Monday, November 19, 2018

Nationalism


There's a difference between patriotism and nationalism. One is love of country. The other is the love of one's country at the expense of others. I can love my country without thinking that other nations must be dominated economically, politically, and culturally by my own. I can think my mother's cooking is the best in the whole world without feeling the need to punch you in the mouth if you say otherwise. I love my country, and I think my country is the best in the whole world, but I don't need people in England, France, China, Russia, Brazil, or anywhere else to agree with me. Similarly, I love my country, but I am often discouraged by the actions that our country and its citizens take. I can be a patriot and a critic at the same time.

On Sunday, those of us who hear the Track 1 RCL lesson (2 Samuel 23:1-7) will hear a record of King David's final words, and it seems that they have been delivered to us through the filter of nationalism: "Will [God] not cause to prosper all my help and my desire? But the godless are all like thorns that are thrown away; for they cannot be picked up with the hand; to touch them one uses an iron bar or the shaft of a spear. And they are entirely consumed in fire on the spot." Let those words sink in. The leader of God's people is declaring that the ungodly--those who belong to other nations, other faiths--are not to be touched except with an iron bar or the shaft of a spear. They are prickly thorns that injure those who come into contact with them. Instead, they must be pushed aside with tools of war so that they can be burned on the spot. Can we hear those words in our contemporary political climate, when thousands of Latin American refugees are coming toward the Land of the Free and when the President and many who support him say that those "criminals" should be met with military force, and not marvel at how easily those in positions of comfort, power, and privilege use de-humanizing language to depict the others of our day?

By the time 2 Samuel is recorded in the form we have today, much has happened. Israel has split. The north has fallen to the Assyrians. The south has fallen to the Babylonians. God's holy city and temple have been destroyed, and God's people have been carted off in exile. Still, the identity of God's people is preserved. In that time of intense conflict and loss, one voice among God's people, which is reflected in passages like this one, reminds us that God will take care of God's people and restore them at the expense of their enemies. That's a kind of nationalism that make sense. When a people are oppressed or denied their basic identity, the drive to have a distinct presence and freedom is a nationalism we associate with the fight for civil rights, the desire for Indian independence from Great Britain, or the hope for Catalan independence. It is born out of a deprivation of identity. But when that voice is preserved into a time of power and prosperity or when individuals champion that voice by presenting a false narrative of powerlessness, it becomes unchecked, hate-filled self-interest. We see that voice becoming louder and louder in today's politics.

It is time to let go of the false narrative that economically, socially, and politically advantaged individuals like educated, affluent white men need to fight to preserve their culture. We don't. Instead, those of us who have been given privilege need to use it to fight for the human identities of those who are getting buried beneath the dominant culture's demand for continued dominance. What does that look like? It means putting down the iron rod and the spear. It means taking off the gloves. It means allowing the thorns to prick us and burst the bubble of our self-perpetuated security. Isn't that what Jesus did? Didn't he bleed so that all people could be reconciled to God and to each other? If we are going to hear these words from 2 Samuel this Sunday, we must ground them in their original context and rearticulate them in a way that leads us to faithful submission to God's authority without confusing God's will with our own self-interest.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Rock Solid Hope In God


November 18, 2018 – The 26th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

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

Last night’s Celebration of a New Ministry was pretty special. We gathered to celebrate what God is doing in this unfolding chapter in our life together. Everyone worked hard to make it a beautiful night. The Bishop was here. Our friend Clint Schnekloth preached. The music was outstanding. The flowers were gorgeous. The reception afterwards was over-the-top. The evening contained all of the pomp we would expect from an occasion that revels in all things Episcopalia. It felt like everyone left last night with the same thing on their mind: this is a great time in the life of St. Paul’s. And now Jesus shows up this morning and says, “You see all of these wonderful things? Pretty soon, everything will be torn down; not one brick will be left on top of another.”

What’s wrong with Jesus? Why is he in such a bad mood? Why does he feel the need to throw cold water on the whole thing? Normally, Jesus isn’t this grumpy. He’s no stick in the mud. He likes to eat dinner and drink wine with some of the most notorious sinners of his day. Some suggest that Jesus had a problem with the temple itself—that he envisioned his own ministry as a rejection of the old covenant and the temple—but the gospel doesn’t bear that out. As today’s gospel lesson opens, Jesus is on his way out of the temple, where he had gone for worship. This is the place where Jesus had worshiped for his whole life. Borrowing from Luke’s account, it is where Jesus’ earthly parents found the young Jesus—in his Father’s house. No, Jesus’ problem isn’t with the temple or with our own beautiful place of worship. His problem is with us.

We love a pretty building. We enter a sacred space like ours and feel the presence of God. During the week, I get great joy when I walk into the nave and see someone I don’t know, kneeling in a pew, dwelling in the company of the divine. That is one gift our church gives to the community. And there’s nothing wrong with that. God is beautiful, and beautiful things bring us closer to God. We are a sacramental people who believe that God meets us in the physical world in ways we can see and touch and taste and smell. The problem isn’t the things themselves. The problem is how easily we substitute them for God: our holy buildings for the Holy One, our beautiful services for a beautiful relationship with God and with our neighbor, and our pursuit of tradition for the pursuit of our Creator.

How much easier it is to worship the gods we can see than the God who is beyond our sight! How much more comfortable we are encountering God in a sacred space like this than finding him on the edge of life, under a bridge, out in a tent village, on a dark street corner, where we might get dirty or even hurt! How much more enticing is the prophet who comes and tells us that God wants us to be happy, comfortable, and prosperous than the one who reminds us that following Jesus will cost us everything! But Jesus reminds his disciples and us that things will not be easy: “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.” “Do not be alarmed,” he tells us, “for these things must take place. They are the beginning of the birthpangs.”

When they were leaving the temple, in the same way that any of us might if we were standing in Jerusalem or Rome or Oxford, one of the disciples said to Jesus, “What impressive structures and beautiful architecture!” Jesus’ response to the marveling disciple wasn’t a criticism but a reality check: “Do you see these buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” It’s as if Jesus is asking us, “In what are you placing your trust? Where are you investing your hope? If you’re counting on these stones to save you, you’re in trouble.”

We live in a time of great change. The place of religion in society is undergoing a dramatic transformation. A generation ago, Sundays were reserved for worship and family time. In the town where I grew up, if you skipped church, you didn’t dare show your face anywhere until the afternoon so no one would know. Now, a late-morning brunch has taken the place of worship as the place to see and be seen. Back then, a coach who scheduled a team practice on a Sunday afternoon risked being run out of town as an ungodly taskmaster who worshiped the idol of team sports. Now, parents who insist that their children excel at everything will travel with their young athletes to far-flung places every weekend. I don’t blame them. I love Sunday-morning brunch, and I enjoy seeing my children do well on the sports field. The stones upon which our religion is built have begun to crack under the weight of the institution itself. But the problem isn’t the stones; it’s us.

Where are we putting our hope? Can we trust that the power of God to transform this world into the place God that dreams it can be depends not on our beautiful buildings or on our beloved prayer book or on The Episcopal Church itself but only on God? What happens here on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights and occasionally on Saturday nights, too, is really special. And we’re not going to get rid of any of it anytime soon. St. Paul’s is a growing church, but we’re not growing because of what happens within these walls. We’ve had good preaching, excellent music, and fabulous worship for a long time. We’re growing not because we’re a beautiful church but because we’re a congregation that cares more about what happens out in the world than what happens in here.

If we want to see the reign of God, we must look past the buildings and programs and traditions that we love so much. I don’t think we need to tear them down and throw them out, but we need to remember that one day they will all come crashing down—and still God’s reign will come. If we want to experience the fullness of God’s presence among us, we must let go of our attachment to the institutions we love and trust that, no matter what, God’s reign will come. If we want to be a church that exists only for its own survival, we might as well put up a for sale sign in front of our doors. But, if we are willing to be a congregation that exists solely in order to be an agent for the work God is doing in the world around us, we might not know what the future will look like, but we can count on being a part of something amazing.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

On The Other Side Of Doubt


This Sunday, those of us who read the Track 1 RCL lesson will get a peek inside a complicated marriage. In 1 Samuel 1, we read the story of Hannah's struggle with her sister wife, her agony over remaining childless, her prayers of desperation, and her eventual relief as she conceives and gives birth to a son. So powerful is the story that we respond to the reading by reciting Hannah's song from 1 Samuel 2, which becomes an antecedent for Mary's song in Luke 1. Today, though, as I consider this story of God-given reversal, it is the in-between place where I want to stop and linger--the moment when Hannah's countenance changes even before her womb is opened.

It's easy to hear the big moments of the story--provocation, sobbing, prayers, confrontation, and birth--so clearly that we miss the other parts. Notice, for instance, what Elkanah says to his beloved wife before she goes to the temple to pray: "Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?" Elkanah has two wives, one of whom is fertile and one of whom is beloved. The rival wife and her children get a full share of the family sustenance, but Hannah received a double-portion, a sign of her husband's deep and counter-intuitive affection. To him, Hannah's identity is not bound up in her childlessness, but for Hannah his consolations are ineffective. He asks genuinely, "Why are you sad?" assuring her of his love, but her inability to respond to that love in the way she would choose leaves her bereft.

Notice also how Hannah is transformed after her encounter with Eli in the temple. After pouring out her heart in prayer and defending herself to the priest, Eli offers a hopeful prayer in return: "Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him." It isn't a guarantee. It's a faithful wish. But it's enough. It's a reminder to Hannah that the Lord has heard her prayers. She responds respectfully and goes back to her family. The narrator tells us, "Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer."

When I read the lesson this morning, I was reminded of the many couples I know who, having explored every option available to them and having given up on the possibility of having children, suddenly are granted an unexpected miracle. There's something about letting go, about relinquishing our activity in our own circumstance, that opens up new possibilities. No, I'm not saying that Hannah's change in perspective and attitude are what opened her womb. God did. But I don't think it's a stretch to say that Hannah's change in countenance reflects a faithfulness that made the clear action of God discernible. She let go. She trusted. She had faith that, no matter what happened, God was with her. Being home with her loving husband was enough because God was with her.

How often it feels like the only right answer to our prayers is our own understanding of perfection! Yet we know that God rarely works that way. How often are our prayers answered exactly how and when and where we want? Sometimes the "right" answer comes years later. Often God's response is to grant us our heart's true desire even when our words and minds were asking for something else. Faith isn't believing that God will do the thing you want. Faith is belonging to God so completely that, no matter what happens, we trust that God is with us and will never forsake us. In that place of belonging, we know that God hears our prayers and answers them because we belong to God. The knowledge and experience of that belonging is what transforms us.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Birth Pangs


I was out of town on a retreat with some colleagues last week, so I didn't write much. I was grateful for the time but found myself in church on Sunday under-prepared. I wasn't preaching, so, beginning on Wednesday, I took advantage of the down time and neglected to read the lessons with daily scrutiny. I didn't like it. This week, the clergy from Arkansas get together for clergy conference, and, again, I'm headed out of town for some peer support. I worry I won't have the opportunity (or internet access) to write daily, but I'm preaching, so I can't afford to neglect my studies.

As I read a gospel lesson on which I would rather not preach (Mark 13:1-8), I am drawn to the final word: "birthpangs." Actually, the NRSV makes that one word, but most of the other sources I find translate it into English as "birth pains" or "troubles." I don't know whether "birthpangs" is actually a word in English, but I think it's a mistake to remove the labor-specific image behind the word Jesus uses. He isn't merely describing a difficult time. Jesus' portrayal of "wars and rumors of wars," including international and domestic strife, as well as earthquakes and famines is not simply a prediction of difficulties ahead. These are the sign of something new, a beginning, a birth.

The Greek word that is translated by the NRSV as "birthpangs" is "ὠδίνων," which is the genetive plural of "ὠδίν." It is first and foremost the pain of childbirth, but it is, of course, more commonly used to describe a necessary pain that opens up or introduces something new (see Strong's Concordance). The word occurs four times in the New Testament. Two of them in the gospel (here and in the parallel Matthew 24:8). One comes in 1 Thessalonians 5:3, when Paul actually uses the sudden onset of labor pains to describe the coming of Christ. The other, interestingly enough, is Acts 2:24, when the word is used to describe the resurrection's power over the the agony/pain of death, which Peter understands to be transitional.

Back to Mark 13. Jesus might not have had an actual childbirth in mind when he described the upcoming sufferings that the would would endure, but those pains are the beginning of something else. They are not an end in themselves. And the thing that comes afterward is something that we look forward to--the end, the completion, the salvation. As a twenty-first century, privileged, North American Christian, it is hard for me to hear a prediction of war, earthquake, and famine as the beginning of good news, but to a first-century, Palestinian Christian, who faced persecution by the authorities and rejection by the elites, a massive global shakedown was a good sign.

This passage describes hardship and struggle, but it is part of God's great arc of salvation. When Jesus says, "This is but the beginning of the birthpangs," he wants his disciples to know that there is relief and joy on the other side of the struggle. I've never met a mother who had been through childbirth who wanted to go through the pain again, but I've met plenty who celebrate the birth of their child as the greatest gift they have ever received. What does it take for us to read these words of Jesus and find hope in them? It requires us to let go of our position of relative comfort and security and trust that a great global shakedown is good news for Jesus' followers. But isn't that the definition of faithfulness all along?

Monday, November 5, 2018

What Does God Want?


If you allow your mind to pursue a love that is truly and fully unconditional, you end up in a pretty strange place. As Christians, as followers of Jesus, as those who have witnessed humanity's rejection of God's Son in the cross and God's love-defiant repudiation of that rejection in the resurrection, we believe that that is how God loves the world. God does not love us because we believe in God. God does not love us because we follow God's rules. God does not love us because we belong to a particular community, tribe, or tradition. God does not love us because we love God back. God just loves us, and, because that love is unconditional, it embraces everyone with the same fullness. Everyone and everything enjoys the complete benefit of being loved by God completely.

When it comes to relationships, hopes, prayers, discipleship, stewardship, and many other areas of life, truly unconditional love leads us to some bizarre places. What does it mean to have meaningful human relationships if we pursue that kind of unconditional love? I love my children, in part, because they are my children. You might have nice kids, but I don't love them the same way as I love my own. But what if I did? If your preacher delivers the unadulterated good news of God's unconditional love, emphasizing that God will love you the same whether you come to church, whether you say your prayers, whether you love your neighbor as yourself or tell that neighbor to bleep off, what happens when you see that preacher in the grocery store on Saturday? When she asks, "Will I see you in church tomorrow?" how would you respond? Well, if the preacher were embodying the fullness of unconditional love, her question would come with zero expectations, and you would feel completely free to answer however you wish. That doesn't sound very much like a religion. It sounds like freedom.

On Sunday, we will hear the story of the widow who places two copper coins into the temple's treasury (Mark 12:38-44). It's autumn, and many churches are in the middle of annual giving campaigns. If your preacher hasn't delivered a stewardship sermon yet, this might be the opportunity. But the beauty of this image, which Jesus highlights for our benefit, dissolves when the preacher turns it into "Jesus wants you to be like the widow and give more." That's not love. That's not grace. That's not gospel. That's guilt and shame and law. God doesn't want your last two copper coins. God already has them whether you put them into the treasury or hide them under your mattress. Wherever they are and however you choose to use them, they already belong to God. God, who loves us the same no matter where we put those two coins, wants us to know that God loves us without limit.

How do we pursue a life that is governed by unconditional love--first the love that God has for us and then the transformation of our own love into divine love? After watching the widow, Jesus remarks, "This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on." Forget the money for a minute and think about the gesture, the action, and the self-declared vulnerability that it represents. "This poor widow has put in more [because]...she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on." Her gift is an act of desperation. She is a widow. She has no income except what people give to her. She lives purely on the charity (same word as love) of others. By placing all that she has in the temple treasury, she is placing her whole life--whether she lives or dies--in God's hands. Her gift reflects the truth that her life depends on God. That's true for us as well, but it's hard to see it when you've got a job, a paycheck, a life insurance policy, a savings account, a 401(k), and a retirement plan. It's still true. Whether we live or die, whether we're rich or poor, whether we're comfortable or struggling, is in God's hands, and God wants us to see it.

God doesn't want your money. God wants you to know that God loves you. God doesn't want your annual pledge. God wants you to trust that God's love will provide for you and your family. God doesn't want you to sell all that you have and give it to the poor unless selling all that you have and giving it to the poor is what it takes for you to wake up in the morning knowing that the Holy One is your shepherd. We celebrate the widow not because she gave all that she had but because, in giving all that she had, she reveals a deep and abiding faith in the One who loves her unconditionally. In the meritocracy in which we live, it's hard to get the truth of unconditional love into our minds and hearts and lives. God's going to love us the same whether we get it or not, but isn't life better and fuller when we know the power of that love?

Friday, November 2, 2018

Día de Muertos


The first time I heard about Día de Muertos, long before the film Coco came out, was in ninth-grade Spanish class. As Halloween approached, our teacher, Sra. Skidmore, made us decorate objects for a classroom ofrenda, as we adopted the Mexican tradition of building an altar and decorating it with sugar skulls, favorite candies (no tequila or mezcal allowed in high school), and pictures of dead relatives so that the spirits of our ancestors would be enticed to come and visit with us on November 2, All Souls' Day. Even though I had some high-church leanings, as a lifelong Methodist, I found the whole thing rather suspect. Forget the religion-in-public-school issue. I wondered how this bizarre blend of pagan practice, witchcraft, ouija boards, and Christianity hadn't long before been stamped out by the Inquisition. It turns out, however, that Día de Muertos, which we celebrate today, is all about the holiness of love and longing.

There is something fundamentally human about missing so much our loved ones who have died that we want to find ways to stay in touch with them. When Spanish conquistadors came to the New World in the 16th century, Día de Muertos was already happening among the indigenous people in southern Mexico. They did not need Christianity to express their desire to commune with the spirits of their ancestors. Naturally, the European colonists with their codified religious beliefs were as suspicious as I was, so they outlawed the celebration, which is why the practice did not spread to the north of Mexico until the twentieth century. Eventually, however, authorities in the church recognized that the indigenous practice was simply a way to remember those who have died, to celebrate their lives and their memories, and to pray for them. And that is something that the church has always done because the desire to remain close with those who have left this life is always born out of love.

As an Episcopalian who was formed mostly in the Protestant part of our tradition, I always carried a little bit of suspicion about All Souls' Day and our practice of praying for the dead until a mentor explained to me what I already knew in my heart: we pray for those who have died because we love them. The love we have for our mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and daughters and sons does not end at the grave. We hold them up to God in prayer because we love them and because our love does not die.

Because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ--God's great victory over death--our prayers are not wishful thoughts, empty hopes for a connection that has been lost forever. Instead, they are expressions of a faith that lives on beyond the deaths of those we hold dear. Jesus said, "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life." Today, we remember those for whom that promise is true. We bring their names into our minds and their memories into our hearts because we love them, and, because we know that God loves them, we believe that they are still alive with God until we are untied with them and all the faithful.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

May Their Memories Be A Blessing


This post is also featured in this week's newsletter from St. Paul's in Fayetteville, Arkansas. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn more about what God is doing in and through the people of St. Paul's, click here.


On Sunday night, I joined many from our community at Temple Shalom to remember and bear witness to the sacrifice made by eleven faithful children of God who were murdered and martyred in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. As I approached the door, I noticed two signs taped on the wall on either side of the entrance: “No Large Purses or Bags Please.” The signs reminded me that the violence in Pittsburgh was not a fluke. When our Jewish siblings invite us to stand with them in solidarity against anti-Semitism, they must consider the possibility that hate-filled extremists might bring the evils of terrorism to their own doorstep right here in northwest Arkansas.

In my prayers, I often give thanks for the freedoms I enjoy and, when naming them, regularly include the freedom to worship without fear. Saturday morning’s shooting and Sunday night’s memorial service reminded me that I have the privilege of taking that freedom for granted. On Sunday mornings, I come to church worried about whether the temperature in the nave will make everyone happy. I worry whether there will be trash in the parking lot. I worry about the possibility of having to awaken a person who has been sleeping out by the playground. I do not worry about a religious extremist walking through the door with violent intentions because, as a mainline Protestant congregation, we are not the target of hate groups. Nevertheless, despite not needing to worry about that for the sake of our congregation, if there are people and congregations in my community or anywhere else in the “Land of the Free” for whom that fear is real and reasonable, that itself should become my concern—my worry—and, as a committed person of faith, I must be willing to respond. I invite you to consider your own faithful response.

What will we do about it? How will we respond to yet another violent act? What will we do about another mass shooting? Will we offer our thoughts and prayers to those who are affected? Yes, of course we will pray, but we will pray for more than comfort and peace. We will pray that God will give us the courage to use our privileged position of relative security to take the risk of speaking out on behalf of those who are threatened. We will ask God to use our prayers to shape our lives, our actions, and our public voices to call for change. We will ask our political leaders to enact common-sense gun reform by strengthening requirements for background checks and limiting access to assault weapons and ammunition. We will keep our own firearms locked up, secure, and inaccessible by children. We will support adequately-funded mental health care.

We will not wait until blood is shed in this community before taking action. We will condemn not only violent acts but also the speech that leads to violence by promoting a culture that denies the full and equal dignity of any human being. We will speak out against racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigrant and anti-LGBT rhetoric when we hear it at our workplaces, at our dinner tables, and from our local and national leaders. We will strive for political dialogue and debate that are impassioned but remain focused on policies instead of personal attacks. We will remember that the forces that hold us together are stronger than the forces that seek to pull us apart.


On Sunday night, Rabbi Adler reminded us that one way to honor the dead is to ask that their memory be a blessing. That is my prayer this week—that the memory of the eleven martyrs in Pittsburgh will be a blessing for their families, for their community, and for all of us. May their lives and their deaths lead us closer to our Creator. May their sacrifice be a light that shines on the path that leads to God’s dream of peace and reconciliation for the world. May their witness live on our in our hearts and minds and leave us restless until the holy work of making peace is finished.