Sunday, September 13, 2020

We've Been Given 10,000 Talents--Now What?

September 13, 2020 – The 15th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 19A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (The sermon begins around 24:00.)

Last Sunday we heard Jesus tell the disciples that they must go to great lengths in order to maintain the spirit of forgiveness that exists between them. If someone sins against you, go to that person in private and point out the wrong and see if you can win that person back. If that fails, take two or three with you. If that won’t work, get the whole church involved. And, if the offender won’t listen even to the whole church, let that person be to you as a tax collector and a Gentile. If someone will not seek forgiveness, that person cannot remain a part of a community that is defined by forgiving love. 

Naturally, Peter wanted to know if the same thing applied in reverse: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” If a person is given three chances to repent before they are cut off from the community of faith, how many chances are we supposed to give an apologetic repeat offender before we kick them out as well? Should we forgive them as many as seven times? But Jesus replied, “Not seven but seventy-seven times.” If the need for repentance and reconciliation is unequivocal, the demand for forgiveness must be limitless, too.

To get his point across, Jesus told a story that dabbled in the absurd. When a king began to reckon accounts with his servants, he found that one of them owed 10,000 talents. That’s roughly 164,000 years’ worth of wages or more than $5 billion in today’s money. More than a mere slave, this servant must have overseen a major operation within the kingdom. Somehow, over time, his negligence accumulated until he owed a staggering amount—more than any servant could have ever repaid. When confronted with his gross mismanagement, the servant fell down on his knees at the king’s feet and begged for more time: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” Perhaps realizing that the man could never have come up with that much money, the king did the almost unthinkable: he forgave the entire amount. 

Later on, that same servant came across a man who owed him 100 denarii or about three months’ worth of wages—around $12,000 in today’s money. That was no small amount, but, in comparison with $5 billion, it was almost nothing. This time, as before, the second debtor fell down on his knees at the first servant’s feet and made an identical plea: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But the first servant refused to show mercy. He had his fellow servant thrown into prison until the debt was paid off. And you remember how the story ends.

I don’t know what’s harder to believe: that a servant could ever amass a debt that big or that a servant who had a debt like that be forgiven could ever be so blind and hypocritical. It’s hard to imagine anyone being so obtuse. What kind of person would ever receive a gift of that magnitude yet fail to show even a fraction of the same generosity to another person? No one would ever act like that. No one would ever be that self-absorbed. No one would ever be that blind to their own dependence upon the goodness of others. Would we?

On whose generosity is your life built? On whose forgiveness and understanding are the relationships you value established? On what privileges is your success manufactured? How much of what you have and who you are and where you live and what doors have been open to you is an accident of birth? And how much of it is what you have earned all by yourself? 

My parents helped me open a savings account when I was in the second grade. When I was in middle school, my father gave me $500 to invest in a guardian account, which he opened on my behalf. Although I recognized that going to college could cost my family a lot of money, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to go to wherever I chose because we couldn’t afford it. It certainly never crossed my mind that I might not go to college at all. I have had my share of hardship, by which I mean that I have applied for jobs I didn’t get and that I have had to forego things I wanted because I didn’t have the money to buy them. But I have never wondered what would happen if I went to the doctor or the hospital or the pharmacy and could not pay. I have never needed to know where to get clothes or food or Christmas presents for my kids because I couldn’t afford them. I have never worried that, if I were the victim of a crime and called the police, I might be the one who was taken to jail or, worse, shot before I had a chance to explain myself.

You can call it generosity or mercy or forgiveness or privilege, but, whatever you call it, my life has been built on a lavish gift that I do not deserve, and I trust that, in at least one or two ways, yours has, too. We are judged—we are held accountable—not because we have received such a gift but because we have failed to recognized it as such. And, because we have not recognized the gift that we have been given, we are judged for not using that gift for good. We are the merciless slave. As hard as it is to believe that anyone could be so blind, we are the ones who blind ourselves to the magnitude of the gift that we have been given. We hide our eyes from it because to see and recognize how much we have been given is to see and recognize how little we can take credit for all on our own. We live in a world that assigns value to human beings on the basis of how much they have achieved and attained and accomplished. Any head start or leg up or free pass undermines our worth in worldly terms. But that isn’t true in the kingdom of God. 

In the kingdom of God, a person’s worth isn’t measured in dollars earned or decisions made or work performed. When God’s authority and God’s economy are operative, a person has value because that person has been made by God and loved by God. Are we willing to live in that reality? That’s the first step—admitting that each one of us is equally precious to God. If we can believe that, then we can let go of the notion that our output—our résumé—is the ultimate measure of our status. And, if we can stop evaluating ourselves on the basis of what we have accomplished, then we can begin to recognize and admit how much we have been given. And, if we can start to see how much of our lives has been built upon that gift, then we can break the cycle. We can receive mercy and show mercy. We can forgive as we have been forgiven. We can love as we have been loved.

The only thing more absurd than the parable that Jesus told is our collective failure to show mercy to others despite all of the mercy that we have been given. Why do you think the economic and political systems of our day are resisting those who would ascribe equal value to people whose lives have always mattered less? If you think that 10,000 talents is a great sum of money, try calculating the economic impact that four hundred years of slavery, segregation, discrimination, redlining, mass incarceration, and police brutality have had on America. Far more than $5 billion, it has produced a debt that none of us could ever repay. For many of us, whether we are the direct descendants of people who owned other human beings as property or are those who have benefitted from our race in other ways, our prosperity has been built, in part, on the backs of others. We are judged by God not because we were born into that advantage—not because we have been given that privilege—but because we have been unwilling to acknowledge it and to use it to show generosity to others.

Jesus came to welcome us into the kingdom of God—the reality in which love abounds, in which forgiveness is limitless, in which mercy is overflowing. The magnitude of that gift is unfathomable, but the consequences of that gift are very real and very measurable. No one who has received a gift like that has ever failed to reflect its power in their daily lives. No one has ever been loved like that without showing that kind of love to others. To do so would be unthinkable. To do so would be absurd.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Unity Matters


September 6, 2020 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 18A
Ezekiel 33:7-11; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here. (The sermon begins around 18:20.)

Years ago, not long after I was ordained, I received a phone call from a distraught mother. Her son had received a diagnosis of an uncurable disease—not fatal but life-changing and life-limiting and utterly unalterable—and she wanted me to do her a favor. She wanted me to pray. She wanted me to pray that, despite everything the doctors had told her, God would heal her son. Without hesitation, I agreed. I believe in miracles. As unlikely as it may be, I believe that sometimes God reaches down and intervenes in our lives in ways that doctors cannot explain. “I would be happy to pray,” I told her. But that wasn’t all she wanted.

“I need you to call another priest—another member of the clergy—and I need you two to pray about this together.” I hesitated. “Why?” I asked. “Because,” she explained, “I was reading the Bible today, and I read the passage where Jesus tells his disciples that, when two or three of them agree about anything they ask for, it will be done by their Father in heaven. I believe with all my heart that, if you and another priest pray about this, God will hear you and grant your request.” I let silence fill the space between us. This wasn’t faith. This was magic. This was Christianized witchcraft. But I wasn’t strong enough to say so. I wasn’t strong enough to tell this distraught mother that God doesn’t work like that. Instead, I started to explain that the prayers of laypeople are just as strong as those of clergy and to tell her that I didn’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he said that to his disciples, but she was convinced, and I wasn’t willing to speak clearly enough to disabuse her of that notion. So I promised her that I would do as she asked. 

I didn’t tell my boss and ask him to pray with me. He would have recognized right away what kind of foolish trouble I had gotten myself into. And I couldn’t call any of my colleagues close by. They, too, would have seen my request for what it really was—the half-hearted prayer of a spiritual coward who didn’t have the guts to tell a grieving mother that he couldn’t conjure up a miracle on demand no matter how many other clergy he prayed with. So I called one of my friends and colleagues back in England—the one whose brand of Anglican Christianity most prominently features the gifts of the Spirit, like speaking in tongues and the laying on hands for healing. But even he saw straight through my request. “You know, God doesn’t work like that,” he explained. I told him that I knew that already but that I had promised the mother that I would do what she asked and I needed him to pray with me about this thing. And so we prayed, even though I knew that God wasn’t going to use our prayer to give that mother what she wanted.

God doesn’t work like that. God doesn’t look down and say, “Oh look! Two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name, and they’re agreeing with one another about their prayer request, so I suppose that I had better fulfill their request.” No, despite what today’s gospel lesson says, God has not given us the power of communal wish-fulfillment. But God has given us a power, and I believe that the power we have been given is even greater. As followers of Jesus, who believe that, in Christ, the kingdom of God has come to the earth, we have been given the power to act on God’s behalf in order that God’s kingdom might be manifest in us. 

You may remember hearing some words from today’s gospel lesson a few weeks ago when we heard Jesus tell Peter that he is being given the keys to the kingdom of heaven and that whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever he looses on earth will be loosed in heaven. Today, we hear those words spoken a second time, but this time Jesus is speaking not only to Peter but to all of us. We are the ones to whom Jesus has given that authority—not as individuals but as the church, as the ecclesia, the collective body, literally, of the “called-out” ones. Jesus has called us together in order that, as his followers, he might invest in us the authority to decide what to bind and what to loose, what is required and what can be left aside, what is of God and what is not. Because that power resides in us, we no longer need a voice to thunder from the clouds in order to hear what God is speaking to us. When we hear the voice of the church speaking as one—literally as a symphony, as a harmony of voices that speaks one truth—then we have heard the voice of God declaring where God’s kingdom shall be found.

But how is that possible? How is it possible for selfish, greedy, sinful human beings like us to get it right every time? Have you seen what scandals have rocked the church in this and every generation? Have you read what horrific deeds have been done in the name of Christianity by the church’s leaders? I do not pretend that simply because Jesus has handed over the authority to declare what is God’s will that the church will always be on the right side of history. Far from it! But I do believe that we have been given the power to make clear to the world what is God’s will whenever we are united in Christ’s name.

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind and loose on the earth will be bound and loosed in heaven. Truly I tell you, if two or three of you agree about anything, it will be done by my Father in heaven. How is that possible? Why is that true? Because, as Jesus says to us, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Throughout history, Christians have spent immeasurable time and energy wondering about the day when Christ will return as he promised. That day is absolutely worth waiting for, but how much time and energy do we spend recognizing that Christ is already here whenever two or three of us are gathered in his name? That is what he promises us. If the kingdom of God has come to the earth in Jesus Christ, then that kingdom—that reign, that authority, that rightness—is here on the earth whenever and wherever we gather together in Christ’s name.

And the key to all of that, Jesus tells us, is unity. It only works—the kingdom of God is only manifest in us—when the unity of that kingdom is manifest through us. That’s why Jesus explains in such detail the lengths to which we must go in order to preserve the unity between us. “If a member of the church sins against you,” Jesus says, “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” And, if that doesn’t work, then two or three others are to be recruited to try, and, if that doesn’t work, the whole community should get involved. Finally, if even that doesn’t work, Jesus tells us to treat the one who breaks our unity as a Gentile and a tax collector. What remarkably harsh and final words coming from the one who consistently welcomed misfits and outcasts to his table! But those are not idle words or an empty threat. Jesus knows that only when the power of forgiveness and reconciliation are manifest throughout the community of his followers can he truly be there among them. Once that power vanishes, he does, too.

I’ve spent so much time and energy over the last few months trying to figure out how and when we can come back together in person that I haven’t paid enough attention to the real threat to our spiritual community. As hard as it is for us to stay apart from one another because of the pandemic, the real danger we face isn’t the coronavirus, which may have the power to push us apart physically and even to kill us if we are not careful but alone cannot dismember the body of Christ. No, the real threat to us is the threat of disunity, which, as the thing that has the power to undermine Christ’s presence among us, is truly the work of evil. And, in this time of physical separation and political uncertainty and cultural division, we can see all around us how the forces of evil are at work, trying their best to pull us apart in ways that seek to rob God’s kingdom of its power on earth.

But we have hope. Our hope is not that we would overcome our differences in order that Christ might be present among us. Instead, our hope is that, because Christ is already present among us, we have the power to overcome whatever differences and disagreements seek to pull us apart. God did not wait for humanity to get its act together before sending God’s Son to the earth. God came and brought God’s kingdom to the earth in order that we, in all our brokenness, might be made whole. As those who have been restored to unity with God in Christ, we have been given the power to make that unity manifest throughout the earth. Now, that isn’t easy. It isn’t easy to reach out to the one who has wronged us and seek reconciliation quietly instead of sharing our hurt with the world in order to bring shame upon our adversary. But that is the work of God’s reign on the earth. That is where Jesus is to be found. For where two or three are gathered together despite all that would pull them apart, there Jesus and the power of God’s kingdom will be found—even right here in the midst of us.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Seeing, Believing, Giving

August 23, 2020 – The 12th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 16A
Isaiah 51:1-6; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here. (The sermon begins around 21:50)

A Christian. A believer. A disciple of Jesus. A follower of the Way. A member of Christ’s Body. Born again. We use lots of different labels to identify the followers of Jesus. Which one of them fits you? Maybe all of them. Maybe none. 

I don’t know where you are on that mythical spectrum of conviction that reflects the breath of our congregational life. I don’t even know how one could express the complexity of the Christian faith in a rhetorical device as simplistic as a scale from 1 to 10. You might think of yourself as a Christian. Or maybe you think of yourself as a seeker. Or perhaps you’re just tuning in because you like what this church does in the community or because you have found this to be a friendly and welcoming congregation. Regardless, you’re here, and I’m glad you’re here. I trust that you’re here because you want to be, and, no matter why you’ve decided to join us, you are most welcome. You don’t have to be a Christian to take part in our worship, but today I want to talk about the ways in which being a Christian—in which being a follower of Jesus—affects our lives.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we see that when someone recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, that person’s life begins to change dramatically. Jesus looked at his disciples and asked, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied with a range of options: “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” In other words, the crowds were so impressed by Jesus that they likened him to the great religious figures of their tradition. But then Jesus turned the question back on them, and asked, “Who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” After that, everything changed.

This was a turning point, not only for Peter and the other disciples but for the entire Gospel narrative. This was the first time that a human being had identified Jesus as the Messiah—as God’s anointed one. For the first half of the Gospel account, Jesus had spent his time teaching, preaching, and performing miracles in order to show his followers who he really was—the one through whom God’s fullness had come to the earth. But, now that Peter had put all of the pieces together and recognized Jesus for who he really was, Jesus’ focus shifted. 

From this moment on, Jesus began preparing for his departure by equipping his followers for what they would do in his absence. Notice what he said to Simon Peter: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” With those words, Jesus began the process of handing over his authority to his followers. As soon as Peter identified Jesus as God’s Son, Jesus began giving him new work to do. And the same is true for us. 

There comes a point in a Christian’s spiritual journey when that person’s focus shifts from trying to figure out who Jesus is to trying to figure out what that person is supposed to do because of it. For some of us, the realization that Jesus is the Son of the living God comes to us the way it came to Peter—in an instant. But, for many of us, coming to faith is an awakening that unfolds gradually over time. Regardless of how we get there, however, the result is the same. When we recognize who Jesus is—when we grasp that the one who ate with sinners and outcasts and wrestled with the powers of his day and proclaimed the nearness of God’s reign and died upon the cross and was raised from the dead is the one whom God sent to transform this world into the paradise that God has in store for us and all people—then we can no longer afford to think of Jesus as a great religious figure. In pursuit of God’s fullest dream for us and for our world, we must proclaim him as the ultimate authority of our lives, to whom our every thought, every word, every action, and every impulse belong. In other words, once we, like Peter, recognize who Jesus really is, we can’t go back to the way things were because we, like him, now have important work to do.

And what is that work? What does the life of one of Jesus’ followers look like? What do our lives look like when the reality of who Jesus is takes over? For each of us, the Christian life may take on different pursuits, but, collectively, that life is characterized by sacrifice. In particular, it looks like “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” The part of Paul’s Letter to the Romans that we read today is his appeal to them that they might live lives that reflect the fullness of their faith. He has already outlined the significance of who Jesus was and what God has accomplished through him, and now he shows them what it means to live a Christian life: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” 

How often do you think of your relationship with God as one of sacrifice? Not the bloody, violent kind that is designed to appease an angry deity, but the generous, self-giving kind that is, at is heart, a full cooperation with God’s purposes. Think about the kind of sacrifice that a baseball player makes, when, instead of swinging for the fences, he lays down a bunt, knowing that he will get out but that, in the process, one of his teammates will get closer to home. Or think about the kind of sacrifice that a chess player will make—not as a trick to fool an opponent but as an intentional giving up of a piece in order to secure something more valuable in return. If Jesus really is the Son of the living God—the one through whom God’s fullness has come to the earth—what part of your life wouldn’t you give over to him, knowing that, whatever the outcome, it is in Christ that your best future lies? 

If we believe that Jesus is who we proclaim him to be, our lives are no longer our own. You cannot agree with Peter—you cannot share the faith of Paul—you cannot proclaim Jesus as the Son of the living God—and only give back to God a part of your self. To believe that Jesus is God’s anointed one—the one through whom God’s purposes are being fulfilled—is to make more than a commitment of your intellectual or emotional capacity. It asks more of you than ten percent of your income or one day of your week. This faith we share consumes your whole being. If you think that that is asking too much, don’t give up yet. Keep exploring the Way of Jesus Christ. Walk that path until you discover where it leads—until you see fully who it is that beckons you to walk beside him. Because, when you do, when you recognize who Jesus really is, you’ll want to give him everything.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Infinite Mercy

August 16, 2020 – The 11th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 15A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (Sermon begins around 20:15.)

It feels pretty good to be on the side of inclusion, doesn’t it? Whether it’s race or gender or sexuality or education level or immigration status or wealth, when you’re on the side of a debate that thinks that everyone belongs, that everyone should have access, that everyone is equal, it feels like you’re on the right side of history. But you know how you can tell if your concept of inclusion is misplaced? If it excludes someone.

For months, now, we’ve been making our way through Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It is his treatise on the gospel—his systematic exploration of the Christian faith. It is his masterpiece, his magnum opus. In it, he has explained how the good news of Jesus Christ is the means by which God has brought the fullness of God’s reign to the earth. And, if you read the first eight chapters, you get a pretty good understanding of how it all fits together. But, when we get to chapter nine, we hit a wall, and the name of that wall is Israel.

Israel is God’s beloved child, God’s first love. And, just as the prophet Isaiah had foretold, God was using Israel to reveal God’s salvation to the ends of the earth. This is one of the reasons that Paul knew that Jesus was more than a prophet—because through him all nations were finding their way into relationship with God. And, as God’s great work of salvation was nearing completion, the same God who time and again had gathered together the outcasts of Israel had now begun to gather the other peoples of the earth to Godself. Isaiah’s prophecy that all would worship on God’s holy mountain—that God’s house would become a house of prayer for all peoples—was being fulfilled. The apostle Paul and the Christians in Rome had witnessed how God had used Jesus Christ to accomplish that great work and bring even the Gentiles into covenant relationship with Israel’s God. But there was just one lingering problem: Israel.

Even by the time Paul was writing to Rome, the way of Jesus had become a mostly Gentile religion. What had begun as a branch of Judaism dedicated to spiritual renewal had become a faith in which non-Jews had begun to call themselves the spiritual descendants of Abraham. All the while, Abraham’s biological descendants had been quite happy to keep to themselves, thank you very much. But, if Jesus Christ were the means by which God had, once and for all, brought all nations to Godself, why weren’t the children of Abraham getting onboard? If Jesus really was who he said he was and who Paul said he was, how was Paul supposed to explain the near universal refusal of his fellow Israelites to adopt the faith of God’s messiah?

For the most part, he didn’t. And, more than that, he seems to have been critical of those who would try. At the beginning of today’s lesson, Paul wrote, “I ask, then, has God rejected God’s people? By no means!” But, in the part of chapter 11 that the lectionary skips over, Paul turned his focus to those who would presume to take Israel’s place: “If some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you.” It seems that some of the Gentile Christians had interpreted Israel’s rejection of Christianity as a sign that God had moved on—that God had withdrawn God’s love for God’s people and transferred it to the new Israel. But Paul wouldn’t have it. “The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable,” he wrote. There must be another way.

There is a danger, I think, that, in a similar way, we would inadvertently restrict God’s mercies by casting God’s great work of salvation in the image of our own inclusion, and I think the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman exposes some of those tendencies. How do we hear this shocking story? How do we make sense of Jesus’ words and the woman’s persistence? Whose limited understanding of salvation is being challenged here? Is it Jesus who is being taught a lesson, or are we the ones who have something to learn?

That Matthew would identify the woman anachronistically as a Canaanite and not, as Mark did in his telling of the same story, with the more specific ethnic label of Syrophoenician is not an accident. Matthew wants us to imagine this encounter as if it were a direct manifestation of the conflict between the ancient Israelites who had taken possession of the land that had been promised to Abraham and the Canaanite residents who had stood in their way. In other words, in Matthew’s version of the story, the woman isn’t merely a Gentile; she is, to a faithful Israelite reader, a very real obstacle to the fulfillment of God’s promises. But, instead of finishing the story as if the only possible outcome was a triumph over God’s enemies, Matthew shows us that those who represent impediments to God’s salvation can become the very means by which that salvation is accomplished.

Kneeling at Jesus’ feet, the woman says to him, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Her faithfulness is not a rejection of the harsh-sounding words that Jesus had said to her but an expansion of them—a twisting of them to make clear an even fuller reality. Jesus had rightly come to rescue “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That’s the way God’s salvation must work. It has to start with God’s chosen people. It’s what they were chosen for. It would not be right to reject God’s love for God’s covenant people—to take the food away from the children in order to give it to those who would come after them. But, because God’s reign was coming to its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, it was now possible to see God’s covenant love expanding to include even those who for centuries had stood in the way of God’s salvation. 

I wonder whether we’ve become so accustomed to being recipients of that salvation that we’ve forgotten whose mercies really determine how that salvation works. We have a tendency to say to God, “We’re the enlightened ones. We’re the inclusive ones. We’ll let you know who truly belongs in your kingdom.” But what we don’t realize is that even our best efforts at being inclusive will always fall short of God’s great and limitless mercies. No matter how wide open our welcome may be, we will inevitably reject some whom God would embrace. Don’t think so? Which political or religious group has members that you find the hardest to love? Whose ideology or platform has convinced you that they are nothing more than an obstacle to God’s reign on the earth? In the end, who do you think gets to decide whom God will love? 

Like the Pharisees, we have a habit of substituting our version of holiness, which we naturally understand to be the fullest possible expression of God’s love, for the real thing. But Jesus shows us that God’s love is always bigger than we think it is. Even if it works on us in reverse, the encounter with the Canaanite mother proves that. Do we really think that Jesus is the one whose vision of God’s kingdom is too small? Do we really believe that we’re the enlightened ones who have it all figured out? The good news of Jesus Christ is that God loves everyone—even those whom we would never imagine that God could love. And, if that truth doesn’t shock us, then we have underestimated not only God’s love for others but God’s love for us as well. As people of faith, as followers of Jesus, we are called to believe that God’s mercies are always bigger than we expect them to be. Otherwise, we can’t know what it means to belong to the one who loves us that same way.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Not Going To Leave Us Now


August 9, 2020 – The 10th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 14A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here. (The sermon starts around 23:15)

At the end of his life, Moses stood before the people of Israel and delivered one last pep talk. They had been on quite a journey together. From Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into the wilderness, where on Mt. Sinai God had given them the Law. Then on toward the River Jordan and the land of Canaan, which the people were now prepared to enter. Moses knew that he would not be completing this last leg of the trip with them, and he wanted to leave them with some words of encouragement. “Blessings and curses,” he reminded them. “Those who obey the Lord will be blessed, and those who don’t will be cursed. As long as you remember that, no matter what hardships await you in the land that you are about to enter, God will be with you, and you will be blessed.”

But the people weren’t so sure. There was some murmuring among the crowd as one person whispered to another, “Easy for him to say; he’s Moses! He’s been telling us to obey the Lord our God ever since he came down the mountain, and how has that worked out for us?” But Moses wasn’t finished. “You haven’t made it this far for God to abandon you now. You’ve come all this way and now stand on the edge of the land that has been promised to you. Surely God hasn’t brought you here to leave you now. Quit saying that this commandment is too hard for you. Quit worrying that you’ll never find it. It isn’t up in heaven or across the deep. It’s very near to you—even on your lips and in your heart. Belonging to God isn’t something you accomplish. It’s who you are. All you have to do is remember that, and everything will work out for you.”

More than 1200 years later, the apostle Paul had his own pep talk to write. The Christians in Rome were discouraged. They had come into the church because they had been convinced that the way of Jesus was the way that led to their salvation. But, since then, things had gotten tough. Persecutions were on the rise, and faithful believers were being handed over to the Roman authorities for torture and even death. These nervous Christians were beginning to wonder whether they had made a bad decision—whether choosing the way of Jesus had been a mistake. But Paul wanted them to remember why they had come into the Christian faith in the first place. He wanted them to remember that their salvation wasn’t something that they needed to go and find. It was already very near to them—on their lips and in their hearts. All they had to do was to remember that and to trust that everything would work out for them. But holding onto faith in the midst of struggle isn’t easy. 

To make his point, Paul did something rather remarkable with the story of Israel’s journey through the wilderness. He set up a contrast of ideas—not as a theological conflict but as a temporal dialectic—a tension of experiences in order to convey a fuller truth. In our reading from Romans 10, Paul quotes Moses from two very different moments on the journey from Egypt to Canaan. First, he pulls from Leviticus 18: “The person who does these things will live by them.” Moses had said those words in the shadow of Mt. Sinai. There were part of long list of commandments that God had given God’s people. This was a moment when Israel was still discovering that belonging to God meant behaving in a particular way. But, in the very next sentence, Paul quotes Moses from Deuteronomy 30, when Moses had addressed God’s people at the end of their journey, right before the crossed the River Jordan. That’s when Moses had said, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” At that point, Israel could look back at their time in the wilderness and know what it meant for God to be with them even when they struggled to do the right things. 

Paul labels the first idea as “the righteousness that comes from the law” and the second as “the righteousness that comes from faith,” but he doesn’t present those ideas as oppositional to one another. He describes them as if they are two moments from the same journey. Having reached the end of their struggles in the wilderness, the people of Israel were able to see that because God’s word was near them—even on their lips and in their hearts—they could do and live by what God asked of them. Paul believed that the same was true for the Christians in Rome. If they could believe that the cross of Jesus had given way to the empty tomb, they could know that God and God’s word would be with them no matter what. If they could believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead, they could maintain their faith in God despite whatever hardships they faced.

How might the same be true for us as well? All we really want is to know that everything will be ok. That’s why we ask our beloved if they really love us. That’s why we seek our parents’ affirmation even after they’ve given it for the 1000th time. That’s why our cat brings in little wiggly presents from the backyard when we come home from vacation. We will do whatever it takes to know that the ones who hold our hearts and lives in their hands will take care of us—that they will shield us from all that threatens us. And only when we’ve come through significant struggles and have seen them prove that their love and protection are certain can we live into the confidence of that certainty. Only then can the relationship between us blossom as one that does not depend upon our attempts to win another’s affection but upon a love that transcends those attempts.

We live in a time when strife, sickness, anxiety, and isolation are mounting. Things aren’t getting better, and it doesn’t seem like they will get better anytime soon. We are desperate to know that, in the end, everything will be ok, and it feels like we’ve reached a point where there’s nothing we can do to convince ourselves that it will be. That’s why we need faith. Having reached the limits of our own efforts, we need to turn back to the one who loves us with a love that has no end. We need to lean on the one whose salvation cannot be broken. We need to rely on the one whose care for us is bigger than our moments of struggle and is founded instead upon goodness and mercy.

Paul knew the transcendent power of believing in Jesus Christ. He knew that Jesus was the ultimate sign of God’s abiding presence and love. He knew that the same God who turned Christ’s death on the cross into a triumph over the grave would save God’s people from all danger because, in Christ, God would be with them always. 

You are one of God’s people. Look back over the journey that you have been a part of—a journey from bondage into freedom, from death into life. As a child of God, you have already travelled with your spiritual ancestors through valleys of great peril into a land of promise and plenty. God has not brought you this far only to abandon you now. You may face dangers and hardships, but you do not face them alone. God is very near to you—on your lips and in your heart. Belonging to God isn’t something that you accomplish. Because of Jesus Christ, it’s who you are. All you have to do is remember that, and everything will work out for you.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

A Debt We Cannot Repay

July 19, 2020 – The 7th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 11A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (Sermon begins around 23:55.)

How much do you owe? How much debt do you have? A mortgage? A car payment? Student loans? Medical debt? A home equity line? Do you keep a balance on your credit cards? Does the amount you owe bother you? Does it keep you up at night? Is it manageable? Has it been around so long that you hardly notice the payments you make each month?

What would happen if you stopped paying your car payments or your mortgage payments? Eventually someone could come and take your car or take your house. That’s what happens when we owe a debt that we will not or cannot pay. Then, our credit score takes a big hit. It’s harder to buy that next car or that next house, which is to say that, if we can convince a bank to lend us the money, it will cost us more because of the higher interest rates.

But what about those people or institutions that you owe more than money? The parents, teachers, and mentors who raised you. The friends who have helped you along the way. The people on whose shoulders you stand. The backs on which your freedom and your prosperity are built. What happens if those debts are called in? What happens if someone insists that you pay back what you could never pay back?

Do you remember the film Saving Private Ryan? Do you remember how it ends? The title character, years after eight soldiers had collaborated to save his life, stands in the American cemetery at Normandy, overlooking Omaha Beach, where part of the D-Day invasion took place. Surrounded by row after row of white-cross headstones, the now-old Private Ryan looks at his wife and says, “Tell me I’ve led a good life…Tell me I’m a good man.” He seems to be responding to something that Tom Hanks’ character had said to him years earlier, right before he died. On the bridge in Ramelle that they had fought to hold, as Captain Miller took his dying breaths, he pulled Private Ryan in close and said, “Earn this.” What haunting words! What damning words! Can you imagine living out the rest of your days, wondering whether you had lived a life that was worth the lives of the eight people who had died trying to save yours?

We may not face a debt as dramatic or as easily countable as that, but we all carry unpayable debts. Every aspect of our lives is built upon the sacrifice of others. Sometimes, those sacrifices are given to us as a gift that we are never expected to repay. A parent who loves us without asking anything in return. A teacher who gives us the special attention we need to flourish without expecting to get anything back. But other times those sacrifices are handed to us with strings attached. A parent who always makes us feel like more of a burden than a gift. A friend who always reminds us of the kindness that we will never be able to repay. All of us owe more than we can afford to pay. But some of us owe those debts to spiritual and emotional loan sharks in whose accounting we are nothing more than a figure in red.

Paul writes, “Siblings in Christ, we are debtors.” But Paul wants us to know that we are debtors, not to the flesh, but to something else. Unfortunately, at this point in his letter to the Romans, Paul is on quite a roll, and he starts his point without ever making the second half of it: “Siblings in Christ, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for, if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” The implication, however, is clear. In this part of his letter, Paul wants us to see what it means to belong to the Spirit instead of the flesh. Last week, he encouraged us to set our minds—to set our diaphragms—on the things of the Spirit instead of the things of the flesh because being a Christian means giving our whole selves—our rational minds and our emotional passions—to the Spirit that dwells within us. And, this week, he’s once again building out that framework for the Christian life, but this time he’s using the image of debt to get his point across. We are debtors, yes, but we owe that debt not to the flesh but to the Spirit. And that changes everything.

We all owe more than we could ever pay, but, because we are children of a gracious and loving God, we have been set free from the otherwise insatiable fear of wondering whether we’ve earned it—of worrying whether we’ve led a good life or whether we are good people. As Christians, who believe in the unconditional love of God in Christ Jesus, our debt is owed to the Spirit by which we are adopted. That spirit, Paul writes, has made us God’s children, God’s heirs. As heirs, what God has in store for us is not a reward for good behavior or a payment for a job well done. It is an inheritance that comes to us because of who we are—because God has adopted us as God’s own children. The debt we owe is still far more than we could ever pay, but, because we owe it to God—because we are debtors to the Spirit—we experience that debt not as a burden but as a gift. Like a parent’s generous and forgiving love that fills a child with gratitude, we respond not as if to repay that debt but in thankfulness that such a gift would ever be given.

So why, then, do we keep trying to earn what has already been given to us? Why do we insist on trying to prove to God that we are worthy of that which we could never repay? Why do we, as Paul writes, keep falling back into fear as if we had received a spirit of slavery instead of a spirit of adoption? Because, even though we belong to the Spirit, we still live in the realm of the flesh. And, even though Christ has set us free, we still struggle to understand what it means to belong to God while living in a world that doesn’t.

Are we children of the Spirit or children of the flesh? The Spirit says that we are loved no matter what. The flesh says that we’ve got to earn it. The Spirit reminds us that we have already been adopted by God. The flesh whispers that we still have something to prove. The Spirit proclaims that God’s love is something that none of us deserves. The flesh protests because surely we deserve it more than some people do.

Some of us have a hard time accepting God’s love because we have hard time believing that we could be given such a wonderful gift with no strings attached. We’re used to asking, “What’s the catch?” We’ve built our lives around the belief that there is no such thing as a free lunch. A gift like that—a debt with no need for repayment—is too good to be true. Others of us have a hard time accepting God’s love because it means accepting that we are no better and no worse than everyone else. We’ve gotten far in this world because we have been willing to use our gifts and talents with a lot of hard work and some prudent risk taking in order to distinguish ourselves from the pack. To believe in a God who says that none of that counts for anything is to believe that we don’t count for anything. But either way, whether we’re excluding ourselves or excluding others from God’s generosity, what we’re really saying is that we don’t know how to believe in a God who loves the world while expecting nothing in return. What we’re saying is that we’re so used to being debtors to the flesh that we don’t know what it means to be indebted to the Spirit.

It isn’t easy to belong fully to God while living in a world that doesn’t. Paul knew it. The Romans knew it. And we all know it, too. That’s why hope is such an important thing. We hope not for things that we already see—for realities that are already clear to us—but for those truths on which we hang our very lives even when those truths are not visible to us. Hope that is seen is not hope at all, but hope in what is not yet seen is a powerful force. It is a force that draws us into a reality—a way of being and belonging—that is not fully manifest yet already governs our whole lives. To be indebted to the Spirit is to owe our everything to the one who loves us freely and fully without asking anything in return. That love is something that cannot be understood in this world—that can never make sense according to the flesh—yet it is as real and as strong as any force or any truth we know.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Christian Life: Where Heart and Guts Meet

July 12, 2020 – The 6th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 10A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (Sermon begins around 21:30.)

Take a moment and pay attention to your breathing. Just sit there and breathe for a moment or two. In and out. In and out. Now take a deep, slow breath and then relax and let it go. Take another one. If you’re able, go ahead and stand up. Take a deep, deep breath and feel how it fills up your whole body—not just your chest but your abdomen, your belly. Take those deep breaths and pay attention to where they go. See if you can take a long, slow, deep breath that fills you all the way to your hips. Feel it as if you breathe all the way into your legs, right down to your toes. Feel how your breath fills your whole body. And, when you’re ready, sit back down.

Isn’t the diaphragm a wonderful thing? That dome-shaped muscle and tendon that sits up under your ribs, pulling down, creating extra space in your chest and, in effect, pulling air into your lungs in order to fill that space—in order to equalize the decrease in pressure that is caused by the increase in volume in your upper body. But have you ever thought about where that space comes from? Unless you’re a medical professional, have you ever considered what happens to your insides when you take a deep breath?

It comes from all that other stuff inside of you being pushed down and out in order to make room. That’s why it feels like you’re breathing into your belly—why your belly sticks out when you take that deep breath. It’s because your belly gets filled with all the other stuff that is being moved out of the way by your diaphragm. There’s no empty space inside your body. When the diaphragm pulls down so that you can take a really deep breath, it pushes your liver and stomach and spleen and all your other guts down so that your lungs can fill up with air.

The diaphragm is a sort of flexible wall that separates your thorax from your abdomen—your chest from your belly. And, in the ancient world, the diaphragm wasn’t just the principle muscle involved in respiration. It was also the barrier that separated your guts from your heart, your visceral emotions from your cognitive control. Why do you think we still say things like, “Trust your gut,” and “Follow your heart?” Back in the apostle Paul’s day, we understood that raw feelings came from your belly and what you did with them came from your heart and the thing that separated the two was that dome-shaped muscle and tendon upon which the heart rests and under which the guts dwell.

Paul writes, “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” That seems reasonable enough. If you are a Christian—if you belong to the Spirit—then you should act like it and think like it. But what our English translation fails to convey is that the verb for “set your mind upon” (φρονέω) is a word that has as its root the Greek word for diaphragm (φρήν), not mind (νοῦς). So, when Paul tells the Christians in Rome that they should set their minds on the things of the Spirit, he’s not just telling them to think about godly things. He’s telling them to put their diaphragms in the right place. He’s telling them that, as children of God who believe in Jesus and who are possessed by the Spirit, they must align that thing that separates their guts and their hearts—their emotion and their thinking—with their true identity. He’s telling us that the Christian life flows from that place where our feeling and thinking come together—that we succeed in following Jesus when the Holy Spirit lives in that place where our visceral and cognitive selves meet.

In other words, we cannot be head Christians or heart Christians. We must be both. We cannot follow Jesus with our minds or our intentions or our choices until our passions and our motivations and our hungers belong to him, too. But that isn’t easy. It isn’t easy to believe in our minds what we feel in our core when there is so much struggle in our lives and in the world around us. We might know in our guts that God is in control, but how are we supposed to know that in our minds when the world seems to be falling apart at the seams? And we might be able to rationalize a belief that one day the One who made all things and made them good will bring all things to their perfection, but how are we supposed to feel that same confidence in our bellies when we can’t even make it through one day without experiencing all of the anger, resentment, selfishness, greed, anxiety, and fear that make God feel infinitely distant from us?

The way of Jesus offers a radical answer. Instead of suggesting that we must think harder or feel stronger in order to make ourselves true Christians, the gospel tells us that because of Jesus Christ we already belong fully to God. We just need to orient our diaphragms—our true selves—to reflect that fact. We can’t think or feel or act our way into a closer relationship with our Creator. Instead, we must embrace the closeness that has already been given to us. No matter how hard we try, we can’t make ourselves into the fully integrated people we want to be—people who think and feel and say and do what is good and right and beautiful. There is no exercise routine, no spiritual regimen, no mindfulness app that we can use to make ourselves whole. Instead, Christianity embraces the opposite approach to human nature. Our daily struggle to align what we think and what we feel reflects our complete and total incapacity to make ourselves the people we want to be. And, into that desperate need for wholeness, Jesus enters.

In Jesus Christ, God took upon Godself our sinful, broken nature—our flesh—in order that we might be set free from that brokenness and made whole, unified, integrated people—people who belong fully to God. The forces that once worked within us to pull us apart have been defeated by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Though a part of us still reflects the limitations of our human nature, our true identity has already been changed. We are no longer subject to the powers of this world because we belong completely to God. In Christ, we are made whole, and, in this life, that wholeness is enabled by the Spirit that dwells within us. When that Spirit takes over—when we get out of the way and let God do God’s thing within us—we become wholly available to God and God’s work in our lives and in the world around us. We become the people whom we were created to be—the people whom God has restored to union with Godself in Christ Jesus.

You job isn’t to try to do what God has already done. You can’t make yourself whole any more than you can make the world a perfect place. And you can’t make yourself a child of God any more than you can make yourself a child of whomever your earthly parents may be. But you can recognize what God has already done in your life. In Jesus Christ, you can see that you already belong fully to God. Even in a broken world and even while inhabiting an imperfect body, you can recognize your true identity as one who belongs to God and one in whom God’s Spirit dwells. Set your mind on that. Set your mind and your heart, your thoughts and your passions, your dreams and your hungers on the Spirit that dwells within you. Breathe that truth in deeply. Feel it fill not only your chest but your belly as well. And let your whole self—that being within you where your guts and your heart meet—be taken over by the Holy Spirit.