Thursday, January 29, 2015

When Does Evil Show Up?

As an ordained minister, I often find myself in that thin place between superstition and faith.

If I go to church every Sunday, will God bless me and my family? If we had prayed more fervently, might she have recovered? If I preached better sermons, would more people show up?

Sometimes it’s other people making the questionable connections between their faith and what’s happening in their lives. Other times, I’m the one wondering whether something is coincidence or evidence of spiritual forces at work.

In Sunday’s gospel lesson (Mark 1:21-28), good and evil confront each other in a way that, to a twenty-first-century ear, might sound a little suspicious. Jesus and his disciples come to Capernaum, where on the Sabbath Jesus enters the synagogue to teach. More than just a good teacher, Jesus delivers a message that leaves the congregation “astounded.” His authoritative proclamation distinguishes him from other teachers of his day. There is a buzz amidst the people about this new, powerful preacher. And that’s exactly when evil shows up.

Immediately after describing the effect that Jesus’ teaching had on the congregation, Mark writes, “Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit…” It’s hard not to notice that Mark connects the preaching of Jesus with the appearance of a demon-possessed man by using the Greek word εὐθὺς, which means “immediately.” Admittedly, Mark is over-fond of using that word. It appears eleven times in the first chapter alone! Still, I don’t think this transition is an accident. For Mark, the godly message of Jesus and the arrival of an evil, unclean spirit go together sequentially, intentionally, and even causally. We might, at first, balk at such a seemingly superstitious explanation for what might just be coincidence, but I think there is reason to ask whether evil still tends to show up when God is at work.

I think it’s interesting that throughout the gospel the evil spirits that Jesus encounters seem to recognize who he is in a way that even his disciples struggle to see. In this passage, the unclean spirit says, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth…I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” That kind of recognition is repeated in other examples of exorcism. Why? Sure, there’s power in a name, and this could simply be an ancient form of exorcism according to which knowing the name of one’s spiritual adversary is important, but I also think it’s an indication that these encounters are a direct confrontation between good and evil. The evil within the man seeks out Jesus and identifies him in exalted terms. It’s as if the good that Jesus represents (God at work in the world) provokes the encounter with the evil that the spirit represents (forces that seek to undermine God’s work in the world).

Not long ago, I encountered a little hiccup in the life of our parish. Things seemed to be going very well. Giving was up. Attendance was up. Enthusiasm was up. And then a series of little bumps made me wonder what I had missed. Without warning, a tiny handful of people who had been faithful, eager, vocal supporters of the direction in which our church was headed began to complain about how things were going. And they did so not in a constructive, “let’s-reevaluate-things” kind of way. Their grumbling was subversive, spoken through back-channels, as if an attempt to fracture our congregation. Quickly, it passed—so quickly that hardly anyone in the congregation even noticed something was wrong. I think it disappeared so quickly because our parish is a fairly healthy system that instinctively knows that conflict and discord belong in the open. The disaffected individuals were encouraged to bring their concerns to the leaders of the parish, who listened and responded, and, in short order, everything returned to normal. But, right in the midst of the conflict, someone asked me whether I thought it was a spiritual issue.

“Do you think this is the devil at work?” he asked. The question caught me a little off-guard. I hadn’t really considered whether the issue was in any way spiritual. I had assumed that someone got his or her feelings hurt and was responding out of woundedness. Sometimes people do hurtful things simply because they are feeling hurt. But evil? I certainly wouldn’t describe the people who were upset as evil. But the man who asked me whether the issue was a spiritual one is a person of deep faith, and I trust his insights. “Just when God is really doing something powerful,” he explained, “the devil shows up and tries to ruin it.” I might not use that exact language to describe it, but I tend to agree: when good takes a stand, evil isn’t far behind.
Some of us shy away from using the label “devil” to describe the presence of evil in the world. Such a personification seems antiquated or at least out of touch with a modern perspective. “Who is the devil, really?” we might ask. Such primitive labels feel superstitious. But it’s not a coincidence that God at work in our lives reveals to us the presence and power of ungodliness all around. Perhaps that’s purely psychological. Maybe Jesus’ authoritative preaching simply enabled the congregation to see that the man with the unclean spirit was in their midst. Maybe the Spirit-inspired energy and momentum a congregation experiences highlights the pitfalls and impediments that stand in the way. Or maybe it’s more than that. Maybe we’re just afraid that the world will criticize us for using unsophisticated language to describe a real phenomenon that individuals and congregations and entire societies experience all the time. Whatever we call it and wherever it comes from, those who stand up for good should be prepared for what happens next.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Seek and Ye Shall Find

This sermon is for the feast of Thomas Aquinas. The lessons for today can be read here.

There are some things we have already begun to find once we begin to look for them.

Not long ago, I met with someone who was overcome with anger. Someone close to her had hurt her very badly, and her instinctive emotional response was a deep and abiding fury that, given the circumstances, made a lot of sense. But she loved this person and did not want to be angry anymore. “Please,” she pleaded with me, “please pray that this anger will go away. I don’t want to hate anymore. I can’t live like this.” I smiled and told her that it sounded to me like I didn’t need to pray for anything. Simply wanting not to be angry is enough to help us begin to let go of our anger.

Again, not that long ago, someone came into my office and presented a tough situation. Should he give up the familiarity of a job and a life that were comfortable for him and his family, or should he accept a new job offer that came with new opportunities but required a big change for their family? He asked me to pray that he would have the wisdom to make the right decision: “I want to be sure to do what God wants me to do. I’m worried that I will make a bad choice. Please, pray that God will help me know the right thing to do.” Again, I smiled and said that it sounded like I didn’t need to pray for anything. Simply asking for wisdom and discernment is the first step in making a wise, God-led decision.

What more can we do than pray? What more can we do than ask? When faced with a situation we cannot control, when we seek something beyond ourselves, how can we get where we want to go except for to ask God to take us there?

I don’t believe in magic prayers. I don’t believe that God hears the words that come out of our mouth or out of our heart and then makes the happen just because we asked. God is not a wish-giver. That isn’t how prayer works. But I do believe in the power of prayer. It’s just that the power of prayer comes not in the granting but in the asking.

“Therefore I prayed,” the poet-author of Wisdom wrote, “and understanding was given me; I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.” The account of his quest shows us how precious in his sight wisdom really was: “I preferred her to scepters and thrones, and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her.” The granting of wisdom, as you might recall from the story of the Lord’s appearance to Solomon in a dream (1 Kings 3), is given to the one who asks for it: God said, “Because you have asked [for an understanding mind], and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, behold, I now do according to your word.”

That doesn’t mean that anyone who utters the prayer, “Dear God, please make me wise,” is suddenly granted the wisdom of Solomon. But it does mean that the person who seeks wisdom above all else is already asking the questions, saying the prayers, and seeking the answers that make one wise. If one’s heart yearns so fully to hear what God is saying that his human desires fade and his entire life is then consumed by the quest for God, he can be sure he has already found what he seeks.

If you’re consumed by anger, you can only find peace by asking for it, and, if you really ask for it, you will have already begun to find it. If you are desperate for wisdom beyond yourself and your heart desires that more than anything else, you have already learned what it means to be wise. God wants to be found. In Christ, he has shown us that he loves us. He has made his love apparent to the world. He isn’t holding back his mercy, his wisdom, his peace, until we seek them. He has already showered them upon us. Our call is to seek them with all our heart.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Taking Evil Seriously

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in evil. I believe that evil is a positive force (i.e., not just the absence of good), and I believe that evil can take control of individuals and communities and systems. Sometimes, that evil manifests itself in the political process (e.g., disenfranchisement). Often it shows up in economics (e.g., pay day lending practices). Frequently, it plagues human relationships (e.g., abuse). And I even believe that, in rare circumstances, it can possess a person in a real, total, physical-and-spiritual way that we call "demonic possession."

Let me be clear that I do not believe that mental illness or neurological disorder is akin to demonic possession. I'm sure that many of the exorcisms in ancient times were misprescribed solutions for things like epilepsy and schizophrenia. No, I don't think that people who do bad things are necessarily demon possessed. There's a difference between the effects of sin and the effects of demonic spirits taking over an individual's life. No, I've never encountered someone in my ministry who has suffered from demonic possession or demonic attachment (a less significant, incomplete manifestation of evil in a person or place), but I believe it happens, and I think we should take it seriously.

Take it seriously? Yes, that's right. We should take evil seriously--not because we ever expect to meet someone who is possessed by a demon but because we encounter other, not-as-complete-as-possession-but-as-real-as-it-gets effects of evil every day. If evil is powerful enough to take over someone or a group of someones completely, imagine how easily it can begin to shape us and the world around us.

In Sunday's RCL gospel lesson (Mark 1:21-28), we read that Jesus, when confronted by "a man with an unclean spirit," rebuked the spirit and ordered it to come out of the man. We aren't told what happened to the man. He never even says a word. But we are clear that the response of the congregation was amazement: "A new teaching--with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." Jesus, it seems, is able to exercise authority and power and control over even the powers of evil. And that, I think, is the importance of this passage.

In human history, Jesus stands alone as one who has authority over heaven and earth. That's what makes this gospel lesson significant. The people are discerning just how new Jesus' authority is. He isn't just a teacher or preacher who "talks the talk." He has the power to back up his words and do something about it. In other words, Jesus isn't just advocating for the good and preaching against that which is evil. He is actually standing up against the forces that work to undermine God's reign and defeating them.

What about us? What about those who act in Jesus' name? Can we do the same? Should we try?

No, I don't advocate stocking up on holy water and crucifixes. No, I'm not calling for Christians to prepare to fight in the zombie apocalypse. Yes, there is a time and place for exorcism, but I don't expect to find it. I do, however, expect to take a stand against evil. And there's a difference between simply preaching a message against the evils of the world and actually standing up against evil.

To call upon Jesus' name and stand against evil means confrontation. It means a power-struggle. It means using the power of God to wrest power away from those whom evil has corrupted. It might start with preaching, but it's more than preaching. It means performing actions that reflect those words.

What does it mean to stand up against evil in the 21st century? Some might call that a fight for social justice, and maybe that's an example of it, but I don't want to limit the battle against evil to "sticking up for the little guy." To fight evil in Jesus' name means not merely looking the oppressor in the eye and calling for justice but to stare Satan in the face and repudiate his claim in this world. Who's up for that?

Monday, January 26, 2015

Knowing God's Will

This Sunday’s lessons in the RCL seem to be about the rubber meeting the road. In the first lesson (Deuteronomy 18:15-20), we hear Moses convey God’s command that the true prophets shall be listened to, but “any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.” No wonder no one wants to be a prophet! Then, in the second lesson (1 Corinthians 8:1-13), we read Paul acknowledging that if his dietary habits caused anyone to stumble, “I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.” I can’t even imagine giving up BBQ or bacon or hamburgers or, well, any sort of meat because of another’s conscience. Finally, in the gospel lesson, the congregation at the synagogue initially behold Jesus’ teaching as astonishing because of his authority and conviction, but their admiration becomes amazement when they discover that he has the ability to cast out demons: “What is this? A new teaching-- with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

All of this week’s lessons have me wondering…what’s the difference between doing God’s will and pretending to do God’s will?

The inherent challenge of figuring out God’s will is that it takes human beings to figure it out, but, because it’s God’s will and not our will, it can’t be left up to us to figure it out. We interpret things like scripture and revelation and history and philosophy to discern what God is trying to tell us, but sometimes we get it wrong. And when we do, prophets get stoned, and people see our behavior and stumble, and preachers proclaim a bold message that has no effect on people’s lives.

When it comes to prophets, church leaders, and preachers, what does it mean to be an effective servant of God? And who gets to decide? What’s the evidence that a leader is doing what God wants them to do? I’ve never met someone who has the power to cast out demons, but I’ve heard some preachers who have the ability to deliver God’s message in a life-impacting, heart-changing way. I’m not worried about whether prophets can see into the future, but I do care whether they can call God’s people to examine the reality of their sinful situation and return to God’s way. And, as I wrote last week, I think Paul’s communal approach to ethics in 1 Cor. 8 is a fruitful pursuit that the church should maintain as we try to decide together what God’s will is.

As I prepare to preach a short homily at our Vestry Retreat this Sunday, I’ll be thinking about what it means to do God’s will, to teach God’s will, to help lead a congregation where God is calling us to go. And I’ll be looking for evidence of that—communal confirmation that we’re not just following our own interests but, indeed, God’s will for us.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Measure of Discipleship

January 25, 2015 – 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here.
Only once in my life have I been doggedly pursued by a member of the opposite sex, and I was terrified. I was in middle school and hadn’t grown up enough to appreciate what it meant that a girl was actually interested in me. Sure, I liked girls—the thought of them, at least—but the reality of it was a little more than I could handle.

Anyway, one day as school ended, a girl I knew ran up to me and handed me a folded-up piece of paper and, without saying a word, turned and ran off. Confused but intrigued, I unfolded the note, and my eyes beheld the words that struck fear in my heart:

Dear Evan, my heart is split between you and another. I cannot choose which one I want, and so I give you both that choice. Since I am unable to decide which one of you I should ask to the homecoming dance, I have decided to go with whichever one of you calls and asks me first. The two of you must duel it out. Here is my number. Don’t wait too long. I hope to hear from you soon.

Well, I knew right away which other guy she was talking about. There was only one other kid anyone who was interested in me could possibly be interested in—the other smart, nerdy, stocky guy I hung out with. He and I were close friends and did everything together, which is probably why none of the other girls was interested in either us. (We’re both happily married, by the way, to smart, attractive women, so I guess everything works out in the end.) Naturally, I did what any panicky, self-esteem-lacking boy would do: I folded the note back up and thrust it into my pocket and tried to pretend that it didn’t exist.

Later that evening, at home, I reached into my pocket and felt the note, still where I had put it. I pinched my thigh several times, hoping I would wake up from this terrible dream, but it was no use. It was really happening. So I waited. And I waited. And I waited some more. We had dinner. It felt like a prisoner’s last meal. Afterward, I sat in front of the television, looking at the screen but thinking only about the note. Finally, at eight o’clock, which seemed like the latest possible hour one could make a polite phone call and not disturb someone in the middle of the night, I went upstairs and sat down next to the phone and dialed the number, slowly pressing each button to be sure to give the other suitor every last opportunity to call ahead of me.

After one ring, she picked up the phone. “Hello?” she said eagerly from the other end. “Hey, it’s Evan,” I said. “Has Tim called yet?” Of course, he hadn’t. That little rascal never did call. (He is smarter than I am. It didn’t occurred to me that I could simply ignore her note altogether.) After some apologetic small talk, I let her know that I couldn’t go to the dance with her because I didn’t believe in going to dances with just one person. “We’re in middle school,” I rationalized, trying to sound well-reasoned. “This is a time in our lives when we should dance with lots of people.” I lied. But it was the best I could do. She said the she understood, but she made me promise to save at least one dance for her. And I did.

There are some invitations that we would do anything to decline. Dates with guys or girls we do not like. (I heard a story over the weekend of a woman who faked her own death to get out of a date.) Dinner parties with people who can’t talk about anything except how smart and successful their children are. Requests from friends to help them move from one side of town to another. But nothing sends people scattering faster than a preacher who is looking for someone to take on a new ministry. People see my name or the church’s name on the Caller ID, and they let it go straight to voicemail. There’s something about being called into ministry that scares people to death.

Why is that? Why do we act like unnerved middle school boys when someone asks us to be in charge of something at church? Is it because all of us have something better to do, or is it because we’re afraid that we don’t have what it takes to do God’s work?

I wonder which you find more surprising: that Simon and Andrew and James and John would answer Jesus’ call so quickly or that they were the kind of people Jesus would want in the first place. They were fishermen, which means that they were laborers who worked hard and smelled bad. They were, at best, functionally literate, and their social skills were what you would expect from some guys who spent all day in a boat with other men. But Jesus saw them and said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” whatever that means, and, strangely enough, they did. Immediately, they dropped their nets and followed him. What’s more bizarre—that these men left their career and family to follow Jesus or that Jesus wanted some fishermen to be his disciples?

Think about it this way: if you were starting a brand new church, what sort of people would you want to be a part of your team? Yes, you’d need a preacher, but Jesus was in charge of that, so let’s assume that part is taken care of. Who else? Probably someone who is good at communications—someone who could use social media to get the word out about your church. You’d probably need some administrative types—people good with money and numbers and details. And every new upstart church needs some attractive, hip, young people to recruit other attractive, hip, young people and their families. And churches need money, so it’s a good idea to bring on board some people with deep pockets and generous hearts. That sounds like a good place to start.

But what about fishermen? Where do they fit in? Or farmers? Or tax collectors? What about out-of-work programmers? Or washed-up stock brokers? Or retirees on fixed incomes? What about stay-at-home moms? Or disabled veterans? Or homeless people? What about addicts? Or ex-convicts? Or imperfect, unholy sinners like you and me? Would Jesus have a place for us in his “church?” If he saw us sitting in our boat, would he call out to us, saying, “Come and follow me?” Absolutely.

As Bishop Michael Curry from North Carolina recently stated, “Jesus didn’t come to start a church; he came to start a movement.” In other words, Jesus wasn’t putting together a carefully crafted team of sleek, silver-tongued evangelists. He was calling people who were willing to leave their life behind in order to follow him. And he still is. Jesus doesn’t care who you are or what you have to offer. He isn’t interested in your résumé or your qualifications. The only thing Jesus cares about is whether you will say yes when he calls.

Our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ isn’t measured in terms of the qualifications we bring but by our readiness and willingness to respond to his call. There is no such thing as “not good enough.” There is no such thing as “not smart enough.” There is no such thing as “not holy enough.” The story of Jesus’ disciples isn’t a story of greatness. It’s a story of great commitment. They were the ones who said yes. What will you say? When Jesus looks at you and calls out for you to follow him, what will you say? Will you make up an excuse because you’re worried that you aren’t up to the challenge? Or will you drop everything and follow him? Stop believing that Jesus wouldn’t want someone like you. You’re exactly the person he wants. All you have to do is say yes.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Evangelism All Over Again

Two weeks in a row of Jesus calling disciples means two weeks in a row for preachers to talk about evangelism--everyone's favorite word. As Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 1:14-20) makes clear, the invitation is, indeed, to believe the "good news," which is what the word evangelism means. Maybe this second-chance for preachers is an opportunity to preach about how evangelism is still good news for the church.

Today, however, I'm drawn to the reading from Jonah, in which we read about the success of the reluctant prophet's work: "The people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth." But, before we get there, we need to remember what the story of Jonah is all about.

We all remember the "belly of the fish," in which Jonah lived for three days before being vomited up on the beach. But do we remember how he got there?

We probably even remember that Jonah was running away from God and God's call and that God caught up with him in a violent sea storm that caused the other passengers on the ship to thrown him overboard. But do we remember why Jonah was running away?

The people of Nineveh were the sworn enemies of God's people. They were members of the Assyrian Empire, which was located north of Israel. For years, warriors from Nineveh would come south and raid the northern cities of Israel, pillaging the towns, burning the crops, killing the men, and abducting the women and children. Essentially, they were terrorists. To God's people, they were the epitome of evil. When the prophets dreamed of a day when God's people would be saved, those dreams were articulated in terms of the total and terrible destruction of Nineveh. So imagine then what it felt like for Jonah to hear God call him to go north into the heart of enemy territory to ask the most evil people in the world to repent. Not fun, huh?

But you know what's worse than being sent into enemy territory to proclaim the need for repentance? Succeeding in that mission. In chapter 4, we read that Jonah ran away from God not because he was afraid of what the Assyrians would do to him but because he was worried that the object of his evangelism would repent and convince God to change his mind about the calamity he had promised to bring upon them. And that's exactly what happened.

This is evangelism at its hardest. This is God giving good news to the people we hate the most. This is grace and forgiveness and love for the most unlovable scum of the earth. Isn't that great?

This Sunday, preach evangelism--good news for bad people. And that doesn't just mean bad people like you and me--those of us who shake our fist at bad drivers or take the larger slice of cake for ourselves. That means good news for the kind of terrorists who have hurt us the most. Can that be possible? Can God really extend the offer of forgiveness to our sworn enemies? Absolutely. That's the real good news. And it's our job to share it with them.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Our Message to the World: Come and See

There is no text for this sermon--just some brief points below. Audio of the sermon from the 5pm service can be heard here.

Have you ever met someone who was burned by the church? Ever known someone whose church failed him or her in a moment of deep need? Ever heard a story about someone who was told, "You should have prayed harder?" Ever heard someone say to you, "These kinds of things don't happen to people whose faith is strong enough?"

Lots and lots and lots of people have been burned by the church. They are absolutely justified in thinking that the church has nothing to offer them. No one should dispute their pain or its source. When someone from the church tries to reach out to them and invite them back, their response makes sense: "Can anything good come out of the church?"

But this Sunday's gospel lesson has some hope for them.

When Philip said to Nathaniel, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth!" Nathaniel's response was, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" And what was Philip's invitation? Come and see.

Evangelism is about connection. It isn't about telling someone the whole story. It isn't about relating the gospel to the unchurched in a way that makes them fall down on their knees and give their heart to Jesus. Evangelism is about helping people make positive, loving connections with God and with the Christian community. Our words to those who have been hurt by the church shouldn't be argumentative or combative or excuse-ridden. When they tell us that they don't expect to find anything worth hearing or believing in the church, we should simply say, "Come and see."