Thursday, May 21, 2015

Back to the Gospel

In recent weeks, the lessons from Acts have been so good that I have stopped paying careful enough attention to the gospel lesson. For the last two weeks, I preached on circumcision in Acts 10 and casting lots in Acts 1. I'm not preaching this week, but, again, as I've read the lessons for this Sunday, I find myself drawn so clearly to the "text of the day"--the story of Pentecost in Acts 2--that I almost skip over the gospel completely. That's a mistake, and, even if you're preparing to preach on Acts 2, I encourage you to take a moment to reread the passage from John and let it sink into your soul. It might not be an exciting text from which to preach, but it's powerful words from Jesus worth remembering.

I think I could preach a whole sermon on "Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you."

In my teaching and preaching, when I refer to the building excitement that surrounded Jesus' earthly ministry, I often label it as "the Jesus Movement." That term, of course, is not from me. I'm borrowing it from lots of people who used it before I showed up. I like that term. It reminds me that the work Jesus was doing, while deeply rooted in the Judaism of his day, was distinct. But on Pentecost, when I read Jesus' assessment of his departure--"it is to your advantage that I go away"--I realize that our faith isn't simply a Jesus movement.

Lots of movements are person-centered. Think of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Think of George Washington and John Adams and the other revolutionaries whose names we were taught in school. Think of Desmond Tutu and Pope Francis and Billy Graham. The comparison isn't perfect, of course. All of those figures were or are a part of something bigger and would eschew identification as the center of a movement, but each one had his own set of devotees. And those of them who have died or retired or disappeared from the public scene have seen their followers move on to other leaders. But that isn't how the movement Jesus initiated ended up. His followers didn't continue the spirit of his work by attaching themselves to another leader. They continued the exact same movement with the exact same devotion by following (and worshipping) the exact same God whose Spirit came down at Pentecost.

Although Jesus has ascended into heaven, our faith isn't adequately described as remaining in the post-Jesus era. The gift of the Holy Spirit isn't an afterthought--a way of carrying on the movement under new leadership. The Advocate is God himself as Spirit that lives and burns and leads God's followers. That's why Jesus can encourage his disciples to look forward to Pentecost without holding sorrow in their hearts. This isn't second-best. This isn't a babysitter or a pedagogue. It's the real deal, same deal. Our church is woefully shallow in its eschatology--in part because we're still acting like those first disciples. We think Jesus' departure is the end of an era. If the Christian faith were merely a Jesus Movement, that might be the case. But it's not. Our faith is more than a Jesus Movement. It's a God Movement, and Jesus and the Spirit are both at the center of it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Tongues, Tongues, and Other Gifts

Yesterday, in his post “Tongues of Fire,” Steve Pankey introduced me to a new word: “xenoglossy,” which means the act of speaking or writing in a language unknown to the speaker/writer. For example, if this blog suddenly switched into Croatian (without the help of Google Translator), it would be evidence of xenoglossy. Because I don’t know the first thing about Croatian, my sudden ability to communicate in it would be a gift from beyond—presumably a work of the Spirit.

In that post, Steve takes time to distinguish between the speaking in tongues we encounter this Sunday in the Pentecost moment of Acts 2 and the more common though still pretty strange version of speaking in tongues that some Christians practice as an ongoing spiritual exercise. That version of speaking in tongues, known as “glossolalia,” is the Spirit-given ability to speak “in the tongues of angels,” which is to say in a “language” that no one other than God and the angels and, in some very rare circumstances, someone else in the room who has the Spirit-given gift of interpretation can understand. In other words, it’s a holy babbling that to most of us sounds nonsensical. Pentecost, Steve reminds us, is about the former—the good news of Jesus Christ being spoken in languages that transcend any national or ethnic barrier. That’s right, of course, but I want to push the envelope just a little bit further and say that it’s also about the latter, too.

Steve acknowledges that he “grew up going to a fairly charismatic Episcopal Church,” and I, too, should mention that I went to an Anglican (in the true Church-of-England sense of that word not in the schismatic sense) seminary that, by Episcopal Church standards, was remarkably charismatic. Individuals regularly prayed or sang in tongues at the weekly seminary Communion service. In fact, at one infamous service, the presider even encouraged individuals in the congregation to pray or sing in tongues during the Sanctus. That moment, whilst beautiful and Spiritually strange, caused some controversy among those in the community who took the Articles of Religion and its prohibition on such speaking in tongues in public worship seriously.

But I was drawn deeply to the Spirit-filled prayer life of our college. I had a prayer partner who prayed every morning before dawn in a language I could not understand, and I earnestly desired that gift. I wanted to pray with him…like him. I begged that God would give me the gift of speaking in tongues. And I prayed for the gift of interpretation. I practiced moving my tongue and lips in ways that made sounds that made no sense to me, but there was no breath of the Spirit in my babbling. Instead, all I got was a dream in which I did actually speak in tongues, but it was more like the traditional Muslim prayers on a small rug with my head touching the ground. In other words, I was disappointed.

The process of seeking a gift and not receiving it, however, left an imprint on my spiritual identity. In that time, I learned to appreciate that spiritual gifts are just that—gifts—things that come from somewhere and someone else. They do not come from within. I do not have them on my own. They are granted (or not) by the Spirit. Pentecost is recognition that God’s powerful work in the world is not a human invention. It is a gift from above.

In the ancient tradition of our church, we recognize that the apostles received the Holy Spirit, which came down from heaven like “divided tongues, as of fire.” Bishops are the successors of the apostles, and they wear their funny pointy little hats called “mitres” to remind us of those tongues of fire. And originally (and still in the Orthodox tradition) bishops were the only ones in the church who baptized others. They had been given a share of the Spirit at their ordination as bishops—their link with the apostles—and they were the ones who doled out shares of that Spirit through baptism. In the Western Church, we’ve changed that pattern and let anyone baptize but only allow presbyters (aka “elders” or “priests”) to chrismate the baptized with an oil that must be consecrated by the bishop. That’s a loose connection to the former process, but the tie is still important. Baptism is the means by which we receive a share of that same Spirit that came down at Pentecost.

I want to encourage the church to seek the gifts of the Spirit, which were given at Pentecost and are still given through baptism. Maybe that means xenoglossy or glossolalia, but it probably means something else. What spiritual gifts are we given? I don’t mean talents or skills—what we’re good at. What external power has been bestowed upon us? What is our spiritual giftedness? May it be just as powerful and dramatic as the original Pentecost that we celebrate this Sunday.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Good Advice, Bad Advice

Yesterday, in a bible study on Jesus' interactions with women, I remarked that Jesus doesn't always give good advice. We were studying his visit to the home of Mary and Martha in Luke 10, in which he says to the distracted hostess, "Only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better portion." We allowed ourselves to imagine what would happen if all the hosts and hostesses in the world neglected their entertaining duties in order to sit and dote on their guests. That's not very good advice for a hostess--maybe for a disciple (and that's the point of the story) but not for someone whose job it is to welcome guests into her home.

I likened Jesus' instruction to his words about letting weeds grow up with the wheat. That's bad advice if you're a farmer. If you're in the kingdom business, that makes sense, but, if you're a farmer, you'd rather get rid of the weeds as soon as possible. Jesus, it seems, was full of bad practical advice. Neither farmers nor hostesses go to Jesus for advice, and, if you're looking for a sentimental saying for Mothers' Day, he's not much help either.

But today's lesson in the Daily Office from the beginning of Luke 10 shows that Jesus does give remarkable, positive, practical advice to missionaries:
Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, 'Peace to this house!' And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.' But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 'Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.'
I read that and thought, "What perfect advice!" That's how you spread good news. You travel light. You move from town to town but not from house to house. You accept whatever is before you. You offer your peace to everyone but let them worry about whether that peace is granted or just passes them by. You do the healing work of the gospel and proclaim the news of the kingdom's arrival whether they're happy to hear it or not. It's simple, straightforward, kingdom-focused work.

But, again, if you're not in the kingdom business, that's terrible advice. Who goes out unprepared--not even with a change of clothes? Who knocks on doors looking for support without already doing some demographic research? Who doesn't settle up front on what fees will be expected for the services performed? None of that makes sense if you're starting a business venture, but it makes perfect sense if you're working for the kingdom.

We are citizens of God's kingdom. Jesus asks us to give up our lives for the sake of that kingdom, and he never hides the fact that the work of the kingdom is strange, challenging work. It doesn't make sense because the priorities of the kingdom are different just as the rewards of the kingdom are different. If we spend our lives doing things that make sense by the standards of the world, we're missing kingdom opportunities. If we're living for the kingdom, we'll find ourselves on the edge of sense, turning heads with our peculiar approach to life.

Monday, May 18, 2015

A New Economic Pentecost

I find that business travel is fun for about three days. After that, I’m ready to be back home. Have you ever felt that special kind of boredom that sets in when you’ve already explored every inch of the hotel room, every channel on the television, every piece of cardio equipment in the hotel gym but still have four more nights? If so, I bet you’ve seen that little slice of Pentecost in the first few pages of the Gideon bible in the drawer beneath the telephone.

I’ve always been fascinated with the dozen or so translations of John 3:16 that are included in the hotel bible, you know, just in case the next business traveler only reads Kemak. For starters, I’ve looked at the images on the page—markings I cannot even begin to distinguish—and wondered how they represent a text I know so well. I’ve also debated in my mind whether John 3:16 is the best verse to have translated in this miniscule representation of Pentecost. Why not Exodus 20:2? Matthew 28:19? 1 John 1:9? Hebrews 12:12? And so on. And I’ve also wondered what it feels like to be in a place where you know very little of the language and open that hotel bible and see at least one sentence in a familiar script and language.

Pentecost, of course, is that moment when the Holy Spirit alights upon the apostles, who are then able to carry the good news of Jesus Christ to all nations, beginning with those gathered in Jerusalem for the festival (a different sort of Pentecost). The text we read in church this Sunday (Acts 2:1-21) is full of drama, but I still think it fails to convey just how chaotic and wonderful and confusing yet clear that day was. In a powerful moment directed by God, barriers of language seem to dissolve away. Nothing can stand in the way of the gospel’ proclamation to all nations.

But are languages still the biggest barrier we face in spreading the good news to all peoples? Does this Pentecost from 2000 years ago still represent to the modern world what it meant to those apostles and the crowd gathered there? It isn’t personal or efficient or always accurate or reliably available, but Google can translate most of what I say it to just about any other language. Is the most substantial obstacle to the kingdom of God spreading throughout the world still linguistic? Surely there’s another way we need the Holy Spirit to break through.

Maybe it’s cultural. Maybe it’s intellectual or philosophical. Maybe it’s economic. Maybe it’s political. But how do we need to translate the news of God’s kingdom so that it can take root in the hearts of all people? Perhaps we should first ask what is the greatest separation between us.

I can’t say for sure, but Acts 2 seems to present a moment in which language as the greatest obvious barrier between peoples is broken down. There are other barriers, of course, like the economic stratification addressed in Acts 4 or the religious separation tackled in Acts 10. But this great opening up of the world at Pentecost is about language. What is the equivalent in contemporary society? From my perspective, the greatest thing separating people from each other in the 21st century is money. But what does an economic Pentecost look like?

Is that what liberation theology is all about? Maybe, but I think there’s more to it than that. Liberation theology is a way of emphasizing salvation not merely through the forgiveness of sins but also in the setting free of the poor and oppressed from their unholy circumstance. But I want a Pentecost to go further than that. What would it mean for rich and poor, developed and developing, well-educated and illiterate, opportunistic and oppressed, to “hear” the good news of Jesus Christ in a way that tears all of those barriers down?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

God Chooses You

May 17, 2015 –The 7th Sunday of Easter, Year B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
We have reached a new developmental stage in the Garner household. We are now fully immersed in the realm of the “What if?” What if you didn’t marry Mommy? What if you hadn’t become a nurse? What if we still lived in Montgomery? At first, the what-if questions are entertaining in their possibility. It’s fun to let a child explore the hypotheticals of life—to recognize that things didn’t have to be this way or, at least, to recognize that there is a reason that things are the way they are. But, after a while, what if questions getting annoying. What if Auburn and the St. Louis Cardinals played each other in baseball—whom would you cheer against? What if a tyrannosaurus rex came crashing down the street and stepped right on our house? What if the only thing we had to eat was ice cream? Although we still allow our children to dream out loud about how else things could be, we’ve stopped answering questions about hypotheticals that have absolutely no bearing on reality.

But the truth is that I’m not sure that things could be any other way. While it’s fun and perhaps valuable to reflect on how we got to where we are, I don’t think there’s any point in agonizing over how things could be different. In fact, I’m starting to think that part of what it means to be a person of faith is to accept that, no matter what, where we are is God’s gift to us. That might seem old-fashioned or even fatalistic, but it’s the kind of faith our church was built upon.

Consider, for example, the problem of Judas. One of the first challenges that the Christian movement faced was what to do about the one who betrayed Jesus. Jesus’ followers were convinced that their master was the Son of God—that his life, death, and resurrection were all an expression of God’s salvific plan for the world—but outsiders weren’t so sure. They couldn’t imagine following a messiah who had picked a traitor to be one of his closest friends. “Shouldn’t God’s holy prophet have been a better judge of character than that?” they might have wondered to themselves. But Peter and the other apostles didn’t see it that way. “Friends,” Peter said, standing up in front of the fellowship of the believers, “the scripture had to be fulfilled.” In other words, this was part of God’s plan. It had to be this way—even if it didn’t completely make sense.

But faith isn’t just throwing up your hands at life and saying that there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s more than that. Faith means believing so fully in God’s unfailing love and God’s unconquerable power that we learn to trust that, no matter what, God will provide for us—even in those moments when we can’t see God at work in our lives.

When it came time to pick a new apostle to take Judas’ place, the fellowship of believers put forward two individuals—men who had been with them for the whole journey from the time of Jesus’ baptism all the way through his death and resurrection and ascension. The two whom they identified as worthy of that holy calling were Joseph Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. And how did they decide which one was right for the job? They cast lots. They drew straws. The rolled the dice. They said a prayer and let God decide.

But how in the world is that supposed to work? Does that mean God reaches all the way down from heaven to be sure that the right man is chosen for the job? Does God make sure that the dice fall in favor of the holier candidate—that Matthias gets the sort straw? Now, if you think God cares what roll comes up on the dice, you shouldn’t be here in church. You should be down in Biloxi. (They have Episcopal Churches there, too.) But, at the same time, if you believe that God has no interest in the outcome of human affairs, you shouldn’t be here either. This isn’t a social club. We’re here because we believe that God has a plan for the world and that we are a part of that plan. That much, I believe, is a given. The part that is up to us—the hard part—is making sense of how that plan is unfolding around us and learning to trust that God is in control even when it seems like he isn’t.

What if Joseph Barsabbas had been chosen instead? Would anyone have noticed? Would he have done a bad job? Would the Holy Spirit have failed to show up at Pentecost because the lot fell on the undeserving candidate? Would the Christian movement have sputtered out before it really even got started? Does it matter than neither of these two men is ever mentioned again in the bible?

What does it mean to trust that God will take care of us no matter what? People get frustrated when they come to me looking for advice and all I do is shrug my shoulders and say, “What do you think you should do?” For some reason, they don’t seem to think that “let’s flip a coin” is good pastoral advice. But I mean that—not because I believe that God will alter the way a coin flips through the air to be sure that it lands on tails—or is it heads?—but because I believe that God will always take care of us—no matter what decisions we make.

As Christians, we must believe that God’s love is bigger than the choices we make. Otherwise, life would be unbearable. Imagine the paralysis that would set in even before we got out of bed in the morning if we believed that God’s love and blessing depended upon us making all the right choices. Choice, my friends, isn’t an illusion, but the consequences of our choices are. Instead of worrying about whether you’re making the right choices for your life, try devoting that emotional and intellectual energy to the possibility that God will take care of you no matter what choices you make. Discover first-hand what it means to believe that God is in control of your life instead of you. Discover the freedom that comes from knowing that there is no decision you can make that will set yourself outside of God’s loving plan for your life and for the world.

That’s why we baptize little babies like Lou Lou. As sweet as she is today and as beautiful and innocent as she seems to us now, we all know that someday she will make some bad choices—even some terrible choices. But you know what? We still baptize her into the body of Christ because, as Christians, we believe with every fiber of our being that God chooses her and all of us regardless of the choices we make. God’s love doesn’t depend on our choices. Our lives depend on God’s love. He has chosen us to be his children, and that is the only choice that ever matters.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Ascension Day: Message of Hope

Today is Ascension Day, but what does that even mean? Luke is the only person to detail the ascension of Jesus in his gospel account, and he finds it important enough to make it the hinge between his two volumes—Luke and Acts. Both books recall the moment of Jesus’ ascension into heaven—one as a conclusion and one as a beginning—and it almost feels as if the ascension is the birth of the new Christian era (as opposed to Pentecost, which is still ten days away). But why? Other than the disappearance of Jesus—the only logical explanation for how his earthly ministry ends (imagine Shane riding off into the sunset)—what is ascension all about?

More than anything, it’s a story of hope. Theologically speaking, it’s the conclusion of Jesus’ salvific acts—his passion, death, resurrection, and ascension all go together as a collective redemptive event—but to us it’s more than that. It means the story goes on. It means the work of the incarnate one is not over. It means that Jesus’ reign continues. It means that all of us—in every place and in every time—have access to his redemptive power. And it means that we have something to look forward to—both his return and our own ascension into the clouds.

In the church, there’s a tradition of processing out of the service with banners and torches to commemorate this joyful event, and apparently there’s an English custom of carrying a lion banner at the front of the procession and a dragon banner at the back to underscore how Jesus’ ascension is an expression of his victory over Satan. We don’t have a dragon banner, but we will process outside and let go of balloons, and stare up into the sky and, depending on how much wind is blowing, perhaps watch them disappear into the clouds. And that is symbolic of our hope—the hope that this day represents—the hope that God has given us in his son, Jesus Christ—a hope that goes on forever and never dies.

What is your hope? What do you hope for? You are invited to take a balloon and, on the card that is attached to it, write a message of hope. And that’s the question for tonight’s TonTap discussion: if you could give a stranger one message of hope, what would it be?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Rogation Days: Time for Prayer

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

On Monday, I posted a half-hearted status about Rogation Days on Facebook. In it, I made up a to do list for these rogation days that included finding a farmer whose crop I could bless, staging a procession throughout the parish, and scheduling a Eucharist with the Great Litany. My friend Jack Alvey, sensing that I was joking, called me out as if I didn't really appreciate the work that farmers and fieldhands do. That couldn't be further from the truth. I do know some farmers--several who call our church home. There are plenty of fields for me to bless. But Rogation Days and "beating the bands" and saying the Great Litany and parading around in fields to ask God's blessing on the harvest all seem a bit antiquated to me. Granted, I love antiquated things. In so many ways, I am myself antiquated. But the post was written because I didn't know how many people took Rogation Days seriously. Judging by the responses, lots of people do.

And I celebrate that. In fact, I celebrated that fact at our Wednesday Eucharist, which included the Great Litany. We didn't do the full-on procession because several members of our midweek congregation are mobility impaired, but we did "walk about the parish" in our imaginations. And we prayed for our community and for our farmers and for all of those who work the land so that we can eat. (Happy, Jack?)

In fact, all of this has been rolling around in my mind, and then I read the lessons for the Daily Office today--specifically James 5:13-18 and Luke 12:22-31--and I thought, "I HAVE to do a Rogation liturgy. These lessons demand it!

As James concludes his letter to the twelve tribes in dispersion, he urges them to pray:
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.
 Pray, pray, pray. And then pray some more. I started wondering about prayer, and I considered the recipients of this letter, and I thought, "I wonder what it was like to be an early Christian--whether Greek or Jew--and suddenly realize that all the apparatus of one's faith (temple worship, sacrifice, etc.) had been supplanted by faith in Jesus Christ. How does one express that faith? What's the currency of Christianity? We do share the Communion meal together, but that remembrance of Christ's one, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice is not the same sort of sacrificial, expiatory encounter as these readers had become accustomed to. No wonder they were discouraged! Imagine if all the mechanics of our worship disappeared--if all the churches burned down or there was suddenly a massive shortage of fish-food wafers and cheap port wine! What would we do? We'd find a new place to gather, and we'd pray together.

That's the point. And that's the point of Rogation days. We gather together to pray--not because we expect our words to "work magic" on the fields or homes in our parish. Despite what the Great Litany or the Rogation traditions suggest, God isn't up in heaven waiting on us to utter the right incantation before he will bestow his blessings upon us. He loves us and will provide for us. But how will we know that?

The currency of our relationship with God is prayer. We pray together to remember that God loves us, to remember that the earth's bounty is his gift for us, and to remember that we are bound to one another through joys and hardships as God's people. That sounds like a pretty good reason to put on a violet stole, parade around the neighborhood, and pray the Great Litany together.