Thursday, July 28, 2016

Parable about Kingdom Life (not Death)

I am not preaching this week, but I'm still tempted to write a sermon based on the Parable of the Rich Fool that starts with the line, "If you died tonight, do you know where you would wake up?" It's a joke, of course. It's funny because I've never heard that question in a sermon in an Episcopal church. I've heard it more than enough times in other settings, and I think it would be humorous to try it out with our congregation. It's the classic "get-your-life-in-order-in-case-you-die" appeal that well-intentioned though misguided preachers in the evangelical tradition use to scare people into accepting Jesus. This parable is about a rich landowner who tears down his barns to build bigger ones, enabling a leisurely retirement, but who is then caught up short by death itself. God comes to him and declares, "You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you." And, as the fiery preacher shakes his fist at the congregation, he exclaims, "What about you? Will you die tonight? Will you perish with all your wealth, or will you be accepted into the arms of your savior?"

The reason I'm drawn to that fanciful if frightful approach is because that isn't at all what the parable is about. This isn't a story about getting your life in order because death could come at any minute. It's about living each moment as fully as possible because we all know that someday death will come. Death isn't the surprise here. The surprise is that a wealthy, successful landowner, whose success must have resulted from his shrewdness as a financial planner, never bothered to consider that death would come. Instead, he approached life as if it was his to master: "I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.'" When Jesus told this story, the crowd didn't gasp when they heard God say, "Tonight your life is required of you." They were shocked when they heard the fool say, "Relax, eat, drink, be merry."

Perhaps the fault isn't only with the misguided preacher. Modern hearers of this parable might miss the point because we've largely forgotten that death is inevitable. As a good estate planner will remind us, people like to begin sentences with, "When I win the lottery...," and "If I die..." No one escapes death; it's only a question of when. That reality--that inevitability--isn't threatening; it's merely life-shaping. When we accept the reality that death exists, we don't live each day in fear of it. We don't put our head on our pillow worried that we might not wake up in the morning or, worse, that we might wake up surrounded by fire and horned devils with pitchforks. Instead, we live each day as if it mattered. As people of God, that means we live each day for God's kingdom.

In the face of a bountiful harvest, there is nothing wrong with tearing down smaller barns to build bigger ones. It's what a prudent farmer would do. But the mistake is thinking that we will ever reach a point where we can stop working for the kingdom. Except because of bizarre farming subsides that pay people not to plant their fields, no farmer would ever skip a planting season simply because the silos were full. There could be a flood. There could be a fire. Jesus isn't critical of the man's wealth. He's attacking the attitude that wealth has given the man total control. Control is just an illusion--even for the wealthiest among us--perhaps especially for the wealthiest among us.

God has work for us to do. Whether we are young or old, busy or retired, rich or poor, God is asking us to live each day as a precious gift--a gift not only for ourselves but to be shared with others. The work of the kingdom never stops. We are invited to be rich toward God. That means living each day as if it were our last--not in a hedonistic farewell tour but as an expression of gratitude and devotion. All we have is gift, and what a great gift it is. Death assures us that none of it belongs to us. Life is just something we get to use for a while. How we use it--for ourselves or for the kingdom--is what makes the difference.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Wm. R. Huntington: A Deputy's Deputy

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

There may have been occasional disputes between the disciples, but Jesus never had to deal with schism. Some could argue, of course, that his entire ministry was itself schismatic, but I suspect that the gospel accounts, written long after Jesus lived and died and rose again, portray the distinctions between Judaism and Christianity in clear and certain terms when, in fact, they were largely indistinguishable during his earthly ministry. Jesus never dealt with heretics. He never had a group split off and start their own branch of the Jesus Movement because they didn't like the current pastor. No group that we know of began a rival movement because they didn't like the new prayer book. Naturally, that didn't happen while he was alive. Like kids in a classroom with a substitute teacher or children at home with a babysitter, we waited until his feet disappeared in the clouds before we started fighting with each other.

Jesus didn't have to deal with schism, but his prayer in John 17 shows that he knew how religious disputes could tear a community of believers apart: "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one." But this prayer for unity isn't just an appeal against schism. It's also a reminder that what Jesus came to do--to reveal God and God's love to us--is impossible to see and know unless we are one: "The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."

I think we too often miss the importance of this revelatory technique. I know I miss it because I get bored with the lengthy prayer Jesus offers in this part of John and begin to flip the pages in my bible without taking them seriously enough. But think about it: Jesus' unity with the Father is what enables him to communicate God's love to the world, and the disciples' unity with Jesus is what enables them to receive that communication, and our unity with the disciples is what enables us to be in unity with Jesus, which is what enables us to receive that same communication of love. It's all about unity. If we are not one, we cannot know Jesus, and, if we cannot know Jesus, we cannot know God and God's love. It starts with the unity of the Father and the Son, and it unfolds through the unity of the faithful. And anything--absolutely anything--that stands in the way of unity diminishes, if not threatens, the our ability to know God and God's love. Does that change the way we think about what it means to be a Christian? Does that change the way we approach our own congregation, our own denomination, our own branch of the Jesus Movement?

Although our current Presiding Bishop is fond of reminding us that Jesus didn't come to start a church but to start a movement, if there's anyone in the history of the Episcopal Church who understood that and lived it and put it into practice, it was William Reed Huntington. Never a bishop, Huntington was a deputy in the House of Deputies for thirteen different General Conventions, stretching from 1871 and 1907. Because of his love for and leadership of the church, he was known affectionately as "the first presbyter of the Church," an honorific if unofficial title modeled after the "protopresbyter" or "archpriest" of the Orthodox tradition. He led the move to revise the prayer book, guiding the revision and contributing liberally to the work that produced the 1892 BCP. His commitment to the unity of the church gave hope and confidence to the Episcopal Church as a new iteration of schism, which became the Reformed Episcopal Church, began to split off in 1873. His greatest and most enduring contribution to the church, however, came in a four-part statement that we still use to summarize the unity of the church.

In his book, The Church Idea, Huntington proposed a distillation of the Christian faith that became the four statements known as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. His proposal was adopted by the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church and later, with slight modification, by the Lambeth Conference of 1888. It states that there are four basic things that hold us together: 1) the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the word of God; 2) the Apostles' Creed and Nicene Creed are the statements of our faith; 3) the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper with Jesus' words and elements are the foundation of our worship and sacramental life; 4) the historic episcopate, adapted in each local context, is an expression of our unity. Often people ask me what is it that Episcopalians or Anglicans believe, and, despite all the variation in our tradition--from Anglo-Catholic to Evangelical, from New York City to Legos, Nigeria, from 1662 to 2016--we are held together by the bible, creeds, sacraments, and apostolic ministry.

For a long time, that was enough. It helped us navigate--though not without difficulty--the tension between Catholic and Protestant in our church, revisions to prayer books, acceptance of polygamy in some African churches, and the ordination of women. It reminded us that each part of the church might talk about God in different ways, might worship God in different ways, might structure ourselves in different ways, but we were and are all held together at our core. We've lost sight of that, I think, because we've forgotten the value of unity.

We are still one, I think, deep down. But we've lost touch with how important our oneness is. We've become distracted by our differences. We took our oneness amidst diversity for granted for so long that we've forgotten that our oneness comes first. When the world sees the church, it doesn't see one; it sees broken, fractured, scattered disputes. It sees pigheadedness. It sees mutual anathemas and unequivocal condemnations. But until we are one--until we reclaim our oneness as primary and model that oneness for the world--the world cannot know the love of God because the love of God is not manifest by brokenness. It may enter that brokenness and transform it, but the brokenness itself cannot show it until it has been healed. We are one in Christ Jesus. For the sake of the world, we must recover our unity.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Greedy or Rich Toward God?

In Luke 12:13-21, when someone in the crowd asks Jesus to "tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me," Jesus responds, in part, by saying, "Take care! Be on guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." That phrase "all kinds of greed" caught my eye this morning. There's more than one kind of greed?

The man's request has to do with money--the division of an estate--but Jesus seems to be pointing to a deeper problem. He might be greedy after money, but the fact that he's asking Jesus to help him solve a sibling dispute suggests that he is also greedy in other ways. For some reason, he's not willing to address his problem directly. His appeal to Jesus as a religious authority suggests that he sees his own personal need for compensation and fairness as a religious or moral issue. Jesus, however, doesn't think so. Should the estate be divided? Jesus ignores that question completely. Instead, he directs the man's focus back on the priorities of God's kingdom.

The parable that follows teaches us to store up treasures not for ourselves but to be "rich toward God." What does it mean to be rich toward God? That use of economic language is dangerous and damning. It's as if Jesus is using the confusion of images--monetary and religious--to point out the incompatibility of those spheres. As the surprise delivered in the parable stresses, we are rich toward God by living in the today of God's kingdom--not seeking our own comfort or security or leisure in isolation.

We are greedy for security. Most of the time that shows up as a desire for money, but it runs deeper than that. We are greedy for control. We are greedy for recognition. We are greedy for protection. We are greedy for our own provision without regard for others. A man whose relationship with his brother is being torn apart by an estate is a sign of deep brokenness. That Jesus was asked to intervene is a sad pronouncement on this man's perspective. Has he really lost sight of what matters? Has he become so blinded by greed--not only for money but for an arbitrary sense of equity that that money might convey--that he cannot be reconciled to his brother? Greed blinds us. It isn't easy to be rich toward God because that means accepting poverty toward ourselves. But isn't it worth it?

Monday, July 25, 2016

Broken Triangles

For the second time in three weeks, Jesus is asked to enter a sibling conflict. First it was Martha, saying to Jesus, "Tell my sister Mary to help me!" in Luke 10. Now, in Luke 12, it's a man from the crowd saying, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." Maybe Luke was a middle child who watched his older and younger brothers bicker over who loved their mother more. Or maybe he was a clinical psychologist who understood family dynamics. Or maybe he was a casual student of human nature who noticed how the oldest rivalry in human history brought Cain and Abel back to life throughout the centuries. Whatever the reason, Luke understood how siblings work, and he uses that relationship to show us about putting the kingdom first.

We don't know who the stranger in the crowd is except by his request: "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." It's dangerous to develop a case-study on one sentence, but such is the work of the preacher. Was his request legally sound? Was this other brother holding on to too much of the family estate? Was there a piece of land that the older brother refused to sell so that the proceeds could be split? Or was this an appeal to a higher moral plane? In Jewish law, the oldest male sibling received a double-portion of the inheritance. That's just the way it was. Was this man a younger brother who wanted Jesus to undo centuries of tradition and convince his older brother to divide the estate evenly? Had he heard of Jesus' conflict with the Pharisees and scribes and his appeal to an egalitarian society, hoping to use Jesus' teachings to leverage a larger inheritance from his brother?

We don't know. The Greek word that the man uses in his request that the inheritance be split or divided is "μερίσασθαι," a form of "μερίζω," which doesn't imply anything about evenly or justly. It's just a request that it be divided and distributed. More importantly, however, I'll suggest that the preacher should focus less on the circumstance behind the request and more on the nature of Jesus' response, which is to say that the preacher should avoid the question of the inheritance altogether.

Luke isn't presenting a treatise on inheritance law. He's not proffering a new teaching on the godly distribution of estates. This isn't about money except that money has become the currency for the conflict between the siblings, which is, itself, an indication of misplaced priorities. In other word, the nature of the request itself is the problem: "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." And what is Jesus' response? "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" In other words, "That's not my business. You figure it out."

Perhaps it's because we've seen it for the second time in three weeks, but there is something about this triangulation that sticks out to me. Why is the brother asking Jesus to fix the problem? Has he approached his brother directly? Surely there are other official ways for estate disputes to be settled. Although a religious teacher, Jesus was not an arbitrator of this nature. This isn't a legal request. It's an instinctive, emotional, I-want-you-on-my-side request. In the same way that Martha's attempt to get Jesus to tell her sister to help her around the house, the request itself demonstrates that the petitioner's heart is in the wrong place. So Jesus steps back and says, "Man, you've got it all wrong. Why are you letting this hook you so badly?"

Later this week, I'll write about the explanatory parable that follows, but for now I want to stick with the sibling issue. How often do preachers sit in a room with siblings, planning the funeral of their parent while the unspoken conflict and rivalry between them rages below the surface? It happens...all...the...time. No one really cares whether the gospel reading at the funeral is from John 11 or John 14, but suddenly that matters more than anything. Of course, it's not really about the money, but it becomes about money and the house and the stuff  because that's the only way we can measure that a dead woman loved me more than you. We're really just fighting over mama's love and acceptance, but how much sense does it make to fight over resources that have no limit? One's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. We aren't just ruining those relationships when we make love a quantifiable and comparable thing. When we try to quantify love, we're also ruining life itself.

May God's continual mercy continue to cleanse us and defend us from such misplaced pursuits. Life and love are far too beautiful to fight over.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Pray Until the Kingdom Comes

July 24, 2016 – The 10th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 12C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
I am a man of routine, and part of my weekly routine is to wake up on Sunday morning, review the sermon that I have written and the Sunday school lesson that I have prepared, and organize the readings and the Prayers of the People so that they can be printed out and placed in this binder. Occasionally, if I’ll be coming back into town late on Saturday night or know I’ll be staying up to watch the end of an Alabama football game (only 41 days until kickoff, but who’s counting?), I’ll get them ready earlier in the week to save myself seven or eight extra minutes of sleep. But I have a running joke with myself because I know that if I print them out ahead of time a grandbaby will be born or someone will head to the hospital over the weekend, meaning that I have to print them out all over again.

Lately, however, any trace of humor in that has disappeared as I find myself over and over again needing to add one more tragedy, one more terrorist attack, one more police shooting to the list. Somehow, between the time I leave the office on Thursday evening and the time we gather in church on Sunday, violence and hatred and evil have their way. A month ago, when it felt like I had needed to change the prayers for three weeks in a row, I thought about writing a newsletter article that highlighted that macabre reality. Now, the regularity of this practice has surpassed the absurd and become genuinely insane. I actually have to stop and concentrate to be sure that there really have been this many tragedies and that I’m not just dreaming or making this up. Last week, in between the services, I learned of the three police officers who were shot and killed in Baton Rouge, so I scribbled in the margin a prayer for them to be read at the 10:30 service. But, when Chuck Puckett climbed to the lectern to read the prayers and saw mention of “Baton Rouge,” he initially believed it to be a mistaken addition leftover from the previous week, but, when he read that we were also praying for those affected by the attack in Nice, France, he realized that there must have been yet another shooting in Baton Rouge—yet another shooting. When will it end? What should we do?

We should pray. At least, that’s what people like me—people who are supposed to have a godly answer but actually have no earthly idea—will say. People ask me, “What can I do? What can we do?” But I have those same questions myself. All of us are searching for something—a direction, a response, a gesture of clarity instead of confusion, of confidence instead of fear. And so we pray. Pray for Paris. Pray for Dallas. Pray for Nice. Pray for Baton Rouge. Pray for Munich. People have changed their temporary Facebook profile picture so many times in recent weeks that they can’t even remember what they’re praying for. And still they tell us to pray. It seems so cheap—like an escape. The call to prayer feels like a desperate retreat into that last shaky stronghold of a religious bubble within which we hope and pray that the danger will not reach us but from which our confidence is crumbling.

But prayer isn’t cheap. And it isn’t an escape. We might mutter wishful words that ask God to separate us from all that threatens us, but that’s not prayer. Prayer isn’t a way out of this broken world. Real prayer—the kind of prayer that Jesus teaches us—is a nosedive straight into the middle of it. And that’s far more difficult and far more dangerous and far more powerful. As Michael Curry said after the attack in Nice, “It is important for us, as followers of Jesus, to remember that prayer is not an escape from the world but a way of deeper engagement with it by drawing closer to God and closer to each other.” In other words, we pray not to remove ourselves from the tragedy but to immerse ourselves in it and, in so doing, to become vessels through which God’s reign might be further established as a transformative agent that will change the world and heal its brokenness. That is to say that we pray until we make a difference. But how do we pray like that?

“Lord, teach us to pray,” one of Jesus’ disciples said to him, after watching him pray off by himself for a while. “You’re the expert. We want to pray like you. Teach us how to pray.” I doubt that the disciple knew what he was asking, and I certainly don’t think that he knew the kind of answer he would get: “When you pray, say, ‘Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us from the time of trial.’” The end. It’s shockingly short and simple—just five little petitions, each linked to the others. There’s no place within them for individualistic concerns. There’s no room for variation or flourish. There’s no request for escape. Just God, the kingdom, and us.

Even from the opening word, Luke lets us know that he means business, omitting the possessive pronoun “our” by which Matthew’s version of this prayer begins. There’s no mention of heaven either. Not a syllable is wasted. Instead, the prayer moves immediately to the first petition: “hallowed be your name.” May God’s holy name be revered, respected, and honored throughout the world. And how will that happen? That brings us straight to the second petition—the line upon which the whole prayer hinges: “Your kingdom come.” It’s that simple. No need to elaborate about God’s will being done on earth as in heaven. May God’s kingdom come. May God’s will, God’s reign, God’s authority, be fully manifest right here on earth. We’re not asking God to take us to heaven. We’re asking him to be in control here on earth. Those three little words comprise the absolute core of the Christian hope. In them, we ask God to make this world completely and totally the world that God created it to be.

But how will that happen? The rest of the prayer is made up of three petitions, each of which is an image of God’s kingdom that unfolds as we pray it. “Give us this day our daily bread.” No more, no less. Just enough. In God’s kingdom, the children of God have enough for today and need not worry about tomorrow. The immediacy of the kingdom doesn’t allow us to dwell on what lies ahead. “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive those indebted to us.” Another characteristic of God’s kingdom is perfect, interlocking forgiveness. Jesus makes it clear that God’s forgiveness of us is inseparable from our forgiveness of each other. We cannot be forgiven except as we forgive, and we cannot forgive unless we, too, are forgiven. Thus, in God’s kingdom, forgiveness builds upon itself without end. If we withhold forgiveness, even from those who hurt us most deeply, we cannot know what it means to be forgiven, and how could we ever hope to forgive unless we knew the limitlessness of God’s forgiving love? Finally, “do not bring us to the time of trial.” May our faith not be tested beyond our limits. May we not lose heart. May our confidence in God’s kingdom persist even when chaos ensues. Even when the walls around us begin to crumble, may the certainty of God’s kingdom keep us steadfast in our faith.

This is our prayer. It’s about God, God’s kingdom, and us, and it’s about now. We pray these words not asking God to give us what we want—our hopes and dreams. We pray them so that God might use us to make our lives and the world we live in God’s hope and God’s dream. We pray this prayer until God’s kingdom comes through us. And it is no accident that we pray this prayer at the Eucharist, where it has always belonged. Like us, the earliest Christians said this prayer when they gathered around the table and shared the bread and wine as a testament to the coming of God’s kingdom. They knew that Jesus’ death and resurrection had changed everything. They had seen God’s will—God’s reign—disclosed in the cross and empty tomb. They were so sure that God’s kingdom had come that they were willing to give everything they had—even their lives—in the service of that kingdom. But the threat of persecution, torture, and death was a constant reminder that God’s kingdom might have come in the person of Jesus, but the world still needed God’s reign to be complete.

Just like God’s kingdom, God’s table is the place where everyone is welcome, where everyone gets what he or she needs, where forgiveness reigns, and where the certainty of God’s kingdom is unequivocally manifest. But that kingdom cannot be confined to the space within the altar rail. We live in a world that needs God’s kingdom. And, in the face of repeated tragedy, we need God’s kingdom to break into this world more fully. And so we pray. The prayer that Jesus taught us isn’t a collection of words to be spoken out of habit. It’s a window through which God’s power flows into this world. And we say it so that God might open that window in us.

Hear again the words that Jesus taught us. Pray again, “Your kingdom come.” Allow the brokenness of this world to fill your heart. Then come to this table and experience the fullness of God’s kingdom and be dissatisfied that the world isn’t the way it should be. Let that disconnect disturb you. And then pray that God will use you—your hands, your feet, your heart, and your voice—to make his kingdom come. Every time you say this prayer for the rest of your life, may it be an invitation to God that he would use you to make his dream for this world come true.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Vacation Week

Although I will be reading and writing and preparing for a sermon, I'm supposed to be on vacation with my family this week, so I will not be blogging. Check back on July 25 for new posts. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

It's Not About Mary

If you are preaching this week, please resist the temptation to urge your congregation to be more like Mary. If you plan to show up at church this week and intend to pay attention to the gospel lesson, please don't walk away thinking, "I'm a Martha, but Jesus is calling me to be a Mary." When we hear the story of Jesus sojourning in the home of his friends, it is tempting to conclude that sitting at Jesus' feet is where we all belong. But please, in the name of proper exegesis, southern hospitality, and type-A personalities everywhere, don't stop there. This isn't a story about Mary. It's a story about distraction.

The first thing I noticed about the lessons this week is that, in the Track 2 lectionary, the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) is paired with the hospitality of Abraham (Genesis 18:1-10a). If the point of the gospel lesson is to emphasize contemplation above action, why would we read about Abraham hurrying about to prepare a meal for his three guests? Read that story and feel again the urgency behind Abraham's actions. Abraham "ran from the tent entrance to meet them," "hastened into the tent," and said to Sarah, "make ready quickly three measures of choice flour." The activity under the oaks of Mamre mirrored that of Martha in Bethany. She busied about the house preparing the meal, setting the table, and making ready to entertain the Lord. Even though Mary is praised by Jesus "for choosing the better part," Martha's mistake--and presumably what separates her from Abraham--is not her activity but her distraction.

Luke the editor of the story tells us that "Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to [Jesus] and said..." Notice the sequential if not consequential relationship between those two states of being--distracted and appeal. Her triangulated request to Jesus for her sister's help is the product of her distraction--literally her "being pulled about by the urgently present table service." That sounds ridiculous, but it was supposed to sound pretty ridiculous to the Greek reader. Anyone who has ever been surprised by unexpected guests understands the chaos that ensues, but, until that knock at the door comes, that we would be undone by it seems pretty laughable. Her misdirected request for her sister's assistance is issued from a state of distraction, and it is the distraction that Jesus seizes upon.

As Steve Pankey wrote on Monday, the word Jesus uses to describe Martha's state of being is a hapax legomenon, a word that only occurs once in scripture. As he concludes, this points to an "unprecedented level of distraction." The Greek word thorubazo means bothered in the disturbed, disquieted sense, which suggests to me something internal rather than external. At first, Luke uses the traditional word perispao to describe Martha as distracted by the needs of the moment, but Jesus changes that word to suggest a deeper problem. Sure, Martha was busy taking care of her guest, but the real issue was that there was something inside her that was out of sync with the situation itself. Whether making preparations for a meal or sitting at Jesus' feet, the opportunity was the same--to welcome Jesus inside. Unencumbered Mary had space for that. Despite being busy, Martha could have made space for that, too, but her disquieting obsession made that impossible.

From this place of distraction, Martha first invokes a comparison with her sister. The comparison isn't the issue either; it's a symptom. Martha is unbalanced. She is out of sorts. Her efforts have lost their true telos. Jesus responds with a mirrored comparison--Mary has chosen the better part. I prefer the antiquated RSV's "portion" here because it helps me see that this isn't about role playing; it's about gift. Mary chose the good portion not in her refusal to help her sister but in her complete and total acceptance of the gift that Jesus represents. Being busy isn't the sin that keeps Martha from receiving it. It's her misdirected busyness--the kind of busyness that asks "why isn't she helping me" instead of acknowledging "this is my portion, too."