begin to understand what Jesus is saying about divorce or lust or anger without remembering what it means to be the light of the world. So why would we think that we can understand what Jesus had in mind about praying, fasting, and giving alms in secret without linking those instructions to the rest of the Sermon on the Mount?

Every year, on Ash Wednesday, we hear Jesus preach about alms, prayer, and fasting. That's an important part of the Sermon on the Mount that we shouldn't remove from its context. By the time we get to Matthew 6, Jesus has declared God's strange understanding of blessedness. He has identified his followers as the light that illumines that understanding to the world. He then exhorts them to live lives that let that light shine by avoiding culturally permissible behaviors that undermine the sense of holy community that defines God's reign. Then, and only then, we get to Ash Wednesday, when he tells his disciples that practicing the ins and outs of their relationship with God in order to impress others misses the point of belonging to God in the first place. That's what this gospel lesson is about. It's not about Lenten discipline. It's about belonging to the reign of God.

In other words, Jesus isn't simply telling us to practice our piety in private because that's the right way to give our alms, say our prayers, and endure a fast. It's the right way to do all of those things because we belong to the reign of God, which requires lives that reflect (shine) that truth inside and out. Although Jesus identifies the hypocrites whose spiritual practices are false, this isn't a sermon against hypocrites. It's a reminder that our external practices must reflect our internal identity. As transformed followers of Jesus, how we pray must reflect who we are in the same way that how we treat each other reflects who we are.

The good news is that that's what Lent is all about--getting the outside to match the inside by stripping way the false outside in order to get back in touch with the true inside. Lent is a time to be stripped of false pretenses. We get in touch with our mortality, our sinfulness, our need for salvation. The more fully we embrace that truth, the more fully God's grace puts us back together from the inside out. Then our piety isn't a performance but a reflection of our identity--just like the rest of our lives, just like the vision Jesus offers in the Sermon on the Mount.