Thursday, February 26, 2015

He's the Both/And

As Christians, I think we do a pretty good job understanding the divinity of Jesus. Of course, there are some limits to that. But, for the most part, I think we have found ways to talk about and imagine the godhead in him. Usually, that looks like Jesus the superhero. He's the miracle-worker, knows everything, is ultra-compassionate, and withstands all temptation. We dress him up in his first-century robes, tie a cincture around his waist, and then watch him fly around the countryside, combating evil spirits and saving the day.

As Christians, I also think we do a pretty good job of understanding the humanity of Jesus--maybe not as easily as we grasp his divine nature but still not bad. We talk about his agony in the garden. We hear his scream from the cross. We see him get frustrated with the disciples' obtuseness. We portray the aspects of Jesus we want to see in ourselves.

But where the two intersect--the actual mystery that is the God-man--is something we struggle with.

What does it mean for God's son to be human? What does it mean for this man who was born of an earthly mother to be the second person of the Trinity? How can all of this crash together and hold up at once?

This isn't a post about the Chalcedonian Definition, though I do hold that up to you as absolutely worth reading and knowing about. I'm talking about Sunday's lesson from Mark 8--where Jesus says to Peter, "Get behind me Satan!"

I think we implicitly understand that human beings suffer. We might not understand why, but it's hard to make it through 24 hours without encountering some kind of human suffering. We get that there are people who suffer for the sake of conscience. We get that prophets like Jesus aren't always accepted by the authorities and that sometimes they are killed because of it.

I think we implicitly understand that God has a plan for the world. I think we understand that he is in the work of redeeming all things. I think we can grasp that he came down from heaven in the person of Jesus in order to save us. I think we understand that he came here as God among us.

But I don't think we do a very good job of understand that God came down to earth to open up the way of salvation through the cross. And doesn't Peter do a great job of saying that on our behalf?

The cross isn't an accident. No, we didn't understand who Jesus was, but his death wasn't merely a sign that we didn't get it. Jesus' ministry wasn't a failure. The cross was always where he was headed. How else can you reconcile the union of broken human and perfect divine except in the death and resurrection of the paschal mystery?

This Sunday, when Jesus says to us, "Get behind me, Satan!" he is reminding us to keep our minds set on godly things, including the cross. Look for that place where human and divine intersect. Don't try to hold onto them separately. In the person of Jesus Christ, you can't separate them--nor can we separate the journey to the cross from God's plan of salvation.

Born Again Means Dying First

February 25, 2015 – Wednesday in Lent 1, Year Two
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
This sermon was offered as part of the Montgomery Episcopal Lenten Series hosted by St. John's, Montgomery.
Well, it’s been a little more than three years since I last stood in this pulpit, and it’s good to be back. It’s been a busy, full three years for both of us. A lot has happened. A lot has changed. But, for the most part, we’re not too different from the way we were. I’ve learned a few things. I’ve put back on some of the pounds that I lost before I left, and I’m a little grayer in some places. But so are you. Still, it’s nice to be back in Montgomery. It’s nice to be back at St. John’s.
One of the things that I have learned over the past three years is a whole new kind of worry. My four-year-old daughter has become a seven-year-old first-grader. Gone are the days of macaroni art and tea parties. Now we deal with AR tests and science posters and “Are my jeans cool enough?” and “Why don’t the other girls like me?” When I worked here, I knew that Mike Jarrell would take care of just about everything, and that, if he needed to call someone about a leaky roof, it wouldn’t be my cell phone that rang. Well, we don’t have a Mike Jarrell—nobody else does—and every time there’s a heavy rain I lie in bed wondering whether there will be a puddle waiting for me at the church in the morning. I worry about people who are dealing with huge emotional and spiritual problems that are way beyond anything I can handle. They are people I love and care for but whom I worry won’t be able to hang on much longer. And I worry about numbers—everything about numbers. How much is going out, and how much is coming in? Will next year’s stewardship campaign be successful? Why aren’t more people coming to church? Where are all the young families? What will our future look like? And through it all I worry more than anything else that there might not be a dead-gum thing I can do about any of it.
I guess you could say that I don’t sleep as well as I used to. What about you? How are you sleeping these days? Nighttime is a funny thing. Dim lights help hide some of our blemishes, but the dead of night always brings out our insecurities. There’s something about the silent, stifling stillness that awakens within us every doubt, every fear, every dread. In the dark, when there is nothing else to occupy our focus, the little nagging worries have nothing to hide behind.
It isn’t an accident that John tells us that Nicodemus went to see Jesus at night. This wasn’t the kind of conversation that could happen in the daylight. For some people, there are certain issues that don’t get discussed during the day. Only the nagging restlessness of night had brought Nicodemus out of his respectable quarters, skulking in the shadows until he found Jesus, the one he hoped could put his worries to rest.
“Rabbi,” he said, using a term of respect, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one could do the signs that you do unless God were with him...” If he had a question Nicodemus never really got to it. Maybe he didn’t really know what to ask. But it didn’t matter. Jesus looked at him and said, “Truly, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” (The word translated in some bibles as “above” is a Greek word that also means “again,” and it seems likely that Jesus meant both at the same time.) For Nicodemus, the thought of being born again was not good news.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews, which meant that he commanded the respect of his people as both a civic figure and a religious expert. If anyone was supposed to be able to make sense of this upstart Galilean preacher, it was Nicodemus, but, for the life of him, he just couldn’t figure it out. He had heard reliable reports that Jesus had performed some impressive miracles—the kind that would prove that Jesus was a man of God worth listening to—but then Jesus had charged into the temple right in the middle of the Passover celebration and turned over all of the tables and chased out all of the moneychangers—the kind of profane act which no godly person would ever do. Nicodemus couldn’t connect the dots, and it was killing him.
“If you want to see the kingdom of God,” Jesus said, “you must be born again.” What do you think of when you hear that phrase “born again?” It is more than familiar in our Christian context. It has become overused religious jargon—perhaps even a phrase of derision used by some mainline Christians to describe their more zealous religious counterparts. But to Nicodemus, who had never heard that phrase used to describe a religious conversion, those words were as damning as they were impossible. “What do you mean, ‘born again?’” the leader asked. “What am I supposed to do? Crawl back inside my mother’s womb and start all over?” “Yes,” Jesus said without batting an eye. “That’s exactly what I mean—start all over from scratch.”
We’ve become so familiar with the concept of “born again” that we’ve forgotten just how radical that image really is. Think about it: what would you have to give up to be born again? Well, everything, of course. Your life, your experiences, your education, your status, your job, your relationships, your family, your heritage, your ancestry, even your name. Everything about you would be undone. Everything you have, everything that you take for granted, everything that makes you you, would be taken away as you start all over from birth. That’s the kind of transformation Jesus is asking Nicodemus to undergo. The reason Nicodemus cannot make sense of who Jesus is and what his teachings represent is because he’s trying to build upon the lifetime he has already collected. But the kingdom of God requires a totally fresh perspective. Of course the religious expert couldn’t figure it out! He’s the last person who would ever be able to see it. He’s the last person who would ever want to let all of this go and start all over.
And what does that say about us?
Christianity has forgotten what it means to be born again. Being a Christian has become too easy—especially in a place like this—a place like Montgomery, Alabama—a place where we’ve been comfortably Christian for so long that we’ve forgotten what it takes to see the kingdom of God. We are the Pharisees. We are the leaders of our people. Why would we want to give any of this up? But, if you want to see the kingdom of God, you must be born again.
Nine years ago, I knelt right there in that pew next to my wife, Elizabeth, and we prayed silently for a while. Robert wanted me to work here as the curate, but I didn’t want to come here. I was still in seminary—even younger and stupider than I am now. So I knelt there and said to Elizabeth, “I don’t want to work here, do I? Look at all of this. Look at all of this stuff. This is too easy. Ministry is supposed to be hard. This isn’t hard enough.” After a moment or two, she said, “Yeah, maybe you’re right, but you know what? You love telling arrogant rich people that they need Jesus, too.”
In the years since then, I’ve forgotten what it means to be born again. It’s easy to do. It happens to all of us. We get good at what we’re doing, and we start to make a big difference. Numbers go up. More people come to church. Stewardship starts growing. Budgets increase. New staff members are hired. Even young families are joining the church. And then what? We convince ourselves that we are at the center of it all—that it all depends on us. But how long can we keep it up? How long can it last? And then the worries start.
If you want to see the kingdom of God, you must be born again. Being born again means starting all over. Being born again means dying to who you are. It means letting go of everything. It means giving up everything you’ve accomplished—everything that stands for anything—and starting all over from scratch. If you want to see the kingdom of God, you must be born again.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Never is a Big Word

God is defined as the faithful one. That's part of what it means to be God. It is impossible for us to understand how God could be unfaithful. If God ever broke his word, God would cease to be God. That's why it's so amazing that God would make a promise to Noah and "every living creature" on the earth never to flood the whole earth again (Genesis 9:8-17). Never is a long, long time.

Several years ago, I was sitting with a couple in premarital counseling when the groom-to-be announced rather defiantly that he would never forgive his bride-to-be if she ever lied to him. His words got my attention, but his tone seemed even more important. (Who among us hasn't lied to his or her spouse?) Drawing a line in the sand and using the word "never" to frame an aspect of a relationship is pretty dangerous. We spent some time unpacking what he meant, delving into the past brokenness that he had felt, finding a different way to articulate the importance of honesty, and diffusing the landmine he was burying under his marriage. In the end, I was satisfied that they had worked through that issue enough to move forward with their marriage, trusting that time spent together as husband and wife would soften that "never" to a more reasonable understanding. But that moment still sticks with me.

Never is a very long time. Never is a big, big word. When we declare something with such finality, the result must be one of three outcomes: 1) we're right and the "never" stands for itself; 2) we're wrong and must accept the consequences; 3) we're wrong and change our story to pretend the consequences don't matter. I bet a marriage could survive #s 2 & 3, but not a relationship with God. God cannot go back on God's word. Our faith in God is built on God's faithfulness.

And I think that's the real point of this lesson from Genesis. The "never" should be our focus. This mythical tale isn't really about floods and arks and animals two-by-two. It's a story of God's faithfulness. Yes, God would be completely justified in wiping out creation at any moment. Yes, the wickedness on earth is as bad or worse than it was in Noah's day. But God has promised not to do it. In that promise, God has imposed a self-limitation. God has declared that what God could do God will not do. And God used the word "never" to describe it.

On that "never" hangs our trust in God. Our faith is built on the never-ending promise of a God who chooses to love us even though we are unlovable.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Idolatry of Ashes

Warning: this post is provocative. If you like wearing the ashen cross on your forehead all day, if you relish in the strange looks you get from coworkers, grocery store clerks, and strangers on the street, you may be highly offended by this post. And good for you. That's the point.

Yesterday, I wrote about how important the ashes of Ash Wednesday are. I used the word "beg" to describe how strongly I feel about people coming to church. And you've still got plenty of time to find a service. Again, I beg you to go. As some people have noted, "Get your ash in church!" (Ha, ha.) As I wrote yesterday, I think the ashes of today are a necessary, counter-cultural confrontation of our mortality. Without coming face to face with all that is lacking in us, we cannot appreciate the magnitude of God's mercy. But today I want to take that theology of grace even further and suggest that it's time to wipe the ashes off.

One cannot be prideful about one's modesty. One cannot boast of being humble. To do so unravels the claim. The predication negates the initiating quality of the subject. Likewise, we cannot worthily acknowledge our wretchedness and lament our sins and then parade around town to show other people how righteous we are. We cannot admit that we are dust and to dust we shall return and then openly demonstrate our superiority. It is nonsensical to say, "You should admire how remorseful I am for my sin." Either we're sorry, or we're not. Either we lament our pride, or we don't. Either we come to the altar to beg for God's mercy, or we stand up and show other people how great we are. It doesn't make sense to do it both ways.

The gospel lesson for today could not make it any clearer. Jesus said, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them." In case we missed it, he goes on to say that we should pray in secret, fast in secret, and give alms in secret. Those are the three principle Lenten disciplines. How can we make a right start of this season if we're undoing everything Jesus told us to do?

If you're still wearing your ashen cross, go wipe it off. (Go on. Don't wait. You can finish this post later.) To wear the cross is to say to the world, "My piety matters." But Ash Wednesday is about saying to God, "There is nothing within me that is worthy of you. Only you and your love matter."

So, yes, I beg you to go to church. I beg you to come to the altar and receive the ashen cross and be reminded of your mortality--your sinfulness, your brokenness, your wretchedness. And then quickly go and wipe it off. Carry the reminder in your heart, but don't let anyone see it. Otherwise, we undo everything we proclaim this day that Christ did for us.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Mortality Rate

For the first few years of our marriage, Elizabeth worked full time as a nurse in a nearby hospital. Like most hospital nurses, she worked twelve-hour shifts, which meant that she usually left before I went to work and came home after I did. Occasionally, when a parishioner was in the hospital, I would swing by her unit and say hello, but, on days when she worked, we expected not to see each other until late in the evening.
I remember sitting at the dinner table one Wednesday night—just the two of us—and reflecting on the nature of her job. It was Ash Wednesday, and she had gone to the hospital at six-thirty that morning and had not come home until almost eight o’clock at night. She asked how the three services at church had gone—the inquiry was her way of participating in the day’s sacred liturgy—and I told her how sorry I was that she could not take part in one of the services. I wondered aloud what it would be like to journey through the forty days of Lent without beginning with the ashen cross—the sign that we are dust and to dust we shall return. That proclamation conveys a sentiment not easily embraced in our contemporary society.
We live in a culture that avoids death at all costs. As if to deny the obvious, our obituaries proclaim that a loved one has “passed on” or “left this world.” We joke about celebrating our thirty-ninth birthday well into our fifties, and plastic surgeons help us pull it off (sort of). Oncologists offer rigorous rounds of chemotherapy to people in their eighties—often at the insistence of their patients or their patients’ families. I frequently watch hospital-bound parents struggle to tell their children that they are ready to die and children struggle to give their parents permission to do just that. Last week, in a conversation about a family member’s illness, a parishioner remarked that the prognosis didn’t look good, to which I replied, “I guess that’s eventually true for all of us.” Death is an unavoidable reality, yet we try our best to hold it at bay…except on Ash Wednesday.
Once a year, we come to church and kneel at the altar rail to have the ashen cross marked on our foreheads as a sign of our mortality. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” the minister says. In a bold defiance of our cultural and biological impulses, we say those words to every man and woman and child who comes forward. Even the youngest infant, whose life has just begun, is reminded of the inevitability of his or her death. One day, we will take our last breath, and our hearts will beat their last beat, and time will take its toll on us, and we will return to the dust from which we were made. Like it or not, for humankind the mortality rate is 100%, and I believe that our faith in God depends upon our willingness to embrace that fact.
We cannot know what it means for God to promise us new and everlasting life until we acknowledge the power that death otherwise would have over us. We cannot behold the light of the resurrection until we stand in the shadow of the cross. We cannot experience the power of God’s saving love until we confront the fullness of our mortality. Ash Wednesday is not merely the beginning of Lent. Even if you ignore the forty days of this Lenten journey and skip ahead to Easter, allow yourself to linger in the magnitude of your mortality. On this one day, stare at yourself in the mirror and remember that someday you will die. Until you come face to face with that truth, you cannot have the soul-filling hope that defies even death itself—the hope of new life in Jesus.
This year, our local hospital has agreed to let me come and offer ashes to the staff who will be working all day tomorrow and whose schedules will not allow them to go to church. Think about the powerful juxtaposition of those two images—in the place where lives are saved someone comes to proclaim the reality of death. If anyone appreciates the frailness of life, however, it is one who works in a hospital, and I doubt that those who work in an organization that calculates its mortality rate need much reminding about it. I am convinced, however, that there is comfort in accepting that fact, and I hope tomorrow’s ashes are received as a sign of hope, faith, and encouragement.
Ashes to Go is an increasingly popular movement that seeks to take the experience of Ash Wednesday to highly trafficked areas so that passersby can pause for a “contemporary moment of grace.” In one way, that is what my time at the hospital will be—a quick chance for individuals to experience the message of our mortality. But I know that the ashen cross alone is not a full experience of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, and I beg everyone to make time to come to church. But I also know how rarely we have the opportunity to confront our mortality, so, even if it is only in a passing moment, I want to do everything I can to invite people into the life-saving, life-giving economy of salvation: it only in dying that we are reborn to eternal life.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Mark's Version of the Wilderness

Am I the only preacher who read the appointed lessons for thisSunday and mumbled an expletive under my breath?

It’s the first Sunday in Lent, so I’m not surprised that it’s the story of Jesus in the wilderness. And I know we’re in Year B, so I’m not surprised that we have Mark’s rather scant account of Jesus’ time in the desert. But the confirmation of what I already expected—a one-verse description with no dialogue or drama set between two texts we’ve already heard in recent weeks (see Jan. 11 and Jan. for overlapping gospel lessons)—made me wonder whether anyone will notice if they hear essentially the same sermon for the third time in a month and a half.

But don’t panic, dear preacher, and don’t fret, poor congregant. This is different. It will be different. It must be different. This is the first Sunday in Lent, and that changes everything.

As I begin this week of sermon-prep, I want to focus on Mark’s version of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. It’s beautifully understated: “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

How did he get there? The Spirit led him there—the same Spirit that he saw descending upon him like a dove as he came up from the waters of baptism. This is baptism and response. This is more than being led by the Spirit. This is being driven by the Spirit—driven the way one might drive a team of oxen. Jesus was pushed, spurred, forced. He wasn’t invited or coaxed. He wasn’t led or encouraged. He was driven. Sometimes God drives us where he wants us to go. And sometimes it’s the preacher’s job to drive the congregation out into dangerous places where they do not want to go. So often I invite, cajole, and plead. Rarely do I flash the whip. But when are we pushed by God or by one who speaks for God? When is it right to push? Into what is God driving us?

What was the wilderness like? Mark’s account leaves so much to the imagination. I picture Jesus, the Boy Scout, making his way through the wilderness. After forty days of self-preservation and self-reliance, he will earn his merit badge. It’s not easy. There are wild beasts that roam those rough places. But Jesus is prepared—not in a supernatural, you-could-never-do-this kind of way. Notice that Mark makes no mention of fasting. Mark doesn’t need to recreate Moses’ time on the Mt. Sinai—forty days without food or water as told in Exodus 34:28. Instead, Mark’s version of this story leaves open the kind of spiritual journey any of us might take. Yes, it would be difficult. No, not many of us are called to it. But this wilderness experience isn’t just a demonstration of Jesus’ unattainable-in-this-life strangeness. It’s a model we might consider following. Is God calling us out into the desert places?

What did the angels do? I have no idea. Mark tells us that the angels waited on him, which suggests to me that, even though he was out in the wilderness, Jesus was in close communication with his heavenly father. Did they set up camp for him, build his fire, or carry his pack the way some froufrou luxury travel companies offer to take the wild out of wilderness for rich pilgrims? Probably not. Maybe they tended to his physical and spiritual needs from time to time. Maybe they are our way of articulating how anyone could manage to live in the desert for forty days. Regardless, I think it means that, even though his trip was solitary, he wasn’t alone. Can we see that even in the wilderness moments of life we are not alone?

What sort of temptation did Satan present? Matthew and Luke both give us the back and forth between Jesus and the tempter: “command these stones to become loaves of bread” and “throw yourself down.” They capture the drama that the early Christians provided to fill out the otherwise nondescript tale of Jesus’ time in the desert places. But Mark doesn’t need them. Again, he leaves it to our imagination. Jesus is God in the flesh, and we are comforted by the fact that he experienced the challenges that we experience. By leaving room for our imagination, Mark invites us to place our own experience of temptation onto the one who was tempted yet lived without sin. His victory over Satan in the wilderness—a foreshadowing of his victory over Satan in the cross and empty tomb—is one that is won just for us. In your forty days of wilderness experience, what would your temptations be? When you are in those vulnerable places, how does Satan try to woo you? Will Jesus’ stand be your strength?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Holding on to Hope

This is a meditation on the lessons for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, specifically the ascent of Elijah into heaven in 2 Kings 2 and the transfiguration of Jesus Christ in Mark 9. It is an audio meditation, which is to say a sermon, which can be heard here.

What do we hold onto when we feel lost? What does God give us to carry us through the difficult times?