Thursday, March 26, 2015

Kill Him or Not?

On Sunday, like many congregations, we will celebrate the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem by waving palm branches and shouting, "Hosanna in the highest!" (Well, we probably won't shout, but we'll say it as firmly yet politely as Episcopalians can.) Then, we'll hear the entire passion narrative according to Mark, which means the anointing of Jesus' feet plus the preparation of the upper room plus the Last Supper plus the prayer in the garden plus the betrayal plus the trial plus the denial plus the torture and finally the execution. Yeah, it's not just Palm Sunday anymore. It's the full-on, we-don't-trust-people-to-come-to-church-on-Good-Friday story. (Steve Pankey has written about this before, and his words are still with me). All of that means that preachers are already trying to figure out what to say--whether anything at all needs to be said or even can be said--with so much else already going on.

So, today, I want to write about something completely different. Well, sort of different but still a little bit related.

Today's Old Testament reading from the Daily Office (Jeremiah 26:1-16) ends with a beautiful realization worth remembering as we approach Palm Sunday. In this lesson, the prophet decries the disobedience of God's people and calls them to repent. Essentially, he prophesies that the entire nation will be destroyed if they don't get their act together. Naturally, the people are upset about this, and they decide to kill Jeremiah, saying to him, "You shall die! Why have you prophesied in the name of the LORD, saying, 'This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city shall be desolate, without inhabitant'?" And, just before they kill him, Jeremiah says, "It is the LORD who sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the words you have heard...But as for me, here I am in your hands. Do with me as seems good and right to you. Only know for certain that if you put me to death, you will be bringing innocent blood upon yourselves and upon this city and its inhabitants, for in truth the LORD sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears."

Damn. I love that line. I love Jeremiah's boldness. I love that he knows so certainly that he is God's prophet that he looks his would-be murderers in the eyes and says, "Do it...I dare you!"

And sure enough, the people flinch. They look at each other and say, "This man does not deserve the sentence of death, for he has spoken to us in the name of the LORD our God." In other words, they say, "Well...maybe we shouldn't kill him after all. Maybe he is a prophet. Maybe he is speaking the truth."

On Sunday (and again on Friday), we face that moment ourselves. With the dramatic reading, we will put on the lips of the congregation the infamous line, "Crucify him!" as we all urge Pilate to have Jesus put to death. Jesus, of course, had come to speak God's word to God's people--prophecies that God's people didn't really want to hear. And, then, in the moment, when he looks us in the eye, what do we do? We carry through with our intent. We call upon the officials to kill the renegade prophet. We'd rather his blood be upon us and our children (you have to wait until Friday for that particular line, but you get the point).

When will we come to our senses? When will we flinch? When will we consider the consequences of our murderous intentions? Maybe that's a sermon for Easter Day.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

St. Joseph and Clergy Families

All day long I've been thinking about Joseph. Funny enough, he's come up in conversation several times. First, with my spiritual director this morning. She wanted to read part of the Litany of St. Joseph to begin our time together. Later, I spoke about him to a parishioner who was facing a difficult situation. Then, at TonTap, I asked a question about Joseph and the nature of God's call in our lives. Finally, at a banquet for local ministers and their spouses, I mentioned that St. Joseph reminds me of my family.

All day long I've been thinking about Joseph, and every time I've thought of my wife and my children. You see, God didn't bother to ask Joseph before he announced the "good news" of Jesus' birth to Joseph's betrothed. Mary, on the other had, was approached by the Angel Gabriel, who told her what God's plan was. Mary agreed: "Let it me unto me according to thy word." She said yes. But someone forgot to ask Joseph.

After the deed was done, the angel found Joseph and told him in a dream what was going to happen. Joseph had already learned that his fiancée was pregnant, and he intended to divorce her quietly--honorably. But the angel let Joseph know after the fact what God's plan was: "Um, Joseph, about that pregnancy thing..." And we remember Joseph for his faithfulness, his obedience, his courage, and his prudence.

Often I think of Mary and the call God placed upon her. We celebrate the fact that she said yes, and, through her agreement, she became the Mother of God. She is an active participant. Her brave participation in the incarnation is remembered throughout all generations. But Joseph is remembered primarily for what he didn't do--for not divorcing her, for not looking for another wife, for not giving up on the woman whose womb was filled with the child of another.

But there's more to Joseph than that. He had a call, too. God could not have done with Mary what he accomplished if Joseph had not said yes, too. Had Joseph been anyone else--had he abandoned his wife in her moment of need--Mary could not have been Jesus' mother. Even though we don't think of Joseph's call, he had a call, too. His call was a holy call--a commission from God that accompanied his spouse's ministry.

How many ministers like me have spouses who make their ministry possible yet aren't thought of as having a call? Being a clergy spouse is a calling. Even if you didn't go before the Commission on Ministry or go to seminary or hear God say, "You're supposed to be a clergy spouse," being married to a clergyperson is a calling. No matter how busy one becomes with church work--no matter if she or he never even darkens the door--there is a sacrifice made for the sake of the ministry of the ordained. And that sacrifice is made by the children as well. Just ask my kids what we do on a "long weekend" when they are out of school on a Monday. Long weekend? Not for us. That, my friends, is a sacrifice.

Today, as we remember Joseph, I remember all of those who are responding to God's call even if God didn't stop to ask them whether they were willing to sign on. Sometimes ministry is foisted upon people--especially the family members of clergy people. Today, as we remember Joseph, let's remember those who live with ministers and give of themselves in their own way. It's their calling, too.

Hating One's Life

I wonder whether Jesus' parents forbade him from saying the word "hate" when he was a child. Like "stupid" and "shut-up," the word "hate" is a perfectly acceptable word that we have forbidden our children from saying because they haven't learned how to use it. When a five-year-old bandies words like that around, his three-year-old brother gets his feelings hurt. And their father gets in trouble for describing something that is genuinely stupid as just that--stupid.

The point is that I wonder whether Jesus was being as provocative in John 12 as he sounds in the twenty-first century: "Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life." What does it mean to hate one's life? What Is Jesus really asking us to do? Is he trying to prove a point, or is he really asking us to loathe the life we're given?

For starters, let's remember that human life is a good thing--otherwise God would not have taken it on in the incarnation in order to redeem it. The incarnation proves that Christianity is not an escapist religion. We are not called to shed our human nature so that we might become some sort of semi-divine being. God redeems our human nature by becoming human. So life itself is valuable. This is not some suicide cult.

So what, then, does it mean to hate one's life? I do believe that Jesus was being provocative, but I don't think he was speaking hyperbolically. He means hate our life. Remember, the one who is speaking is on his way to the cross, where he will give up this life in a dramatic, painful, terrifying way. And he is calling his disciples to follow him--even to death.

No, God is not calling us to be petulant teenagers--the kind who say, "Oh, Mom, I hate my life!" in that super-melodramatic way. Instead, God is asking us to give it up and not just let it go. No, we don't throw our life away, but we happily, readily, eagerly turn it over the way a kid tosses his broccoli in the trash when his parents aren't looking. Maybe I'm skating a fine line, but I think Jesus was, too. We need to take his words seriously or else the call to sacrifice is only an image. The death Jesus died is more than metaphor, and the sacrifice we are called to make is, too.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

God the Potter; We the Clay

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

What does it mean for God to change God’s mind? We read about that several times in the bible. It happens when Moses pleads with God, and God “relents of the disaster that he intended to bring upon the people” (Exodus 32:14). And it happens again in today’s reading from Jeremiah, when God says to the prophet, “If that [evil] nation…turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it” (18:1-11). But what does that really mean? For us—not for God—what does it mean for God to change God’s mind?

God asks the prophet to accompany him to the potter’s house, and, while standing there looking at the potter throwing a pot on his wheel, the Lord says, “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?” In some ways, it is a beautiful image—to think of God’s people as the clay that God uses to make a piece of art or something useful in the kitchen. Not long ago, my parents bought a bowl from a potter in North Carolina, and it has quickly become a cherished possession. If you look carefully, you can see how the artist shaped the clay before firing it and glazing it. The concentric circular marks all along the vessel remind us of the time and skill and care that the potter used to make the bowl. So, too, do we enjoy thinking of our relationship with God like that—that he molds us into something worth beholding.

But there is one powerful and consequential limit to that image: the potter shapes the clay with zero regard for what the clay wants to become. That might seem obvious to us. In fact, the prophet Isaiah explores that very aspect of the potter/clay relationship in Isaiah 29:16: “You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, ‘He did not make me’; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, ‘He has no understanding’? If we are going to be the Lord’s handiwork, we need to accept that he is the potter—not us.

Sometimes things don’t work out the way they should. The underdog fumbles on the goal line and barely misses beating its rival. The Cinderella team makes it to the Sweet 16 but doesn’t have what it takes to make it further in the tournament. Relationships that have lasted for decades sometimes fall apart. Cancers come back even after a long remission. Even when we are certain that we know what the right thing is—what God’s will is—sometimes it doesn’t happen that way.

Does God change his mind? Well, it depend on whom you ask. Other places in the bible (like Malachi 3:6) make it clear that God does not change. To me, it seems like there are times when the only way we can explain an about-face—a gap between our understanding and God’s understanding—is to say that God has changed his mind…even if that doesn’t really make sense. And the good news is that God can handle our incorrect approximations.

Through it all, however, we are taught that God is God and we are not. It’s the first lesson in life: we are not in control. Learning that—accepting that—makes it possible for God to do wonderful, beautiful, remarkable things with us…even if they aren’t the things we were expecting.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Home Stretch

This post originally appeared as the cover article in our parish newsletter, The View. To read the rest of the newsletter and to learn about what's happening at St. John's, Decatur, please click here.
In the Episcopal Church, we like to think of ourselves as friendly and welcoming, but we regularly ask newcomers to juggle a prayer book and a hymnal, often jumping from one place to another without warning. Some of us are put off by that feeling of lostness, but I have always found it strangely appealing. Even when I was new to the Episcopal Church, I loved being asked to keep up with so many moving parts. Everyone around me seemed to know what she was doing—all bowing, kneeling, and crossing themselves in unison—and I knew that if I was to get the most I could out of worship I had to give it my full attention. Sometimes, though, I am keenly aware that, despite everyone’s best efforts, I have lost a considerable portion of the congregation.

Once a month, one of the clergy from our parish offers a Communion service at a local assisted-living facility. We started that back when there were six or seven members of our congregation living there, but several of them have moved or died, leaving only a few Episcopalians in the group. The success of that gathering, however, was never measured in the number of parishioners around the table. From the very beginning, most of our worshippers were from a different tradition. As you might expect, we use the Book of Common Prayer for the liturgy, and we distribute service leaflets that have most of the words of the service printed in them, but there are always a few gaps that trip people up. In particular, there is one point in the service at which the presider says the proper preface for the season or the day, and invariably several worshippers begin flipping back and forth, looking for words that are not in their leaflets.

Even if we don’t realize it or can’t find it in our prayer books, the proper preface is a part of the Eucharistic prayer that we hear every Sunday—the part immediately before the Sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy…”). It changes with the liturgical season, and its words reflect the focus of our worship. Most seasons (e.g. Easter, Advent, and Christmas) have only one preface associated with them, but Lent has two (plus a third preface just for Holy Week). For the first six weeks of Lent, therefore, whoever is presiding at the table has a choice, and, when it is my turn to pick, I always try to choose the preface that ties in more closely with the gospel lesson and/or the sermon.

Although there are exceptions (most notably Ash Wednesday), the first four weeks of Lent usually remind me of the first preface, which recalls Jesus’ victory over temptation—a victory in which we share. Once we pass the fourth Sunday in Lent, however, things change. The readings begin to focus more clearly on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the death that awaited him there. Accordingly, the preface to which I feel drawn during these last few weeks reminds us that God “[bids his] faithful people cleanse their hearts, and prepare with joy for the Paschal feast.” In that way, we recognize that our Lenten journey is nearing its end—its consummation—and that there are steps we need to take to get ready for it.
This past Sunday our church was particularly full. Perhaps you have felt a gentle tug on your heart these past few weeks. Perhaps the warm weather and the lengthening days have stirred up in you a desire to return to church. Whatever the reason, I cannot think of a better time to worship with us. Easter is right around the corner. Lent is almost over. Whether you gave something up or took something on doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you find a way to prepare your heart to celebrate the joy that is coming. We are nearly there, but it isn’t too late. As the preface bids us, now is the time for “fervent prayer and…works of mercy.” Now is the time for renewal through God’s Word and Sacraments. God has prepared an immeasurable grace for us. Now we must prepare to receive it again.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Logic of Salvation History

Geography seems important in Sunday’s gospel lesson (John 12:20-33). The story takes place in Jerusalem, where the festival of the Passover is taking place. The narrator lets us know that there were some Greeks there observing the festival. Some of these non-Jewish but God-fearing people come to Philip and ask to see Jesus. Philip, the narrator tells us, is from Bethsaida in Galilee. John doesn’t make a big deal about it, but it’s as if he wants us to have these geographical identities in the backs of our minds as we read the rest of the passage—Jerusalem, Greeks, Galilee.

When Philip is approached by the Greeks, he goes and finds Andrew. Then, Andrew and Philip go to Jesus and tell him that he is being sought by some Greeks. But Jesus’ reply seems to be off the subject—almost as if he didn’t hear them: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit…” What’s he talking about? Is he changing the subject? Or is this some kind of metaphorical response to the Greek’s inquiry?

There is a logic to salvation history. God’s work of salvation begins with Abraham, continues through his descendants, and finally, through them, spreads to the rest of the world. The remarkable thing about the Jesus movement is that it begins as an almost exclusively Jewish sect but is quickly (within a generation or two) taken over by non-Jews. Without Jesus, how many Gentiles would know the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? How many would teach their children about Moses, Deborah, and Ruth?

Yes, in Jesus’ day there were many non-Jews who knew and worshiped the God of Israel. They were like these nameless Greeks—those who had adopted the faith of Israel. But in Jesus’ death and resurrection, something different happens. Gentiles discover instead what it means to be adopted by Israel’s God. A grain of wheat remains a single grain unless it falls into the ground and dies.

Look and Live

March 15, 2015 – 4th Sunday in Lent, Year B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
The other day a friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook. Perhaps you saw it. It was a photograph of a digital scale, and she included a celebratory description, indicating that this was the first time in a long while that she had been on the “good side” of this particular milestone weight. I must confess to you, my brothers and sisters, that my first thought wasn’t congratulatory. Instead. I wondered aloud to myself, “What is she thinking? I wouldn’t share a picture of my weight on Facebook even if I lost a hundred pounds!”

You see, for me, weight has always been an issue. I was chosen last for the kickball team. My cousins made fun of the shape of my body. I cried because they didn’t make Guess jeans in husky sizes. For almost my whole life, my weight has been one of those personal failures that I do not share with anyone. In fact, I barely even share it with myself.

But I love standardized tests. I delight in performance evaluations. I look forward to high school reunions. I even enjoy the machine in the pharmacy where I can hold really still and breathe really slowly and get my pulse and my blood pressure down to a level that astonishes most people. I love those things because I am good at them—because they are ways that I can demonstrate to the rest of the world that I am a success. But my scale is another story.

When I am in a good pattern of running three or four times a week, I will hop on the scale—as long as no one else is around—and look down at the number to see how I am doing. But, when things get busy and I am not able to exercise the way I know I should, I won’t go anywhere near the scale. I know it’s bad, but I don’t want to see that number staring up at me. I’d rather pretend that things are worse than they really are than know the ugly truth. I’m like the guy—and it’s almost always a guy—who has had some terrifying symptoms for years but refuses to go to the doctor because it’s not really real until someone in a white coat with letters after her name gives it a diagnosis.

No one likes confronting his physical or professional or relational failures. Even though we know that they exist, we don’t want to encounter them. So what, then, does that say about sin? What is it like to confront your spiritual shortcomings? What is it like to come face to face with the ways that you have let God down?

You’ve heard the story about the Episcopalian or Presbyterian not wanting to wait in a long line at the liquor store. As soon as he walks in the door, he boldly declares, “Oh, Brother Billy! What are you doing here—looking for sinners?” sending all the Baptists running for cover. That reminds me of how much fun it is to go to Publix right after church and catch…I mean, see…some of the parishioners who didn’t quite make it to church on Sunday morning. All joking aside, it isn’t fun to confront our sin or to have someone else confront it for us. Whether we’re kneeling down in a confessional booth or making a “searching and fearless moral inventory” and admitting “to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs,” no one looks forward to sharing his deepest failures with anyone else.[1] You may not worry that the federal marshals will come and bang on your door in the middle of the night, but there are truths about yourself that you don’t want to share with another living soul. You have your own metaphorical mugshots that you don’t want to show up on the internet. If Nathaniel Hawthorne taught us anything it’s that all of us have at least one scarlet letter hiding under our shirts.

And that brings me to the bizarre story of the bronze serpent from Numbers 21. By this time in their journey from Egypt to the Promise Land, the people of Israel had been walking for a long, long time. Finally, they had arrived on the border of their destination, but the King of Edom refused to give them safe passage through his land. So Israel had to make a long detour out of the way. Understandably frustrated, the people began to grumble against God and against Moses. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt?” they cried—not for the first time. “We are hungry and thirsty, and we have nothing to eat except this worthless manna.”

At that point, as the author of the story tells us, the Lord seemed to lose his temper, and he sent poisonous snakes to bite the people, many of whom died. In a panic, the people ran to Moses and said, “Moses, help us! We have sinned against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord that he might take these serpents from us.” So Moses prayed, and God offered him a solution: “Make a poisonous serpent out of bronze and set it on a pole, and those who are bitten shall look upon that serpent and live.” And that is exactly what Moses did, and, sure enough, whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would gaze upon the bronze snake and live.

There are many strange stories in the bible, but this story belongs somewhere near the very top of that list. God gets angry at his faithless people and sends poisonous snakes to punish them. The people have a change of heart and beg Moses to save them. And, after Moses prays to God, God tells him to make a serpent out of bronze—an idol, if you will—and to affix it to the top of a pole. And somehow looking at that bronze statue of a snake was enough to heal these snake-bit people. How in the world did this happen, and, more importantly, how in the world did the people who put the Hebrew scriptures together allow this story of salvation through pseudo-idol-worship to stay in the bible?

Like all passages in scripture, this story isn’t just a tale from history. It’s written in order to teach us something. And I don’t think it’s an accident that the faithless people who were saved found salvation by staring the exact consequences of their sin right in the face. Healing began when the people gazed upon the same serpent that had bit them. And where do you think that healing came from? That bronze serpent didn’t have any power to save the Israelites. Idols are empty images of metal, wood, or stone, fashioned by human hands. Only God has the power to save his people, and salvation comes through faith, and faith requires repentance, and repentance means taking a long, hard look at our sin so that we might leave it behind forever.

None of us enjoys encountering the totality of his or her failures. We’d rather hide from them or pretend that they don’t exist or stick them in a closet where they will collect dust. But the truth is that we are all snake-bit, and the only way we will ever get better is by looking in the mirror and admitting our wrongs. Confronting our sin is the first step. God asks us to believe in his promise of forgiveness—to trust that no sin, no misdeed, no failure is big enough to separate us from his love. If we are hiding our sin from ourselves and from God and from one another, we aren’t trusting in the power of his forgiveness.
There’s a reason that Jesus told Nicodemus that the Son of Man must be lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. Salvation begins when we feel the freedom that comes from acknowledging our sin to a God who has pledged to love us regardless of it. Gaze not upon a fiery serpent but upon the crucified Son of God. Behold not only the magnitude of his sacrifice but also the magnitude of your sin—our sin which held him there. Look upon the manifestation of your own misdeeds as they are nailed to the cross and be saved by the one whose love will always triumph over even your biggest failures.

[1] From Alcoholics Anonymous.