Sunday, November 22, 2020

Criteria for Judgment


November 22, 2020 – Proper 29A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon starting around 20:20.

Have you seen the meme that depicts a ladle of soup being poured into a bowl held by outstretched arms? The picture is accompanied by the words, “Jesus doesn’t care how many Bible verses you have memorized. He cares about how you treat people.” It’s been popular on social media this week, and I can’t tell if that’s because we’re getting close to Thanksgiving or because my friends who are socially-conscious Episcopalians want to wave this Sunday’s gospel lesson in the faces of their more scripturally-conscious counterparts from other traditions. Well, today I want to start this sermon by saying something controversial, which I hope I will be able to clear up by the time I’m finished. While it’s true that Jesus doesn’t care how many Bible verses you have memorized, it’s also true that he doesn’t care how you treat people. What do I mean by that?

Today’s gospel lesson isn’t about caring for the poor, the sick, the stranger, and the imprisoned. It’s about judgment. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.” In this passage, Jesus isn’t evaluating candidates for the Rotary Four-Way Test award or the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s sitting in ultimate judgment of all the nations, and he’s separating one from another as easily as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. We can’t rightly understand what he’s telling us about how we’re supposed to treat each other until we hear what he’s saying about judgment.

For two long chapters of Matthew’s gospel account, Jesus has been on a tear about judgment. One day soon, he declares, everything will change. The Jerusalem temple will be destroyed. The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give out its light. Suffering will befall all people, including the beloved children of God. And that day of judgment is coming when no one expects it—like a thief in the night, like a bridegroom who arrives at midnight, like a master who returns and demands an accounting from his servants. When it came to judgment, back in Jesus’ day, everyone wanted to know the same thing we still want to know today—when will God finally come and set all things right? When will God at last separate the wicked from the righteous, the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the tares? And today’s gospel lesson is Jesus’ answer to that persistent question, and his answer caught everyone by surprise.

As Jesus begins this description of judgment, at first everything sounds just as we would expect it to. The Son of Man is to be seated on his glorious throne, surrounded by angels. He is to gather all the nations and separate them once and for all. So far that sounds right. What else would we expect from God’s ultimate judgment besides a clear and decisive vindication for God’s people and a rejection of God’s enemies? No problem there. But, when Jesus begins to describe the criteria for that judgment, everything that the world has always expected gets turned on its head. 

Jesus explains that those who are gathered at his right hand will be the ones who gave him food when he was hungry and drink when he was thirsty. They were the ones who welcomed him when he was a stranger and clothed him when he was naked. They were the ones who took care of him when he was sick and visited him when he was in prison. Even the righteous themselves are surprised to hear what the King is saying. After learning that they are to be welcomed into God’s eternal habitations, they respond in utter disbelief. “When was it that we saw you in need and helped you?” they ask. And Jesus delivers to them and to us the crucial teaching of this passage: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.”

The surprising truth of God’s judgment is that God’s ultimate ordering of the universe manifests itself not in broad strokes that divide humanity along national, ethnic, or macroscopic lines, but according to the microscopic minutiae of everyday life. For all of salvation history, God’s people had understood that one day God would separate them from their enemies, but now Jesus was inviting them to see that, when God sets the world in its ultimate order, the distinction between those who belong at God’s right hand and those who are to be cast into eternal punishment is clearest when we look at how we have lived each day. The way we care for others or ignore the needs of those around us is, in fact, the clearest indication of whether we belong to God.

But don’t mistake the sign for the thing that it is pointing to. Jesus does not simply reward those who gave food to the hungry and drink to those who thirst, who welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked, who ministered to the sick and visited those in prison. He welcomes to his right hand those who did those things to him—those who cared for Jesus, their Lord and Savior, by caring for the least of the members of his family. How they cared for those in need is a sign—an indication—of their deeper identity, their fundamental belonging to God. And it is that identity, that allegiance, that belonging that distinguishes those at the right hand and those at the left.  

Neither the righteous nor the unrighteous recognized the significance of what they were doing or neglecting to do. But Jesus, the Son of Man, recognized it within them. If the point of this passage was that only those who care for the needy will receive a heavenly reward, we would all be in serious trouble. Sure, we’re mostly kind and generous and, at times, even selfless. But what about that one time when we don’t give $20 to the panhandler on the street? What about the extra jacket hanging in our closet? What about the sick and imprisoned whom we have never even thought about visiting? What if one of them is Jesus? What happens if we fail him when it really counts?

Thanks be to God that God’s judgment does not work like that. The question for us is not how many poor and needy individuals we will help in this lifetime, nor is it how many Bible verses we will commit to memory. The question is whether we will give ourselves over completely to the one who cares for the poor and the needy, who rescues the lost and the broken, who embraces the outcast and the unloved. The question for us is whether we will belong to God and thus allow the way of Jesus to transform our lives. 

You cannot get to heaven by feeding or clothing or otherwise caring for those in need. You get there by belonging to God in Jesus Christ. But you cannot belong to God in Jesus without feeding and clothing and caring for those in need. Those are the indispensable characteristics of the divine life. Those are the clearest descriptions of what a life that belongs to God looks like. When the Son of Man comes and sits upon his throne in judgment, he will not ask you what Bible verses you have memorized or how many times you cared for those in need. He won’t have to ask. Those are not the criteria for God’s judgment. They are the fruit of the lives of the people who belong to God.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Honest Worship Changes Us


November 8, 2020 – Proper 27A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (The sermon begins around 20:10.)

What do you miss most about worship at St. Paul’s? It has been exactly eight months since a congregation bigger than ten gathered for Sunday-morning worship here in the nave. What do you miss? What do your heart and soul ache for? Over the last few weeks, I have bumped into several members of our congregation who have discovered that the building is open every weekday for private prayer, and I’ve heard several of you say how much you have missed just stepping into this holy space. Many of us miss the people—both the familiar individuals we see when we gather together but also the whole congregation—the mass of people filling the pews, lifting their voice toward God as one. Some of us miss the music—feeling our bodies resonate with the powerful organ or the congregation’s full-throated signing of a favorite hymn. Several have told me how much they long for Communion—the consecrated body and blood of our savior and the unity between us that that sacrament both reflects and inspires. 

For many of us it is the liturgy itself that we miss most—not only receiving Communion but standing and sitting and kneeling and singing and listening and praying together the familiar and comforting words of our worship. What we do here in church every Sunday is an anchor for the rest of our week. This place and the prayers we offer within these walls provide steadiness in a chaotic time, reassurance in the midst of anxiety, access to God when God feels so far away. No wonder we miss it so much. We need it now as much as ever, and yet we must remain apart, at least for now. We all miss worshipping at St. Paul’s, but I wonder what God misses most about our worship.

Hopefully, God thinks more highly of our solemn assembly than the worship that took place back in Amos’ day. “I hate, I despise your festivals,” God declared, using two verbs of rejection in order to intensify God’s sense of displeasure, “and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” Actually, the word the prophet uses to pronounce God’s judgment against Israel’s worship is the word for smell—God refuses to smell the fragrance of their convocations. Then, the attack on the senses continues. “The offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harp.” The prophet wants the people to know that there is absolutely nothing about their worship that God will accept—not the sight or sound or smell of anything that they offer to God. Everything they do in worship is abhorrent to the Lord. 

But why? Are the harps out of tune? Are the cantors under-rehearsed? Are the burnt offerings undercooked? Are the sacrifices less than perfect? In some chapters of Israel’s history, the prophets take exception with the content of the people’s worship. Out of laziness or greed, the people stop giving back to God their very best and instead bring whatever is left over—the lame and diseased livestock and the grain that has already spoiled. But not this time. This time, as far as we can tell, the music and offerings and incense were of the highest quality—a reflection of the people’s economic prosperity. In Amos’ day, God rejected the people’s worship because it was all show and no substance—because it went through all of the motions but didn’t make a difference in the people’s lives.

In the last verse of today’s lesson, God named for God’s people what was missing: “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” We know that verse out of context because the prophets of our own day have used it to name God’s vision for our society. But, for Amos, it was the distillation of everything that was missing from among God’s people.

When Amos travelled from the southern kingdom of Judah to the northern kingdom of Israel, he brought a challenging message to a people that didn’t want to hear it. This was a time of great prosperity and security. The markets were up. The borders were secure. Trade routes and trade deals kept goods flowing in and out of the country and profits flowing into the coffers of business executives and government officials. People enjoyed both summer and winter houses (3:15). Their furniture was plush and opulent (6:4). They drank and ate and adorned themselves without limit (4:1; 6:6). 

All the while, as the rich got richer, the poor sank deeper into poverty. They lost their homes to unchecked gentrification (2:6-7). They were denied justice by judges and politicians who accepted bribes (5:10, 12). They were cheated in the marketplace by dishonest merchants and left to starve by those who cared only about making money (8:5). And what did all of that have to do with worship? Why was the prophet so intent on declaring God’s rejection of the people’s offerings and prayers? Because religion that is only practiced in temples and synagogues and churches and not in streets and marketplaces and housing developments is not religion at all. Because worship that pretends to ascribe honor and glory and praise to God without shaping its people in the ways of God is nothing more than self-congratulatory entertainment.

In Amos’ day, people flocked to sacred shrines in order to celebrate their prosperity. At Bethel, God had revealed Godself to the people’s namesake, Jacob, whom God had renamed Israel. At Beer-Sheba, God had met each of the patriarchs in order to reassure them with the promise that God would always be with them. At Gilgal, Joshua had built an altar of twelve stones where the people had crossed the River Jordan into the Promised Land. It was at Gilgal where Saul had been crowned Israel’s first king. At these three centers of ancestral power, God’s people celebrated God’s limitless favor and endless blessing, but, back in the cities and towns, people were hungry and homeless, helpless and hopeless. And God wasn’t going to put up with it any more. God wasn’t going to receive the prayers and offerings of a people who ignored the very ones God cared about most, no matter how beautiful their worship was.

You cannot worship our God in a place of splendor while God’s people live in squalor. You cannot give glory to the Most High and ignore the depths of the people’s suffering. You cannot preach a message of salvation when there are people who need rescuing right on the other side of the church’s doors. Real worship—God-centered worship—is not merely a sacred performance or an offering to the Almighty of our Sunday best. It is a transformative encounter with the one who welcomes the stranger, lifts up the downtrodden, speaks good news to the poor, and binds up the brokenhearted. It is a moment when sinful, selfish human beings like us are met by the one who loves them and whose love has the power to make them holy. And real worship does just that—it shapes us into a reflection of our holy God so that we might take the truth of who God is with us back into the world for the rest of the week.

That kind of transformation happens whenever worship is honest. We must be honest about who God is and what God demands and about ourselves and our inability to meet those demands without God’s help. When we come to worship, we bring to God our very best because God is the one to whom only our best can be given. But we also acknowledge before God our very worst because we recognize our brokenness and our sinfulness and because we know that we need God’s help if we are going to be a part of making justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. That’s why we come back to this place every week—in order to remember who God is and who we are and to be transformed by an encounter with God’s perfecting love. 

If our worship is going to be honest—if we are going to be honest before God—we must know and trust and believe that God’s love is bigger than our failures, that God’s capacity to forgive is more powerful than our capacity to sin. That’s what makes worship at St. Paul’s truly special. This is a safe place to be a sinner because we believe that God’s love has no limits. But it’s also a place that believes that God calls us out of our sinfulness and into new lives of holiness. And, most important of all, it’s a place that believes that God will meet us here in order to make that transformation possible.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Seeing the World through Jesus' Eyes


November 1, 2020 – All Saints’ Day

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (Sermon starts around 23:50.)

“One was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green: they were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one too.” Today is All Saints’ Day, the day when the church celebrates all of her saints—those who lived “not only in ages past” but also the “hundreds of thousands still” here on the earth. Saints of God are the holy men and women and children who live among us and in every generation who, as the hymn declares, love to do Jesus’ will. But what does that really mean? What does it take to be a saint? How much do you really have to love doing Jesus’ will?

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus describes a way of life that we often associate with sainthood: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…the merciful…the pure in heart…the peacemakers…those who are persecuted.” Isn’t that what sainthood looks like and sounds like—meekness and mercy, persecution and poverty of spirit? But how will even our best intentions get us to that vision of holiness? What could ever make the hymn we sing about wanting to be saints of God and meaning to be saints of God something more than a Sunday-school pipe dream?

We can take heart in knowing that Jesus’ words aren’t a prescription for holiness. They aren’t a recipe for sainthood. They are a description of blessedness. These are the characteristics of God’s favor. These words describe the people and places where God and God’s salvation are to be found. The only imperative Jesus offers comes at the very end, when he tells his hearers to rejoice and be glad. As strange as it may sound for a preacher to say it, those of us who wish to be numbered among the saints of God aren’t supposed to go out and pursue a mournful countenance or purity of heart. In fact, as Christians we believe exactly the opposite—that saints of God aren’t holy people whom God claims for his own but ordinary, flawed, sinful people like you and me whom God claims for his own in order that they might be made holy.

The way that Matthew sets up this gospel episode is important. Right before this passage starts, at the end of Matthew 4, we see that Jesus’ popularity has undergone a meteoric rise. Starting with the villages near his home town, Jesus went about “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and sickness among the people.” And the people noticed. His fame spread quickly throughout the region, and, before long, crowds from all over were flocking to him so that he might heal the sick, diseased, lame, and demon possessed among them. Soon he was unable to go anywhere without a great crowd following his every move. And that’s where today’s gospel lesson starts—with Jesus surveying the crowd around him and deciding to go up on the mountain to sit down.

Matthew doesn’t tell us that Jesus left the crowd or that he went away from them. Nor does he mention that the crowd dispersed and went home. No, all he tells us is that Jesus saw the crowd and then went up on the mountain and sat down and began to speak to the disciples and teach them about the kingdom of God. But where did the crowd go? Where did the unrelenting mass of people who were desperate to see and hear and touch Jesus go? I don’t think that they went anywhere. I think that, as Jesus began to teach his disciples the strange truth about where God’s blessedness is to be found, the crowd was standing close enough to hear him—close enough to overhear what Jesus was teaching the disciples. And I like to imagine that the crowd, who had been impressed by Jesus’ ministry but hadn’t quite understood what he was all about, heard these strange words as an invitation to a new way of seeing the world. 

Blessed are the poor in spirit? Blessed are those who mourn? Blessed are the meek and merciful? Those who yearn for righteousness and who suffer persecution? In what bizarro world is that true? In this world, Jesus tells us, when we finally see the world as God sees it. Jesus did not come to the earth to win any political campaigns or to build a new religious institution. He came in order that we might be saved from our sins and reconciled to God and to each other. And that doesn’t happen in places where people already have everything figured out, in communities where everyone has all of their needs met, in households where prosperity insulates people from the brokenness of the world. No, God’s salvation—God’s blessing and favor—come to those who are desperate for it. And Jesus came to show us that truth.  

He is the one who reveals strength in weakness and salvation through sacrifice. He is the one who welcomes the outcast and lifts up the downtrodden. He is the one who shows God’s love for the unlovable and God’s blessing among those whom the world holds in scorn. He is the one who dies a shameful death so that sinners like you and me might have everlasting life. That’s what it means to be a disciple of Jesus—to see the world through those eyes. That’s what it means to be a saint of God—not to be an example of holiness for all the world to admire but to give our lives over to the one who came to proclaim God’s blessedness among the poor, the hungry, the meek, and the mournful. And those of us who believe that—who believe that that’s where God’s blessedness is to be found—are the ones who are made holy by God in Jesus Christ. That’s what makes us saints.

If that sounds strange to you, don’t worry: it is strange. It’s strange to think of the poor in spirit as the ones who display the riches of faith. It’s strange to see those who mourn as the ones who have a claim on true joy. In fact, it is so strange that, as Jesus warns his disciples, the world will push back against those who inhabit that strange approach to life. “Blessed are you,” he tells them, “when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” And what are his disciples to do in the face of such rejection? “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” If Jesus isn’t speaking these strange words directly to you, don’t worry. You’re still close enough to hear them, and the invitation is yours if you want it. 

In every generation, there are saints among us who have caught a glimpse of what the world looks like through Jesus’ eyes. They are the strange sort of people who have devoted their lives to the belief that the way of poverty, struggle, emptiness, and loss is the way that leads to abundant, overflowing life. They are the ones who know what it means to be saved not by the goodness of their own making but by the blessedness given to them by Jesus. They are, in fact, disciples of Jesus—sinners made holy by the grace of God, chosen and beloved to become God’s saints, “and there’s not any reason, no not the least, why [we] shouldn’t be one too.”

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Amazing Rhetoric


October 18, 2020 – The 20th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 24A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (Sermon begins around 22:45.)

“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When the Pharisees heard what Jesus said, they were amazed, and they left him and went away. Matthew tells us that they were amazed. But what do you think that means?

In English, our word “amaze” comes from a Middle English word (amasen), which means to bewilder or perplex. In other words, Jesus stunned them with his words. He confounded them. He bested them. And, since they knew that they had been beaten, they went away, ashamed.

But in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, the word (thaumadzo) carries a different connotation. Its root (thauma) is the word for miracle, and it means to wonder or marvel. The Pharisees were amazed. They marveled and wondered at what Jesus had said. They were impressed. And, since they knew that they had encountered something remarkable, they went away, in awe.

Because Matthew goes out of his way to let us know that the Pharisees were out to get Jesus—that they were plotting to entrap him and that they came to him with malice—we naturally assume that what happened between them was a confrontation from which there can be only one winner. We, too, are impressed by Jesus’ rhetorical skill, and, knowing who the bad guys are in the story, we are quick to credit Jesus with a resounding victory. But maybe we should hear this encounter a different way.

In his gospel account, Matthew is fond of the word “amaze,” using it ten different times. And each time it reveals a moment of conversion. The disciples were amazed when Jesus stilled the storm and when he withered the fig tree—both signs of the divine power working within him. The crowds were amazed when Jesus cast out evil spirits. Pontius Pilate was amazed when Jesus uttered not a single word in self-defense. Even Jesus himself was amazed when the Roman Centurion showed enough faith to trust that Jesus could heal his sick servant from a distance. When Matthew uses the word “amaze,” he does so to show the reader that something has changed within the heart or mind of a character in the gospel—that something new has been revealed and understood—and that’s what’s going on within the hearts and minds of the Pharisees, who came to Jesus in order to put him to the test but who left with something new to think about.

When we read this passage, we usually think that the Pharisees put Jesus in an impossible spot. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” they asked him. But what’s so hard about answering that? We are told that the Pharisees took some of the Herodians with him—people who were loyal to the puppet regime that the Romans had set up in Palestine. But they wouldn’t have been surprised to hear a firebrand rabbi talking big about refusing to pay the emperor’s taxes. Sure, they could have used such a statement against him in legal proceedings, but, by this point, Jesus was already in Jerusalem for a showdown with the authorities. What did he have to lose? Why not just tell them what they wanted to hear? Why not say, “This land was promised to our ancestor Abraham. It belongs to us. I have come to take back David’s throne. Let’s show the emperor where he can put those taxes!”? Why not say the thing that nearly everyone wanted to hear? Because you can’t make God’s kingdom come by throwing gasoline on a fire—even if you’re right. 

We want to win. The stakes are high, and we want to win. We want to show everyone on the other side that they are wrong and that we are right, and that might be true, but what are we accomplishing by shaming those who disagree with us? What does God gain when we demonize those on the other side? Look instead at what Jesus did. When the Pharisees came to him and asked whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, he asked them for the coin that was used for the tax. He asked them for the coin because, somewhat ironically, he didn’t have one and because he was betting that they would. Then he asked them to name whose head and title were found on the coin, asking them to acknowledge the graven image that had been kept in their pockets. And finally he asked them to decide for themselves how they would navigate the theologically confusing world of living under the authority of a pagan emperor yet refusing to accept the authority of anyone except God alone.

Jesus wasn’t the only one who had to figure this out. They did, too. And, instead of taking a side and scoring some cheap points with the crowd, Jesus held up to his opponents the deeper reality that they all faced together. All of them had to figure out how to be faithful to God while doing everyday things under Roman occupation like carrying around coins and paying taxes. In the end, the Pharisees were amazed. That doesn’t mean that they went away converted to Jesus’ cause. This kind of conversion—this sort of amazement—is more subtle than that. They went away aware of something new—with a new sense that even Jesus, this tradition-challenging, authority-questioning rabbi who threatened everything that they thought mattered, was striving to be faithful to God, and, despite all their expectations, could find a way to invite them to do the same.

Are things all that different for us? We believe that God’s reign has broken through in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. We believe that, in Christ, God is turning the world upside down. But we can’t make that kingdom come any faster or any more fully by throwing shade on our opponents. As sure as we are that we are on the right side of history, we can’t make God’s kingdom come by besting those who think that we’re wrong. Instead, we have to let God amaze them. We have to invite them to see that God is at work in the people and places where they never expected to find God. We have to ask them to consider what it means to be faithful to God in their own circumstances—not because we know the answer but because we’re all still trying our best to figure that out. Imagine what would happen if, after engaging in serious political, economic, or theological debate, we all walked away amazed—not converted to each other’s side but converted to the possibility that God is at work in all who seek to be faithful. 

Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s. In the end, you can’t separate the two. But you can be faithful to God in both.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Celebrate With All You've Got


October 11, 2020 – The 19th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 23A
Isaiah 25:1-9; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service is available here. (Sermon begins around 21:50.)

Being too busy to go to a party is so last year, isn’t it? When was the last time you skipped a social event because you hadn’t had a quiet weekend at home in months? I miss those days. I miss feeling the urge to skip a wedding or a birthday party or a baby shower or a dinner because I just want to stay home. How we hear this parable of Jesus depends, in part, on whether we’re hearing it with pre-pandemic ears—back when you and me and everyone I know was busy—or with our current-day ears—when most of us would give up our first-born child for a night out with other adults.

For most of us, I think the first half of this parable sounds like good news. The king threw a big wedding banquet for his son. The original invitees were either too busy or too self-absorbed to make time for the party, but that was good news for everyone else. Except for the extreme behavior of some of the characters in the parable, the setup to the first half is pretty reasonable. Naturally, the king was upset when the first round of guests refused to show up. If anything, his decision to fill the guest hall with whoever could be found—both good and bad—was a remarkable expression of inclusion. This party was too important to allow those who would not come to ruin it, and the latecomers were thrilled to be included.

I don’t know about you, but I’m always grateful when someone offers me their ticket to the symphony or to a sporting event. It’s like having a ticket to the Masters. I can’t imagine why anyone would give up a chance to go to Augusta National, but, if they’re too busy with their farm or their business to go, I’d be happy to take their place. We like that image of the kingdom of heaven. How good it is that our God is willing to fling wide open the doors to that great and glorious banquet so that everyone who wants to be there can find a place at the feast! And, as long as we hear this parable with the ears of those who are grateful to be included, it is good news indeed. At least, the first part is.

But then the parable takes a dark and startling turn. As the king walks through the banquet hall, delighted and relieved that his son’s wedding feast wasn’t a total flop, he notices that one of the guests isn’t dressed appropriately. “How did you get in without a wedding garment?” the king asks, but the guest stares back in stunned silence. In the blink of an eye, everything has changed. The music and dancing stop. No one utters a word. The king orders his servants to bind the intruder hand and foot and throw him out into the outer darkness. What kind of king is that? What kind of God is that? One minute, everyone is raising a glass to toast the generosity of the magnanimous host, but the next everyone is staring at the floor, hoping that the nightmare will end.

If you’re confused, that’s ok. So am I. So is everyone. And I think that’s the point. Sometimes preachers try to explain away the awkwardness of the second half of this parable and, in so doing, rob it of its power. Some claim that the second part didn’t belong with the first but was added on generations later to warn Christians not to give up in the face of persecution. Others try to soften the inexplicable harshness of a host who would expect a last-minute guest to be wearing formal attire by asserting that wedding robes would have been handed out to all of the guests at the door, but there’s no historical evidence that that was the case. No, we’re left with a difficult text that challenges us and our preconceptions of God and God’s reign to their core. And that’s the point. 

We like it when the kingdom of heaven is what we expect. We like it when God behaves the way we want God to behave. We like it when the doors are flung wide open and anyone and everyone is invited to come to the party. But liking that and talking about God like that and telling people that we belong to a church that believes that everyone is welcome isn’t good enough. You don’t get to be a part of the celebration if all you do is show up and watch other people make it happen. And you don’t get to share in the festivities if you decide to stay home and let other people take your place. The kingdom of heaven is like a wedding banquet that a king threw for his son. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the first one to get an invitation or the last one to show up. What matters is that when you arrive you celebrate with everything you’ve got.

Jesus isn’t talking about the kingdom of heaven that is waiting for us when we die. He’s talking about the reign of God that has already broken through into this life. Jesus came to the earth and lived and died and rose again so that you and I and everyone else might have a place at God’s table. But it’s not good enough that we have received an invitation. And it’s not good enough that we show up for the party. It’s not good enough that we wear crosses around our necks. It’s not good enough that we call ourselves Christians. It’s not good enough that we belong to a church like St. Paul’s. It’s not good enough that we believe in our hearts that God’s love belongs to everyone. Our host wants to see that we’re all in. For a celebration this important, anything less than our full participation—anything other than our very best—isn’t good enough.

You can’t believe in a God who welcomes everyone and not welcome everyone yourself. You can’t believe in a kingdom where everyone has a place and not make room in your own heart for whoever wants to come in. We believe in a God who flings wide open the doors to the kingdom. We believe in a God who searches high and low so that everyone might come in. You and I have been given a ticket to the celebration that God is throwing for us and for all people. But the fact that we’ve been included at all is itself a miracle of generosity and love. Like everyone else, we have been given a ticket because God loves us enough to find us and beckon us to come in. In this life—right here and now—being included in God’s great banquet is the most important thing that will ever happen to us. If we can’t find a way to celebrate that and to celebrate it with everyone else whom God has invited in, we’ll be the ones who miss out.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Bearing Fruit In Another's Vineyard

 October 4, 2020 – Proper 22A
Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (The sermon begins around 23:00.)

When I lived in Montgomery, Alabama, I took night classes at Troy University in my spare time. Although the main campus of the university was located in a small town an hour or so away, Troy had established a satellite campus in downtown Montgomery by purchasing and renovating several out-of-use buildings, including the old Whitley Hotel. Although dormant for decades, the hotel was a majestic building with an elegant lobby and a grand staircase that wound up to the upper floors, and the university did the city a favor by bringing it back to life. 

In the middle of the repurposed lobby was a large and detailed mosaic, which featured the emblem of the university. Legend had it that, not long after Troy bought the old hotel, university officials had the original mosaic painstakingly replaced, tiny tile by tiny tile, to further cement its presence in the urban community. But, when the work was finished, something wasn’t right. Part of the emblem wasn’t exactly the way it was supposed to be, and the university’s president, an exacting sort of woman, insisted that it be done again.

As the artisan chipped up the mistaken portion of the mosaic in order to redo it, the president walked through the lobby and asked the worker how everything was going. Frustrated, the laborer responded with little more than a grunt, so the president asked him what was wrong. Not realizing who it was that was speaking to him, he replied, “Some witch is making me do this all over again,” only he didn’t use the word “witch.” She replied, “Oh really? Well, guess what: I am that witch. Pack up your things. You’re fired.”

When we fail to recognize the authority of those standing in front of us, we shouldn’t be surprised when judgment comes crashing down upon our heads. 

Today’s gospel lesson is all about authority. Will we recognize and respect Jesus’ authority, or will we substitute our own version of right and wrong in its place? As Suzanne noted last Sunday, this chapter of Matthew is filled with expressions of and challenges to Jesus’ authority. First, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey while the crowd shouted, “Hosanna!” as if he were prepared to claim the throne of his ancestor David. Then, he went straight to the Jerusalem temple, where he turned over the tables of the moneychangers and drove them out of the temple precincts, effectively halting the worship that was taking place there. All the while, the religious authorities watched Jesus perform these prophetic and symbolic gestures, which both questioned their legitimacy and asserted his own authority in their place. Something had to give. The crowds were cheering for the radical rabbi, but, behind the scenes, the people in power were plotting his demise. 

Exasperated and probably a bit nervous, the religious leaders came to Jesus and asked him to explain by what authority he was performing these radical, divisive, and lawless acts. How could a religious figure like him allow himself to be at the center of such unrest? In response, he told them two parables—the parable of the two sons, which we heard last week, and the parable of the wicked tenants, which is our focus today.

“Listen to another parable,” Jesus told them, a parable about a landowner who carefully and deliberately prepared a vineyard before leasing it to some tenants and going off to another country. It must have taken more than a few years of hard work by those tenants before the vines began to produce their fruit. Eventually, though, it was time for the landowner to collect his share of the harvest, so he sent some servants to get what was his due—the portion that had been agreed upon back when the vineyard had originally been leased to those tenants. 

But the tenants weren’t interested in giving up any of the fruit of their labor. They were the ones who had worked hard every day, season after season, bearing the heat of the summer sun, pulling up weeds, pruning back the vines, carefully nurturing the tender shoots until harvest time. They had done all the work, they told themselves, so every bit of the produce should be theirs. They didn’t care whose land it was, who had made all of the improvements to it, who had hired them to take care of it. So they attacked the landowner’s slaves, beating and killing and stoning them. And, when the landowner sent a second group of slaves, even more than the first, they treated them in the same way. Finally, the landowner recognized the need for serious action, so he sent his son, his agent, someone who could officially speak for the family and engage the local officials if needed, but the tenants refused even to respect the landowner’s son. Instead, they convinced themselves that, once the heir was out of the way, the vineyard would be theirs. So they killed him.

No one except for the tenants was surprised at what happened next. Even the religious leaders, to whom Jesus had addressed this hardly masked parable of condemnation, knew what the landowner would do to those wicked tenants. They knew that they would be rounded up and executed for their lawlessness. No matter how firmly they had convinced themselves that their ridiculous plan would work, the tenants were always going to be punished for their refusal to respect the one in whose vineyard they had labored. 

It is a hard message for those of us who prefer our brand of Christianity to be the open, accepting, universal variety to hear Jesus say that the kingdom of heaven will be taken away from someone and given to someone else. But, in an age in which the words of Jesus and the authority of the church are used by some even to legitimize evil, it is a truth that we must confront. 

What does it mean for Jesus to proclaim that God’s kingdom will be taken away from the religious leaders and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom? You may have been taught in the past that this parable is about God’s favor being withdrawn from the children of Abraham and bestowed upon Gentile Christians, but that isn’t true. The church, at times infected with the sin of anti-Semitism, has made that claim, but this parable isn’t about chronology. It’s not about the vineyard being taking away from those who came first and given to those who come second. It’s about the responsibility to be faithful when the opportunity presents itself. 

As the prophecy of Isaiah 5 makes clear, God takes the vineyard away from those who forget whose vineyard it really is—those who forget that God is the one who requires justice and rejects bloodshed, who demands righteousness and will not abide the cry of the suffering. If you read the rest of that chapter of Isaiah, you will see that the people in power had used their authority to take possession of the land of the vulnerable, to throw lavish banquets for themselves while people in the streets were hungry, and to acquit the guilty in exchange for a bribe. Jesus picked up on this image and made it the center of his parable because the religious leaders of his own day had done the same thing. They had forgotten whose vineyard it really was. They had forgotten that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor and the weak and the vulnerable. They had ignored the plight of those who were eager to line the sides of the road and shout, “Hosanna!” as Jesus came into Jerusalem. They had turned their backs on the blind and the lame who Matthew tells us flocked to the temple to be healed by Jesus as soon as he had chased the moneychangers out.

Whose vineyard are we working in? In whose kingdom are we called to bear fruit? Do we recognize the authority of the one who comes to collect the landowner’s due? Or have we been working so long that we have forgotten that the fruit of our labor actually belongs to someone else?

The blind and the lame do not need any help recognizing Jesus as the one who comes to bring God’s kingdom to the earth. The poor and the weak don’t need him to tell them a parable in order to see whose authority he represents. It is always the powerful, the rich, and the well-connected who need to be reminded what sort of reign Jesus has come to establish. On the spectrum that extends from religious elites to social pariahs, I can tell on which end most of us belong. Maybe that’s why we need Jesus more than most people—because, left to our own devices, we might begin to think that this vineyard we inhabit is our own doing, that we are responsible for its produce, and that its bounty belongs to us. It doesn’t. And, as long as we remember that, God will help us bear fruit for the one to whom the kingdom belongs. 

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Privilege of Suffering

September 20, 2020 – The 16th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 20A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here. (The sermon begins around 23:00.)

“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” Those words have come to symbolize Muhammad Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War and, more specifically, his opposition to a government that would draft young black men and send them, in his words, “10,000 miles from home [to] drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam [while] so-called Negro people in [his home town of] Louisville [were] treated like dogs and denied simple human rights.”  Ali knew that his service in the military would not put his life at risk—that, instead, he would be trotted out as part of the Army’s public relations game in the same way that his predecessor in the ring, Joe Lewis, had been used to drum up support for World War II. But Ali wasn’t willing to play their game. He wasn’t willing to accept the privilege of suffering on their behalf.

On April 28, 1967, when he reported for his scheduled induction into the military, Ali refused three times to step forward when his name was called, and it cost him. It cost him his heavyweight championship belt, his license to fight in the ring, and the esteem of white America. Ali believed that the government was asking black men and boys to suffer for the sake of a country that would not even recognize their basic humanity, and he refused to take part. Though he is now celebrated as an accomplished athlete and a beloved hero, sports commentator Dan Le Batard has noted more than once that Ali only became popular when Parkinson’s Disease robbed him of his voice.

Today, we hear what the apostle Paul has to say to those who suffer: “God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.” Those are Paul’s words to the Christians in Philippi, who faced persecution because of their faith, but what would he say to Muhammad Ali? What would the white, Christian preachers of the twentieth century, who so often used Paul to reinforce their worldview, say to the man whom they insisted on calling Cassius Clay? What would a present-day preacher like me—a privileged white man, who stands in a pulpit insulated from the rallies and riots and racial strife of our day and so far untouched by the ravages of a pandemic—what would I dare to say about Paul’s exhortation to suffer and to count that suffering as a God-given privilege?

Sometimes words only make sense to the people to whom they were originally entrusted. Maybe Paul has nothing to say to those who are asked to fight and die for a country that treats them as second-class citizens, to those who are asked to submit obediently to the police who murder them with impunity, to those who are sent into poultry plants and slaughterhouses in the midst of a pandemic because a chicken in every pot is still the American way. But Philippians is still in our holy book, and, no matter what Paul intended, his words are still proclaimed in our congregations as if they belong to the Lord. So it is our obligation—our duty as people of faith and as citizens of a predominantly Christian society—to wrestle with these ancient words and to see if they have anything to say to us and to our world today.

What could make these words good news not only for a privileged few but for everyone? What must be true about Paul and his circumstance and about the Philippians and their circumstance and about their love for each another in order for the apostle’s teaching to be received not as a violation but as a hopeful encouragement? In part, Paul’s words rang true because they were written not from a place of individual security but of mutual struggle. Although his chains were the consequences of his own free choices, the shackles that Paul wore were not merely for show or rhetorical effect. His life, as we heard in the opening of this passage, hung in the balance. A man who had enjoyed the freedom and privilege of Roman citizenship now faced the real possibility of death at the hands of the Empire. 

While one’s own experience of suffering does not, in and of itself, give someone the authority to command others to endure their own suffering, Paul’s credibility on this point comes from something else. He wrote to the Philippians not only as one who had endured hardship but as one who recognized that his own suffering had become the source of his friends’ struggle—that their grief was the result of his grief. Paul wanted to relieve them of that burden. He wanted them to see that, if he was able to count his own suffering for Christ’s sake as a privilege, they, too, could endure whatever hardship they faced by seeing it as a gift from God.

That may have been some comfort for Paul’s friends in Philippi, where the apostle had spent time laboring beside them, but where in those words do we find comfort and encouragement for the church today? The critical struggle we face is not figuring out how to count as holy the sympathetic suffering we endure on behalf of friends who look like us and talk like us and live on the same side of town as us. We’re all too good at that. And we certainly don’t need any help telling those who endure hardships that they should count their suffering as the privilege that God has ordained for them. That’s been our besetting sin for millennia. If we are to find real encouragement in Paul’s words, we will only hear it when we, with God’s help, begin to unwrap and upturn our understanding of privilege. When we stop thinking of privilege as a gift that is supposed to shield us from suffering and start thinking of it as an obligation that propels us into suffering for the sake of others, we will know why Paul’s words are words of hope.

Paul may not have understood privilege in the same way that we do—as an accident of birth that we might devote to the work of the gospel—but he did understand the ways in which living in Christ reoriented the believer’s engagement with the world. For those whose faith-trained sight remains focused on “the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus,” whatever suffering we experience in this life is not seen as an obstacle to our union with God but as a means by which we share in the resurrection of the one who suffered on our behalf. For, if God is for us, who could be against us? If Christ is on our side, who could ever condemn us? 

It is with that confidence of faith that Paul is able to proclaim later on in this same letter, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” That resurrection power is available to us as well. It is given to those who have faith enough even to suffer and die. If those of us, whose religion has been a shield from our own suffering and the suffering of others, cannot empty ourselves of that privilege and embrace the privilege of suffering, then we have not known the power of Christ’s resurrection. And, without knowing that power, we cannot live lives worthy of the gospel of Christ.

Paul has so much to say to us, but we cannot hear what he has to say if we pretend his words were written today. Instead, we must ask the Holy Spirit to help us hear afresh what was written so long ago. Paul does not and cannot ask people who suffer for the sake of unholy systems of oppression to dress that suffering up as if it were a gift from God. But he can and does invite those of us who live with the comfort of earthly privilege to consider the ways in which our faith in the God of Jesus Christ requires us to set aside our invulnerability and pursue suffering for the gospel’s sake. While those of us who have been insulated from the suffering of others cannot rightly claim kinship with those whose suffering we now seek to undo, we can, with God’s help, begin to recognize how we are called not to withdraw from that suffering but to embrace it—how we, like Paul, might even call our own suffering a gift from God—a privilege we bear for the sake of others.