Thursday, October 30, 2014

Sainthood Comes from God

I’ve written about it before, but it’s a conversation I come back to over and over in my own faith development. It’s my long and protracted though definitely friendly argument with my across-the-hall neighbor from my first year of seminary, Tim Ferguson. After a few weeks of Morning Prayer from the BCP (remember, the 1662 version in England), we found ourselves at loggerheads over the primary identity of a Christian. I like to think of us as sinners, and he likes to think of us as saints.

Back and forth, back and forth—we argued. I love the line in the old confession “miserable offenders” and “there is no health in us.” He didn’t like that at all. “God made us good—very good,” he would counter, but I would cling to my Augustinian understanding of human nature and respond, “But after the fall of Adam the taint of original sin has been passed down to us.” We both knew it was silly but fun. We both enjoyed taking a hyperbolic position just to get a rise out of the other.

Still, though, it illuminated something in my own theological bias. I came to know the love of God as one who recognized his own depravity. That love reached down and yanked me out of my sin. I suppose that others might have discovered the saving, forgiving, redeeming love of God in a place of blessing. Maybe that’s the difference—I don’t  know. But I do know that my understanding of holiness—of sainthood—comes not from a place of internal goodness but from an imputed righteousness that is given by God through our faith.

As I prepare to preach on All Saints’ Sunday, I’m thinking a lot about sainthood. No, I don’t mean the saints whose names often adorn church buildings or whose legends we still tell our children. I mean the sainthood—the holy identity—that is given to all God’s beloved. Those are the “saints” or the “holy ones” to whom Paul addresses his letters. We are saints. By virtue of our redemption, we are all saints.

But we’re sinners, too. And that’s the real beauty of it. Sainthood is not unattainable. (Well, actually it is if we’re talking about the do-it-on-your-own sense of individual attainment.) Sainthood is given to those of us miserable sinners who know what it means to be called to holiness. It’s probably a good thing that parishioners hear their clergyperson reminding them of their sinfulness on a regular basis. There aren’t many other cultural institutions that will tackle human brokenness head-on like that. But it’s imperative that our preachers also remind us that, despite our sinfulness, God has made us his holy people—his saints.

On Sunday, we’re going to sing a hymn that it has taken me a few years to grow to love: “I sing a song of the saints of God…” It’s as folksy as we get in the Episcopal Church. At the end of each line, the singer ponders her or his own potential sainthood: “…there’s not any reason, no not the least, why I couldn’t be one, too.” Exactly. But that’s not because we expect to be slain by a fierce wild beast. It’s because we expect to go shopping and have tea. Our sainthood comes not from within us. It is given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ. It is he that makes us holy—saintly. Our faith in him—our ability to trust in God’s promise of redemption—is what clothes us in sainthood from on high.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Updating Sheep and Wolves

Today is the feast of James Hannington and his companions, the first of many of the “Martyrs of Uganda.” They were killed on this day in 1885—one hundred twenty-nine years ago. I read that Hannington signed up with the Christian Missionary Society after learning that two Christian missionaries had been murdered near Lake Victoria. He went to Africa but became very sick with fever and dysentery, so he had to return home to England to recover. Then, willing to return, Hannington was consecrated Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa and sent back. He was thirty-seven years old.

He decided that what was needed was a safer, shorter route from Kenya, where he arrived, to Uganda—specifically Buganda, which is a subnational kingdom that lies in the center of Uganda. Wikipedia suggests that the well-trafficked southern route was controlled by Arab slave traders, and Hannington hoped to establish a better way for Christians to travel. At this time, there were many Christians in Uganda. Hannington wasn’t journeying to bring the gospel to “deepest, darkest Africa,” where no preacher had gone before. Instead, he was simply trying to make Christian inroads—literally—into a part of the country that was undeveloped.

But, as his martyrdom implies, things did not go well. Hannington was unaware that cutting a road through Buganda would not be well received by the authorities. At the same time, German imperial forces were spreading elsewhere on the African continent, and the king of Buganda, Mwanga II, was suspicious that Hannington had his own conquering agenda. So he had the bishop and his Christian companions arrested. After eight days, Hannington and the porters with him were executed. Hannington was speared on both sides, and as he bled to death, he is reported to have said, “Go tell your master (Mwanga) that I have purchased the road to Uganda with my blood.”

The gospel lesson appointed for today is Matthew 10:16-22. Jesus warns his disciples that he is sending them out as sheep in the midst of wolves—not a very happy image, huh? I wonder if Hannington had that gospel lesson in mind as he hacked his way through the highlands of eastern Africa. Sheep in the midst of wolves—what a scary prospect! All around us are those who are out to get us. We’d better be on our guard. We’d better arm ourselves. I wonder what sort of attitude Hannington had during his interrogation. I wonder whether he tried to build a friendship with his captors or whether he embraced death boldly and nobly.

There’s a danger in adopting a confrontational mindset when travelling to a foreign land. And there’s a futility in adopting an adversarial approach to evangelism. Surely it’s more productive to look for ways to build connection. Instead of being on guard and expecting those around us to tear us apart as wolves might set upon a flock of sheep, perhaps we should use a different image for the work of the church in modern times. What about the image of a new kid in class? Or maybe strangers trapped on an elevator? Yes, of course, there were (and still are) times and places where Christians were killed simply for being Christians. And I’m sure that the image of sheep and wolves made a lot of sense in the first few centuries of the Church’s history. But what about today? Are we sheep in the midst of wolves?

Our missionary identity has changed since the late nineteenth century. We aren’t cutting in roads from Kenya to Uganda, seeking a safer, quicker route for Christians. For the most part, we aren’t taking the gospel to unreached heathen. Instead, mission and evangelism are about building relationships. Sometimes those encounters begin in conflict, but the work of the gospel isn’t to dig in our heels and butt heads with our “opponents” for Jesus’ sake. That isn’t really what sheep do in the midst of wolves. Have you ever seen a sheep in the midst of wolves? Unless they’re being eaten, they’ve already run away. They hide. Sheep don’t fight back. They know that the wolves are in control.

We are sent out not to impose our will on those we encounter. We are sent out not because we know what’s best for those we meet. We are sent out to share good news and love with the whole world. Is the world eager to hear that message? Sometimes not. And will the world tear us apart? Sometimes it will. But we go out to share God’s love with the whole world. And love, of course, is about relationships.

Two Views of Humanity: Sts. Simon & Jude

By all accounts, Jesus was a strange fellow. He was known as a strict religious teacher, but he spent his time eating and cavorting with sinners. He knew the Jewish scriptures and Mosaic law as well as anyone, yet he regularly broke the sabbath restrictions. He preached a message about the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom, but he allowed himself to be tried, convicted, and executed by the Roman occupiers of the Holy Land. He was a countercultural revolutionary who used nonviolence and love to win over his enemies, and his teachings still stretch the minds of religious and political elites.

It’s easy, as a student of the gospel, to hear the good news of Jesus Christ in a Jesus-vs-the-World kind of way. That’s especially true in John’s gospel account. In numbingly repetitive language from John 15 through the high priestly prayer of John 17, Jesus says time and again that he is not of the world but is in the world and that his followers were of the world but have been called out of the world. “The world is going to hate you,” Jesus warns his disciples, “because it hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). Hate is a pretty strong word, but Jesus means it here. Elizabeth and I try to teach our children not to use the word hate, but how do you explain to a four-year-old that Jesus is allowed to use it because he means it in a way we usually don’t? The point is that Jesus and his message and ministry seem to run in conflict with the ways of the world.

But you don’t even have to read any part of the New Testament to get that sense about Jesus. How many people in the name of Jesus let the rest of the world know that the world is wrong? How many t-shirts and bracelets and hats and bumper stickers have you seen that basically say, “I’m on Jesus’ team, and, if you’re not, you’re wrong?” When was the last time that someone made money selling a shirt that says, “Jesus proves that God loves you even if you hate him?” But isn’t that the real message of the gospel?

Today is the feast of Saints Simon and Jude. (I wrote yesterday about All Saints’, and I’m still thinking pretty carefully about what it means to be a saint, but I’m taking a break to focus on these two for today. There’s a chance they’ll be folded back into tomorrow’s post.) Do you know anything about Simon or Jude? I don’t—at least not much.

Simon is mentioned in all three synoptic gospel accounts as Simon the Zealot. What a great name—Zealot! That title distinguishes him from the other, better known Simon Peter. But what does it mean to be a zealot? He had zeal for the law and the traditions of Israel. He would have identified with those who worked to overthrow the Roman occupation of Palestine. He would have insisted that God’s ways and God’s kingdom come first—that the kingdoms of this world mean nothing in comparison—that every ounce of energy should be spent doing whatever is necessary to help establish God’s eschatological, theocratic state here on earth. In other words, he was the disciple who stood in the corner, twirling his knife in his hand, talking about how good it would feel to personally dispatch one of these pigheaded Roman centurions.

Jude, on the other hand, comes from the other end of the spectrum—at least according to extracanonical, almost-certainly-made-up tradition. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. Why? I’m told that it’s because Jude’s real name is Judas. There were two Judas disciples. This one is the one Luke calls “Judas, son of James” (6:16). John speaks of him as “Judas (not Iscariot)” (14:22). Matthew likes to call him Thaddeus, which may or may not be the same person, but the point is that there was another disciple named Judas. But those who appeal to the saints and ask them to pray for them did not want to call upon the wrong Judas. Surely God wouldn’t want his faithful to appeal to the name of the Betrayer. So do you know when you finally call on Jude—the other Judas? When you’ve already called on everyone else. He’s the last resort. Jude represents those of us in our most difficult moments—when trouble is closing in all around us. Where Simon the Zealot represents the other-worldliness of God’s kingdom, Jude embraces the brokenness of this life and the world in which we live.

And Jesus, of course, is both. His life and witness was other worldly, yet he came as one of us. The Incarnation is God becoming man—the human and divine natures united together without separation and without mixture in the one person of Jesus. The Son of God is God, which means that Jesus is fully divine—totally of God’s kingdom, not of this world, perfect. But the Word became flesh, which means that God took on the full brokenness of humanity. He became the hunger, poverty, sickness, heartbreak, and addiction that plagues the human race. As Paul writes in 2 Cor 5:21, even though he did not know sin, he became sin itself. And why? So that we might be healed.

It’s easy in the Christian faith to think that the point of following Jesus is to depart this world. And, in a sense, it is. We are called to be citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom. But that is not an escape-pod theology that holds as its goal the departure from this broken life. Instead, we believe that God, because of the incarnation, has shown us his ability to transform this life from brokenness into wholeness. Although he calls us out of this world, he does not beckon us to leave it. Yes, the world might hate us, but we do not hate the world. We look for the worlds re-creation until it is fully God’s kingdom—right here.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Citizens of an Upside-Down Kingdom

This Sunday we will observe the Feast of All Saints instead of the usual Sunday propers. That All Saints' can be transferred to a Sunday makes it unique among liturgical observances. Usually, days are transferred from a Sunday to later in the week because Sunday takes precedence over most observances. And those big festivals that overrule a Sunday-observance are usually observed on the appointed day (Christmas, Epiphany, etc.). But All Saints' is different.

Sometimes I think it would be nice to live in a world where people stop what they are doing to go to church on November 1 regardless of what day of the week it is, but, rather than lament the secularization of our culture, I'll choose to celebrate the fact that the church makes it possible for us to bring that celebration back to a day when people are more likely to come to church. All Saints' Sunday. It gives us a chance to remember all the saints. But what does that mean?

In many Episcopal Churches, including ours, the list of the faithful departed will be read as part of the All Saints' liturgy. Of course, some will quickly point out that the proper day for that practice is November 2, a day which, in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, is entitled "Commemoration of the Faithful Departed." The good news is that this year's All Saints' Sunday falls on November 2, so maybe one could make an argument that both belong together. (I'm not really interested in the argument. We're just doing what we're doing regardless.)

The really issue, of course, is our church's poorly developed theology of sainthood. Who are all the saints? Yes, they are people like apostles, prophets, and martyrs from long ago. Yes, they are people who have shown the light of the gospel through their lives in more recent times. But they are also, as the hymn goes, just folk like me. I'm a saint, and you're a saint. Your grandmother was a saint, and my great uncle was, too. But how do you celebrate a theology of sainthood that includes all of us while still remembering people like Julian, John, James, and Jerome?

The gospel lesson for All Saints' Day in Year A is Matthew 5:1-12: "Blessed are the poor in spirit..." The Beatitudes are those short, counter-intuitive statements of blessedness that Jesus prescribes in the Sermon on the Mount (or Sermon on the Plain, in Luke's version). And I think this is a great place to start when thinking of saints. Saints are the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, the reviled. God's message to them turns their condition on its head: "Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

Saints are those whose reward lies in God's heavenly kingdom rather than here on earth. Saints are those who through their lives or writings or deaths point us toward our place in God's kingdom. In their various and saintly ways, they invite us to focus not on our earthly affliction but on our heavenly reward. You can't be a saint and be stuck forever here in this life. If you're a saint, you belong somewhere else.

All Saints' Sunday is a good occasion for stories. Maybe they will be the stories of famous saints like Mark or Martin or Mary or Michael. Or maybe they will be the stories of lesser-known saints like Uncle John or Cousin Louise or my sweet elderly neighbor or that kid from down the street. Whatever the story--whoever the saint--let us focus our gaze toward heaven and to that upside-down kingdom to which we truly belong.

Sunday Sermon: Proper 25A

October 26, 2014 – The 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25A

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

I grew up in a neighborhood full of boys. If there were any girls who lived there, I was too young to notice. Paul lived across the yard. Ric lived across the street. James lived at the end of our block until he moved away, but then Travis moved into his house. Zach lived around the corner. And all of us played together every day. Football, baseball, wall ball, hide-and-seek—we spent all our time in and out of each other’s yards, playing until Mr. Garrick’s shrill whistle interrupted our fun, reminding all of us that it was time for dinner. And, the whole time, we were trying to avoid our younger siblings.

I have two younger brothers. One is more than eight years younger than I am, so, although a threat to tattle on us when we were doing something we shouldn’t, he never really got in our way. But my other brother is only two and a half years younger than I, which meant that he always wanted to hang out with us, and that meant that we never wanted him to. I did everything to keep him away from us. I snuck out the side door when he wasn’t looking. I got him in trouble so he wouldn’t be allowed outside. But the best ploy I used to keep us apart was the series of “admission tests” I contrived to keep him out of our secret club for older boys.

When I was in the first grade, the test had addition and subtraction problems on it—questions a kid in preschool could never answer. When I was in the second grade, the questions grew in complexity to ensure he wouldn’t catch up. By the time I was in the third grade, I used multiplication and division to keep him out of our club. Actually, come to think of it, we never really had a club. I just enjoyed making up tests to remind him that he couldn’t hang out with us. I didn’t care what answers he gave. It wasn’t supposed to be a test he could pass.

I kind of feel that way about today’s gospel lesson—that both the Pharisees and Jesus are administering tests that no one is supposed to pass. First, the Pharisees ask Jesus a question about the Law. “Teacher,” one of them asks him, “which commandment is the greatest?” That’s a little like asking a parent which child is her favorite: there is no such thing as a good answer. There are 613 commandments in the Jewish Law, and they range from “worship God alone” (Exod. 20:3) to “remember to season your offerings with salt” (Lev. 2:13). Some of them are hugely important, and plenty of them are esoteric, but all of them are necessary. Collectively they give structure to the relationship between God and his people. The 613 mitzvot are the foundation of Jewish life. To pick out just one as the greatest is an impossible feat, which I suppose is why Jesus gives us two instead.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On those two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Together they pretty much say it all. Love God and love each other. Do that, and you’ll be ok. There is a lot to be said for living in peace with one’s maker and with one’s fellow man. That’s not a bad way to live, and, if Jesus stops there, it might be enough. But he doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t want the Pharisees to walk away thinking that it is as simple as that, so he gives them a test of his own.

“Whose son is the messiah?” he asks them in return. That’s an easy enough question. “David’s son, of course,” they reply. The trap is set. “Then how is it that David by the Spirit calls him Lord?” Jesus asks, going on to quoting Psalm 110: “The Lord said to my Lord…” Now, don’t worry too much about making sense of what Jesus is asking. It’s a silly question based on a very limited reading of the Psalms. But Jesus knows that, and so do the Pharisees. Jesus doesn’t want an answer. He wants them to see how pointless these questions really are. He wants to show them and us that faith in God is about relationship and that relationships cannot be built on a test.

How many times have you heard a preacher say that God loves you no matter what? How many times have you heard a preacher say that there is nothing you can do to earn God’s love? How many times have you heard a preacher say that good works won’t get you into heaven—that the only thing that can save you is God’s grace and your faith in his promises? Then why do I keep hearing you say that what God wants is for you to be a good person—to love him and to live by the Golden Rule?

Why? Because we all love a good test. They used to come in magazines, and then we found them on websites, but now they’re all over Facebook. What’s your love type? Which apostle are you? What’s your super hero? What’s your bible name? What foreign country should you live in? How smart are you? How kind are you? What should your career be? We love them. We can’t get enough of them. Judging by their popularity, I think the productivity of our nation has taken a nosedive in the last six months. There is something about human nature that says, “If you can put it in a test, I’ll take it.” But there is no test for a real relationship. There is no test for real faith.

We fall into the same trap that the Pharisees fell into 2,000 years ago. “Come on, Jesus,” we say, “just tell us what we’re supposed to do, and we’ll do it. Love God? Love each other? That sounds easy enough.” But, as his exchange with the Pharisees shows, there is no lasting satisfaction in trying to do the right things. We think that being a Christian is about passing a test—that God wants us to show up for church and be nice to people. But you know what? Coming to church every Sunday and treating other people with respect won’t get you into heaven. God doesn’t care where you spend your Sunday mornings, and he doesn’t care whether you give $5 to the homeless guy in the parking lot. If that’s what you think really matters, you should go sponsor a canned food drive at Starbucks. The coffee’s better, and the seats are more comfortable.

Faith isn’t built on doing the right things. It’s built on love. Think about the relationships in your life that really matter—your spouse, your parents, your kids, your siblings, your closest friends. How many of those relationships depend on you doing the right things—on you passing some test that proves you’re worthy of their love? I know that if my marriage hinged on me not screwing up it would have fallen apart a long time ago. And yours would have, too.

Jesus came to show the world that God loves us no matter what. He came and lived and died and rose again to prove that there is nothing we can do to change the way God loves us. God doesn’t ask us to do anything in exchange for that love. All he asks us to do is to trust that his love is real. Think about your relationship with God. What does it look like? What is it built on? If you’re still trying to figure out what God wants you to do, stop. That’s not faith. And if you’re still looking for all the right answers, stop. That’s not faith either. Faith is believing that God really does love you—no matter who you are or what you do or what you think. That’s where a real relationship starts. It doesn’t start with passing a test. It starts with knowing that you’re loved. Amen.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

James the Who?

In the Episcopal Church, today is the feast of "James of Jerusalem, Brother of our Lord Jesus Christ, and Martyr, c. 62." That's a long title. I've spent all day trying to get strangers on the street to hold still long enough for me to wish them, "Happy feast of Saint James of Jerusalem, Brother..." They usually start walking away by the time I get to "James." But the long name is itself a subject of contention.

Let's start with "Jerusalem." He was, it seems, the Bishop of Jerusalem. In fact, that's the only part we seem to be able to agree on. According to Wikipedia, a " third century letter pseudographically ascribed[2] to the second century Clement of Rome" called James of Jerusalem the "bishop of bishops who rules Jerusalem."

As soon as we get to "Brother," everything comes off the rails. What does it mean to call someone Jesus' brother? What does that say about Mary? The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Mary was a perpetual virgin--to the point that, through the intervention of God, her physical virginity remained intact both during the conception AND the birth of Jesus. According to the doctrine, she had no other children. That would mean that any "brothers" could be half-brothers (Joseph's children by a previous, presumably desceased, wife). Or they could be "brothers" in the metaphorical sense used elsewhere in the New Testament to denote something like "brethren." Others argue that, because there is no Aramaic word for "cousin," the gap between the spoken language of Jesus and the Greek of the gospel accounts leaves enough doubt that perhaps James is really a cousin.

Another approach to this conundrum entirely confuses "James the Bishop of Jerusalem" with "James the Less." The latter is known as one of the twelve disciples. "James the Greater" refers to James, son of Zebedee, brother of John. "James the Less" means James, son of Alphaeus. Jerome took this approach because it helped him preserve the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity, but, again, it seems like an unnecessary escape hatch. In the Episcopal Church, we have a separate feast for that James, which falls on May 1 (Saint Philip and Saint James).

Before you make any conclusion, go read the gospel lesson for this feast (Matt. 13:54-58). The Greek word is brothers. There is another Greek word for cousins, but it isn't used. In my mind, Mary's relationship with God--her availability as God's handmaiden--does not depend on her perpetual virginity. Yes, let's celebrate her lifelong faithfulness--the before, during, and after holiness--but let's do it without theologically stitching back together her hymen.

James is Jesus' brother. There's a whole wonderful, beautiful, complex theology of being Jesus' brother. What did it mean to grow up with him? What did it mean to have some of the same genetic material that he had? What does it mean to be a faithful follower and leader in the church despite living a life perpetually defined by what one is not?

I'm the oldest of three boys. I don't know what it's like to go to school and have a teacher call me someone's brother. I don't know what it's like to follow in the footsteps of someone more successful than I. But James did. And that's a holy life and a holy example.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Paul the Nursing Mother

There's a little line in this Sunday's Epistle lesson (1 Thessalonians 2:1-8) that takes me right back to my first-year seminary paper that attempted (poorly) to answer the question, "Was Paul a misogynist?" Paul-lovers and Paul-haters have kicked around different passages from his letters to bolster their case either that Paul's anti-women attitude continues to infect the church or that Paul's egalitarian approach to gender has a place in the feminist theology of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Unfortunately, as I scoured the New Testament for verses that might support my fledgling argument that Paul, indeed, does not hate women, I missed 1 Thessalonians 2:7, where Paul writes, "But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children."

In physically evocative language, Paul takes on the role of a nursing mother. Filled with Christian love for the people in Thessalonica, Paul envisions himself taking them to his breast and nourishing them. Of course, in the literal sense, Paul couldn't do that. But I think he wanted to.

As I often reminded my wife when one of our infants filled the house with hungry screams at 2am, I cannot breastfeed them. But, really, secretly, I was jealous of the intimacy that she had with our kids in those moments. I could hold them and love them and snuggle with them and play with them and change their diapers and even feed them a bottle, but, when it was time for a meal, I could not make them stop screaming. They knew where the real source of their sustenance was.

What does it mean for Paul to care for the Thessalonians so much that he longs to nurse them? What does it mean for us to care so much for each other that we would seek opportunities to sustain them in physical, emotional, spiritual, and relational ways? This is a powerful image--too powerful to let it stay in the realm of metaphor. Love isn't just a feeling or an emotion or a longing. Love is real, tangible, and concrete. No, we might not be nursing mothers, but our support for one another can show up in ways just as vivid, physical, and intimate. 
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