Monday, September 22, 2014

Country Club Church

Did you read that last week the membership of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews has voted to admit women to its prestigious club? Gosh, what’s the world coming to? What will we have next—women ushers?

I don’t mean to make fun of antiquated male-dominated organizations (I am an Episcopal priest, after all), but the gospel lesson for the feast of St. Matthew (Matt. 9:9-13) makes me wonder what it was like to be in the room when that vote was taken.

When the Pharisees began to question Jesus’ disciples about why their master ate with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, `I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” It’s hard for me to imagine a more transformative, world-changing concept than the Son of God calling sinners to follow him.

At Fairhope High School, I was in the Key Club, and, back then, despite the civic/service nature of the club, the current members interviewed prospective members and voted to admit only those they deemed worthy. I don’t remember voting people out, but I do remember being interviewed (a process akin to hazing). In college, I was a member of Theta Chi fraternity. We didn’t have a “blackball” policy, where one no-vote was enough to reject a prospective member, but we did require something like 80% agreement to invite someone to pledge. Only once did I find myself in conflict with the will of the chapter—a difficult moment when I had to go and sit down with a freshman and tell him that he wasn’t going to get in. I wouldn’t say that his rejection on superficial grounds haunts me, but it’s a moment that still brings me shame. I’ve been a member of a country club, but, thankfully, as a clergy member, I didn’t get to vote on who’s in and who’s out. I’ve never served on our diocese’s Commission on Ministry—the group that helps discern whether someone is called to lay or ordained ministry—but I do serve on the Standing Committee, which must certify that an individual who has been trained for ordained ministry is suitable for the office.

What’s it like to have the power to decide whether someone gets in or is left out? What’s it like to assess whether someone is worthy to join your club? On what basis do we discriminate? Looks? Wealth? Gender? Race? Religion? Political persuasion? Intelligence? Ancestry? College football allegiance?

One might imagine that the incarnate Word of God would choose the most pure, the most religious, the most holy followers to build his movement around, but Jesus spent most of his time with traitorous tax collectors and immoral sinners—those whom religion had already excluded. Why? Because those who are well don’t need a physician. He came to call sinners to follow him. Imagine that—sinners! It’s one thing for a politician to surround himself with less-than-reputable followers, but the religious leader of the day, whom we discover to be the very Son of God, preferred the kind of people we wouldn’t let into our churches.

As a “religious official” of my own day, it’s fun for me to think what the Jewish leaders thought of Jesus and his movement. “We can tell that he is a wise and powerful religious figure. Clearly, God’s spirit is upon him. But he’s one of them—the kinds of people who show no interest in the faith. Should we listen to him? Should we give him a share of our leadership? Or should we squeeze him out?” The incongruity of an individual’s holiness and his followers’ wickedness was too much for the Pharisees to grasp. It didn’t make sense. And it still doesn’t—as long as you approach the world in the black and white terms of who’s holy and who’s not.

What did Jesus tell them? Go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” That’s a quotation of Hosea 6:6—a word from a prophet who was critical of Jerusalem’s empty religious practices. He was calling God’s people back into real relationship—one defined by the ends rather than the means. It was Jesus’ message for the religious leaders of his day. And it’s still God’s message for the church.

Who belongs in God’s house? Who is invited to come to the Lord’s table? Whom would Jesus eat with? Yes, the answer is all of us, but who are we? We are not called because we are worthy. We are not called because we are holy. We are not called because we are righteous. We are called because we are sinners in need of forgiveness. When we come to the table, do we come because we feel holy or because we seek holiness? When we invite others to join us at the table, are we looking for good people who belong or for sinners like you and me who only belong because Jesus has called them?

Jesus called the immoral outcasts of his day. As the church, we exist not to provide a club for saints but an open door for sinners. Who are the last ten people to join your congregation? What brought them there? Are you attracting members like a country club, or are you bringing in the dregs of society?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sunday Sermon: Life's Not Fair

September 21, 2014 – The 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20A

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here.

Have you ever had those moments when you hear yourself teaching your children the same lessons that your parents taught you, which makes you stop and think, “How did I ever grow up to become my parent?” One of the lines that I heard often as a child seems to come up a lot in our house right now, and I’m sure it’s one you know as well: “Life’s not fair.” She got a bigger piece of cake than I did! I’m sorry, son, but life’s not fair. Why does he get to use the iPad longer than I do? Well, honey, because life’s not fair. But, daddy, you promised that you would let all of us have a turn. I’m sorry, kids, I know I did, but life just isn’t fair. Considering how much I hated hearing that when I was a child (and how much I still hate hearing it today), I’m surprised how often I say it to my own children. But you know what? Life isn’t fair, and that’s one of those lessons we all have to learn the hard way.

But what happens when life gives us more than we deserve? No one ever says, “Life’s not fair,” when something good happens. “I got an A on my term paper even though I threw it together at the last minute. The boss gave me credit for all of your hard work. You’ve been playing golf all your life and have never had a hole-in-one and I got one the first time I teed it up. Oh well, life’s not fair.” No, we point to the unfairness of life when we’re not happy with the way things turned out—when we got the short end of the stick. That’s because we go through life expecting to get what we deserve, and, when we get less than what we are owed, we whine about it until someone reminds us that life isn’t fair. But, when we receive an unexpected, undeserved windfall, what do we do? We usually go quietly about our way, hoping that not too many people noticed.

That’s the message behind the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. The question isn’t whether life in the kingdom of heaven is fair. It’s not. The question is whether we’re grumbling about it or sneaking away when no one is looking.

You don’t have to read the parable very carefully to realize that Jesus is using our sense of fairness against us. The owner of a vineyard went out at six o’clock in the morning and hired some laborers to work on his property, agreeing to pay them a denarius—the usual daily wage. Then, he went out again at nine o’clock and at noon and at three o’clock, and hired additional workers, each time promising to pay them what is right. Finally, at five o’clock in the evening—one hour before quitting time—he went to the marketplace and hired everyone who was still standing there. But when it came time to pay the workers, he gave all of them the exact same amount—a denarius, the usual daily wage. As we would expect, those who worked all day wanted to be paid more. They were furious. “How can you make them equal to us?” they asked. “We did all they work. We deserve more than they do!” Now, Jesus doesn’t tell us what happened to the workers who were paid first, but I’d bet they slipped away as quickly as they could, hoping their angry colleagues wouldn’t find them. And my question for you this morning is this: what sort of worker do you think you are—one who started first thing in the morning or one who showed up at the last hour?

Of course, the parable assumes that the hearer thinks of himself or herself as one who worked all day. It wouldn’t be a very interesting story if it didn’t play against our sense of fairness and hook us because we think we deserve more than those Johnny-come-latelies who show up at the last minute. You’re dang right we deserve more! We’ve been here from the beginning. We’ve been serving the Lord our whole lives. Although we’d rather not talk about those years when we were in college…or in our twenties…or those Sundays during football season…you’d better believe we deserve more than those lifelong heathen who only recently started going to church. They’re only here because their new wives expect them to be.

But that’s not how the kingdom of heaven works. That’s not how God works. Instead, in the person of Jesus Christ, we discover that God loves the sinner as much as the saint…the prostitute as much as the Pharisee….the drug dealer as much as the DEA agent…the abuser as much as the victim. And we don’t like that. It’s ok for Jesus to show his love for the societal outcast as long as it’s the kind of outcast we’ve never met. But we don’t like it when people who have spent the majority of their lives as deadbeat dads and child molesters undergo a last-minute change of heart and then get to sit next to us in heaven. They don’t deserve it. They should, at the very least, have to spend eternity in a lower state of paradise—the public housing section of heaven, perhaps. But they don’t. They’re right there with us.

And, if that were all this parable had to teach us, it would be enough. One of the greatest struggles of being a Christian is accepting that God grants repentant sinners of all stripes a full share in his kingdom. We could spend a lifetime striving to grasp the concept of God’s indiscriminate love. But accepting that others receive a full share is only half of the lesson. The other half—the much harder half—is learning to accept that we are just as undeserving as they are.

What’s more infuriating—that the lazy-good-for-nothings get paid as much as those who worked all day or the fact that those who worked all day only got as much as those who barely worked at all? In the parable, all of the workers were paid the same amount. In other words, no one was compensated on the basis of the work he did. No one was singled out for doing a good job. No one got a pat on the back or a thank you for what he did. Why? Because the intrinsic value of the laborers is based not on what they contributed but purely on the fact that the master called them to work. It’s hard enough for me to accept that other people get a full share in the kingdom, but I also must accept that I don’t deserve the kingdom any more than they do. That’s the double-edged sword of grace: anyone gets in because no one deserves it.

Our place in God’s kingdom is a gracious gift; we didn’t earn it. Whether we were called at six o’clock in the morning or at five o’clock in the evening, we are all invited into the vineyard. It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how long you work. That isn’t fair, but thanks be to God that it’s not. You belong in the kingdom not because of what you’ve done but because God has made a place for you. That’s good news. If you’re grumbling at the master because of what other people are getting, you’ve missed the point of God’s love. No, they don’t deserve it, but neither do you. Would you rather have it any other way? Amen.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Good or Evil? Something's Gotta Give

On most days, I write about the upcoming lessons for Sunday. I think my preaching benefits from spending time each day reflecting on them, putting some of those thoughts into words, sharing them with friends and colleagues, and, most of all, reading what other people have written about the same lessons. In that way, we stretch each other. My sermon preparation is never as much fun as when I am a part of a good back-and-forth among preaching friends who like to ask unanswerable questions and the postulate possible answers.

But today I cannot get away from the Daily Office. Specifically, I’m focused on the Old Testament lesson for today, which the final passage from the Book of Job (42:1-17). For a moment, forget that the Lord has made a deal with Satan to test his servant Job. And forget that, after losing everything, the Lord restores it all back to Job and rewards his faithfulness by doubling what he had before. And forget that the Lord threatens to punish Job’s friends unless they ask Job to offer a sacrifice on their behalf. All of that is worth writing or preaching on, but there is a damning verse right in the middle of the story that has the power to undo everything we’ve built our faith upon:

“Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house. And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him. And each of them gave him a piece of money and a ring of gold.” (Job 42:11 ESV)

…for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him.

Imagine repeating .gif of preacher doing double-take here!

This is crazy. How can the Lord—the holy one, the source of all that is good, the omnibenevolent creator—be responsible for bringing evil upon anyone? Evil is the devil’s business. It’s the serpent beguiling Eve. It’s the wickedness that God wipes off the face of the earth in the flood. It doesn’t come from God. By definition, it is not of God. The Lord is good. Always. Forever. The end.

So, here’s the thing. We’re theologically squeamish. The culture I live in craves simple answers. We like movies that have good guys and bad guys. We like it when they have labels or costumes that let us know who is who. We might enjoy movies that leave us wondering who the real hero was, but, in those cases, we don’t leave the cinema with a sense of closure. Instead, when everything gets mixed up, what we enjoy is the confusing part. Sometimes we like scratching our heads and wondering what happened. But not when we’re dealing with God.

When it comes to our faith—our very western, very Greek, very rational, very logical faith—we need to know who is good and who is bad. We need God to be on one side of the eternal divide and Satan to be on the other side, and we don’t like it when they talk with each other and share a plan—which is EXACTLY what is depicted in the Book of Job. And that drives us crazy. But that’s the point.

We want God to make sense, and we want life to make sense, but neither happens. Instead, inexplicable tragedies happen. Nonsensical disasters happen. Unfathomable accidents happen. Something must give. There are three forces at play—God’s goodness, God’s power, and human experience. Something must give. Either God is good in ways that don’t always make sense or God is powerful in ways that don’t always make sense or human experience isn’t quite what it seems or maybe it’s a little bit of all three. But you can’t have a God whose always-goodness meets the Disney definition of good and a God whose power over all things is unquestioned and a world that isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. Will we accept that the “evil” we experience might not be all that evil after all? Or will we live with mystery?

Job is a book that tackles the mysteries of life by offering an explanation—“for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him”—that doesn’t satisfy. And that’s the point. We can shake our fist at God and demand an answer, but where were we when God laid the foundations of the world?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Working Only One Hour

On Sunday, we will hear the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). You remember the story: a man hires workers at different hours throughout the day but pays them all a full day’s wage—even those who only worked an hour. Jesus tells the story from the perspective of those who worked the whole day. Presumably, that’s because they take our place in the story. We are the ones who were invited first yet were paid the same as those who came in at the last minute. Their grumbling and complaining—“you have made them equal to us”—is our grip at God.

But what about the others? What about the ones who only worked one hour? How did they feel?

Were they surprised to be paid a full day’s wage? In the parable, the owner promises to pay them “whatever is right.” How did it feel to receive the whole amount? Were they startled? Did their eyes light up and their face show an uncontrollable grin?

Were they embarrassed to be paid so much? They only worked an hour. They hardly did anything. Did they blush with discomfort at being rewarded so handsomely? Did they feel as if they were cheating the system?

Where they ashamed to be paid as much as those who had worked all day? Did they run away quickly so that their angry counterparts wouldn’t have a chance to take their frustration out on them? Did they feel the urge to apologize or even share some of their compensation with those who felt shorted?

Were they confused by their compensation? Did they wonder what the motive behind the payment was? Did they struggle to make sense of the owner’s logic? Did they somehow feel like they were being used in a strange power struggle?

Did they feel undervalued? Since the owner paid everyone the same amount seemingly with no regard for their labor, did they ironically sense that they did not matter as individuals? Was their plight—their standing around idle all day because no one had called them—subsumed by the owner’s magnanimity?

Usually we hear this parable and we think of ourselves as those who grumble about deserving more. And there’s definitely a sermon to be preached on our sense of entitlement. But today I’m curious about those other workers—the ones we forget about. Maybe some of us feel closer to them. Maybe we’re confused or embarrassed at being given what we do not deserve. What about them? What do they teach us?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Make the People Angry

I wonder whether some truths are so familiar to us that we can’t hear them anymore. As I preacher, I find myself saying the same earth-shaking theological truths over and over yet wondering whether the congregation really notices. “God loves you no matter what. No, really, he does. Seriously, I mean it; he really, really does.”

That’s when it’s time to speak in parables, and this week’s lessons (Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Matthew 20:1-16) provide the perfect opportunity to do it. The princaiple at play, here, is the belief that God’s mercy extends to those who do not deserve it. In Jonah, the title character is angry because God has seen the Ninevites repentance and has decided not to destroy them all. In Matthew, the laborers who worked all day resent the equal pay given to those who only worked an hour. As Christians, we resent that God’s love and grace and mercy and forgiveness belong as much to the wicked as to us. But how do we get that point across?

Parables. It’s time to preach a parable.

Once upon a time there were two sisters. The younger daughter remained close to her childhood home, and the elder moved across the country, where she raised a family of her own. As their parents grew older, time and time again, the younger daughter stepped in to help. The storm that blew a tree down on the roof—the younger daughter helped. The time that the pipes froze and burst—the younger daughter took care of it. The day their mother fell and broke her hip—the daughter stepped in and made sure everything was ok.

As the years went by, the older daughter came in for Thanksgiving and Easter—the two times of the year that she visited her parents—and called every week or two. She voiced concern when her mother was in the hospital, and shared her worries when her father’s health began to decline, but the burden of care always fell to the younger daughter. Still, the parents doted on their older child. When their father died, the mother clung to her older daughter—even though she left to go home after two days. When her mother was bedridden and moved in with her younger daughter, all she wanted was to see the girl who lived out of town. Finally, when the older child arrived at her dying mother’s bedside, the mother said, “At last, I have seen my beloved daughter. Now, I can die,” and she breathed her last.

And, two days later, the older daughter left town to go back home, where she waited for her half of the estate to come as a check in the mail.

We’re supposed to be angry when we read these stories. We are supposed to seethe when we read of God’s willingness to spare the Ninevites. Those barbarians had tortured the Israelites for generations. They would raid the northern towns, burn the farms, and kidnap the women and children. They were terrorists. To faithful Israelites like Jonah, they were the ISIS of their day. And yet God spared them? But the story of Jonah, we protest, is a story of a giant fish who swallowed a man who wouldn’t listen to God! Really? That’s bull****. Read the story again. It’s a terrible tale of God’s forgiveness of even the worst possible sinners.

When Jesus told the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, he was being controversial. His hearers were supposed to listen to that story and think, “Wait a minute! That’s not right! You can’t do that!” We’re supposed to hear the parable and get angry at the landowner and at Jesus for telling it. “That can’t be what the kingdom of heaven is like! That’s not fair! I don’t want to be a part that upside-down, backwards, socialist place Jesus is speaking of!”

But we’ve heard these stories before. And we’ve heard preachers deliver sermons about how upside-down the kingdom of heaven is and how provocative God’s mercy really is. Well? It’s time for a parable. Find a story that will make the congregation angry—really, deeply angry at how God’s kingdom works. Is it forgiveness for murderers? Is it a communist manifesto? Is it selling the altar guild’s silver and giving the money to drug addicts? What will push us over the edge? The bible is supposed to do it, but I worry that it’s familiarity has made us immune to its power. Preach the word with gloves off. Make the people squirm. Make them want to throw something at you right in the middle of the sermon. Then, you will have done your job.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Working Hard to Forgive

September 14, 2014 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19A

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Listen to the audio of this sermon here.

Forgiveness is a spiritual exercise that may be harder than we think.

In last week’s gospel lesson, Jesus urged his disciples to look for opportunities to forgive those within the church who sinned against them. “Go when it is just the two of you and point out the fault while you are alone. If that doesn’t work, take one or two witnesses with you. If that doesn’t work, tell it to the whole church…” At each step, the hope is that reconciliation might be possible. But Peter—who often plays our part in the story—approached Jesus and asked, “Wait, how far does this forgiveness stuff go? How many times are we supposed to forgive—as many as seven times?” “No,” Jesus replied, “Seventy-seven times.”

What are the limits of forgiveness? How far should forgiveness go? Our youngest child is at the point where he likes to test the boundaries of what he can get away with. How many times will we forgive him playing with his milk or throwing a toy against the wall or turning the hose on outside? We might put him straight in timeout for doing the thing he knows very well not to do, but, ultimately, there is no limit to how many times we will forgive him. He’s two. How can you not forgive a two-year-old for being a little spunky?

What about the addict who tells you how sorry she is and begs for your forgiveness and support as she tries to turn her life around? After her tear-filled speech, which leaves you crying, too, she goes into your bathroom and steals another piece of your jewelry so that she can sell it to get high? Do you forgive her again? What about the next time? And the next? Seventy-seven times, Lord? Really?

Forgiveness doesn’t mean stupidity. Sometimes the best thing we can do for an addict is to treat her like an addict. And forgiveness doesn’t mean acting like nothing happened, either. That would be too easy. There’s no spiritual exercise there. Forgiveness means you looking at me and me looking at you and both of us acknowledging what happened but living together in that place of stasis—that place of shalom—that means neither one of us is holding on to the past. That’s hard work, but it’s gospel work.

Every once in a while we hear amazing stories of forgiveness—Pope John Paul II going into prison to forgive the man who tried to kill him, a father taking the stand at a serial killer’s sentencing to say that he has forgiven the one who killed his daughter, the Amish community forgiving the man who walked into a school and killed five girls before killing himself and embracing the shooter’s family at his funeral. In cases like these, no one would think less of the victim who was unable or unwilling to forgive. In our minds, those who have experienced unthinkable tragedy owe no one anything. If they want to hold onto their grief and anger, who could stand in their way?

Yet Jesus begs us to forgive—even those who have hurt us the most. He asks us not to pretend that the wrong has not occurred. He asks us to look our transgressor in the eye and, fully conscious of what transpired, to offer a hand of forgiveness anyway. Why? Because that is how God works. God knows all the wrongs we have ever committed and all the wrongs we will ever commit, and still he embraces us and forgives us. The real power of forgiveness is knowing the fullness of the hurt yet offering love in response. That’s hard to imagine. That’s hard to understand. And that’s the point. God is doing the unthinkable. God is reaching out to us in nearly unimaginable ways. And the only way we can ever know what it means to be forgiven like that is to offer forgiveness in the same way. Amen.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Power of Forgiveness

I had lunch the other day with someone who helps me see the world in a new way. He's a poet (actually, really a poet), and his insights seem gentle at first, but their power lingers for weeks afterward. We discussed family and church and God and lots of stuff in between. At some point in our conversation, we spoke of the language we use to speak of God, and Harry remarked how much of our religious vocabulary has to do with money--redeem, indebtedness, absolve, forgive. In preparation for this Sunday, I've been reading Matthew 18:21-36, and I've had his words in mind as I've considered the transaction of forgiveness.

Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. I dated a Presbyterian once, but it became clear that reciting the Lord's prayer would always keep us apart. Still, that's the real language of Jesus' prayer. We've tallied up spiritual debts against God, and we know forgiveness of those debts as we offer forgiveness to others. It's transactional.

It's no accident that the parable Jesus tells to illustrate the importance of forgiveness centers on two debtors. One slave owes a tremendous amount to his master and is also owed a pittance by another slave. The master forgives the huge debt, but the slave refuses to forgive his peer's obligation. When the master finds out, he holds the first slave responsible for the entire amount, "hand[ing] him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt."

Except in the cases when money is involved, we probably don't think about forgiveness in these transactional terms, but I believe there is a real and clear exchange going on when we forgive or are forgiven. Instead of money, though, the exchange is one of power.

When you wrong me, I have something to hold against you. I can snub you. I can shame you. I can make you feel guilty. And, even if you're immune to my maltreatment, I can feel justified in what I do. "She hurt my feelings, so I'm going to get her back," we say to ourselves with impunity. But, when we forgive the one who has hurt us, we give all of that power back. We say to the other person, "Even though I might have a very good reason to hold this over you, I choose to give that back." Forgiveness doesn't mean forgetting, but it does mean I don't get to hold you accountable (notice the money word) for what you did.

The truth is, though, that there's another channel of power at work in a moment of withheld forgiveness. If you have wronged me and I refuse to offer forgiveness, you continue to wield power over me through the original act. Even if we don't see each other again, when I lie down on my bed at night and think of you and how angry I am at you, you win. I am still in your control. In a sense, therefore, forgiveness isn't just a one-on-one transaction. It's also something that can be exchanged internally. You might not ever know that I have forgiven you, but, when I have made peace with you and your wrong--when it no longer has any affect in my life--that means that I have forgiven you.

Forgiveness is about the exchange of power. Forgiveness is about yielding back to the other person that which is rightfully ours. Forgiveness is about finding equilibrium (shalom) in a relationship. God has more than enough reason to hand us over to be tortured until we have paid the entire debt, but instead he wipes the slate clean. He absolves us of our obligation. He gives that power back to us. That transaction cannot be real to us until we model it in our own lives.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.