Thursday, December 29, 2011

Throw Away Gifts

Today’s Old Testament lesson (2 Samuel 23:13-17b) is most curious. David and his compatriots are camped out in battle, and he makes a passing comment about wanting some water from a well back in his hometown. So three warriors head out, sneak through enemy lines, and bring back the water. But David pours the water out, saying that the Lord has forbidden him from drinking it because the task was too risky. Noble gesture or ungrateful recipient?

I need to be careful with what I say. I remember admiring aloud a painting in the St. John’s, Montgomery, parish bazaar. Someone interrupted and said to me, “Be careful. If someone hears you saying that, he or she might just buy it for you.” That would have been a nice gesture but too much. I didn’t really like the painting that much—not enough to buy it myself. And I would have felt uncomfortable if someone had given it to me.

At the same time, I need to be gracious when I am given gifts. When Elizabeth or someone else goes out of their way—probably not risking his or her life but still going above and beyond—to do something nice for me, I need to overcome my awkwardness and just say thank you. Sometimes the greatest gift I can give someone is just saying thank you and enjoying what they have given me.

But David is weird. I wonder if he felt guilty for declaring his wish out loud. I wonder whether he suddenly realized how willing his troops were to die for him. I wonder whether that water humbled him and helped him know how responsible he was for the lives of those around him. I hope the warriors weren’t insulted. This story comes at the end of his life—his wish is almost a dying wish. Maybe it's a story of sacrifice and selflessness. Maybe David demonstrates to us that his life is focused on the welfare of others rather than his own well-being. Whatever the case, it’s a curious story.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Holy Innocents

I think today’s collect gets it right: “Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims.” Today we remember the HolyInnocents—specifically all those children “in and around Bethlehem” who were killed by King Herod after he learned that he had been tricked by the wise men. I think the real heart of this celebration is and must be innocents in all places and times.

If we restrict our remembrance to those babies killed by Herod, we find ourselves focused on a terrible consequence of our savior’s birth: had Jesus not been born, that slaughter would not have happened. While I remain firmly convinced that the “what if” question is futile, I still don’t like thinking about it from that angle. How many children must die in order for salvation to come to the whole world? Sure, we’re not saying that the Holy Innocents were part of God’s grand plan, but… Well, what are we saying?

Actually, the slaughter of Bethlehem’s holy innocents is one of those events that lives out in biblical history in a way it may not have lived out in historical history. I haven’t watched any A&E specials on this in a while, but I think I remember that this is one of those events that we have no record of except in the bible. And the end line of today’s gospel reading (Matthew 2:13-18), where it specifically ties this event to the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy, suggests that this narrative has more to do with making Old and New Testaments line up. Maybe that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t really matter.

This passage is about evil rising up against good and doing terrible, almost unspeakable things to innocent lives. And that happens all the time. We live in a world where tragedy (the real sort) befalls individuals and communities. In an interview last week, Angelina Jolie was speaking about her new film, In the Land of Blood and Honey, which depicts the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims in 1995, and she mentioned that, after the holocaust of WWII, we decided not to let these things happen anymore, but, of course, they do happen.

So what is God’s message of hope to a world struck by tragedy of this level? What can God say to a world that has streets stained with the blood of innocents? In today’s lessons, I find hope in the passage from Revelation (21:1-7).

People often conjecture about what heaven will be like—what it will look like, who will be there, and what we will do once we get there. Usually, those imaginations provide limited spiritual value. In today’s passage from Revelation, God declares that he will make all things new. And sometimes that’s the only place to start—by starting over. When a tragedy as real as the death of an innocent hits a family or a community, there is no such thing as patching that wound. When thousands of innocent lives are lost at the hands of brutal oppressors, one cannot simply make it all better. The only kind of redemption that addresses that kind of wrong is newness. A clean start. And the only source of that hope is God.

When our brokenness is as great as it is in those terrible moments, we can only turn to God and trust that one day he will make it new. That means that we won’t find true healing in this lifetime, and I think that’s appropriate. We can’t expect to “get over” something as horrible as an innocent’s death. We can only ride out this lifetime with our sight firmly fixed on the future—a new future, a place and time when all things will be made new.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

St. John the Evangelist

Which of the four gospel accounts is your favorite? The social activists among us often pick Luke. I don’t know that many people who prefer Matthew’s strict Jewishness or Mark’s relative historical purity. But I know a lot of people who love John. We read John’s prologue in church on Christmas Day, and, as always, hearing those magic words hanging in the air calls my entire being to attention. If you’re a John-lover, today is your day. Well, more specifically, today is John’s day, but we all get to celebrate it.

John the Evangelist has lots of different identities: John the brother of James, John the author of Revelation, John the author of the pastoral epistles that bear his name, John the beloved disciple, and John the author of the fourth gospel account. Church tradition holds that that all of those are the same John even though we are now pretty sure that none of them is the same. The good news for those who love “In the beginning was the Word…” is that today is a celebration primarily of the author of John, so that much we get to keep.

But my favorite lesson for John’s feast day is the Old Testament lesson (Exodus 33:18-23). Every so often, the authors of the lectionary really get it right, and this is most definitely one of those moments. The connections with John’s love of light and darkness, glory and shame, revelation and hiddenness is powerful. I don’t know if John the Evangelist had a favorite passage from the Hebrew scriptures, but I hope this was among his favorites.

Although I don’t really know a lot about this passage, it might be among my top 5 in the whole bible. Moses, who has been speaking with God directly, finally asks to see God’s face. Permission denied. But God makes it possible for Moses to see his hind parts—his backside. God seals Moses up in the cleft of a rock, and, while he passes by, he covers Moses’ face so he can’t see God (anyone who sees God’s face dies) but then allows him to see his back. Gregory of Nyssa wrote a treatise on this entitled “The Life of Moses,” and it is one of the most powerful and confusing books I’ve ever attempted to read. Maybe that’s why I both love Exodus 33 and still don’t understand it. What in the world is happening here? What does this tell us about God?

We can’t see God’s face. But God wants to reveal himself to us. He wants us to know him. He wants us to see him, so he gives us a glimpse of his identity—a sideways, rear-view glance. We are mortal and simply cannot fit a true understanding of God’s nature into our puny little brains. But we can hold onto an impression. Maybe this passage suggests that theology is an exercise in Impressionist art. We see a pond of lily pads, travel back home, and the paint what that experience did to our hearts. We cannot know God, but we can be changed by him. We can encounter him and then walk away with a greater sense of who he is even if we didn’t get a snapshot to capture the moment.

John the Evangelist toys with this notion all through his gospel account. God is here with us. God came among us in the incarnation of his son—the Word. Yet that glory only shines through in brief moments (e.g., the Transfiguration) and is, instead, usually contained within Christ’s human nature. Even in Jesus, we only get to see the hind parts of God. But that is enough to change our lives.

I live in a world that makes me want to know things right away. I pull out my cell phone to look up the slightest question that passes in my mind—“What are the traditional toppings on a banana split?” or “How far is it from Nazareth to Bethlehem?” I expect to be able to know everything as soon as I want to know it, and I expect to know it fully—or at least as fully as I want to. Not only do I want to learn how far it is from Nazareth to Bethlehem, but want to know the three most likely routes that the Holy Family took on their journey and the number of gas stations they would have passed if they took that trip today. But that’s silly. And it’s silly to think that my knowledge of God is a product of my study and hard work. God is revelation.

John the Evangelist knew that God was revealing himself to the world. God was making himself known through the gift of his son. That was an incredible disclosure—a lot like Moses being allowed to look at God’s back. But there are still limits to what the world can know about God. We wait eagerly for the day when we can be with God and know him more fully. Despite all that we know, there is still much for us to learn. That’s what makes our faith lively and worth having. It’s not a text book. One cannot be the world’s leading authority on God. It doesn’t work that way. God is showing himself to us in powerful ways, but there is still much that we cannot see…yet.

Monday, December 26, 2011

St. Stephen

On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me…a murdered prophet.

It’s St. Stephen’s feast day, and we remember his sacrifice for the sake of the gospel. One thing I like best about St. Stephen is his amazing, Spirit-given ability to consolidate the entire history of salvation (up to that point) in a clear speech to the authorities, which is recorded in Acts. I love how he speaks so sharply that the crowd covers their ears in rage before attacking and killing him. It’s an anti-Jewish-authority polemic with anti-Semitic overtones that unfortunately still linger today. I think a better way to look at this passage is to ask how we have covered our ears to shut out the gospel message.

The gospel lesson for today (Matthew 23:34-39) contains a damning message. In it, Jesus declared that God has sent his prophets, sages, and scribes to the world so that they might be killed and so that their righteous blood might be on us. When we stop up our ears and turn our backs on God’s word, we ignore what the prophets are telling us. Often, we do even worse. In ways less bloody than the attack on Stephen, we cut into those who come with the gospel truth by belittling them, insulting them, ostracizing them, and shunning them. I don’t like looking at my real self in the mirror, and, when the prophet holds that mirror up, I’d rather just throw a rock at it (and him).

St. Stephen asks us to hear a hard message. He wants us to face the reality of our sin and, in response to that honest self-reflection, turn to God for help. When was the last time someone said or did something that reminded you of your own sinfulness or failures? When was the last time that message was warmly received? To get to that point of salvation, we must start with hard truths. And we should celebrate those who are able to say honestly what needs to be said. We must resist the temptation to cast stones and instead allow the words of prophets to break us down so that we might be built back up.

Christmas Day Sermon - John 1 (12/25/11)

December 25, 2011 – Christmas Day
Isaiah 52:7-10; Hebrews 1:1-12; John 1:1-14

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

I have always enjoyed card games—enough to have received Hoyle’s Rules of Games from my parents or grandparents for Christmas at least three separate times. My favorite part of that book is the introduction to each game—a brief passage that gives some history or cultural background to the various methods for playing cards. One of the descriptions that has stuck with me throughout the years is the one for Honeymoon Bridge. It began something like this: “As with participants in a honeymoon, the only number of players appropriate for Honeymoon Bridge is two.”

I had those words in mind when Elizabeth and I drove away from Birmingham the morning after our wedding. It was mid-September. We had bid farewell to our families the night before, and we set out early for the long drive to Alexandria, Virginia, because we had to get back so that I could be in class the next morning. I think that description came to my mind because, at the time, it felt like I was going on anything but a honeymoon. And I needed something to help that trip feel romantic, and (poor Elizabeth) a card game was the only thing that I could think of.

Eventually, after I finished seminary, we did go on a trip that we called a honeymoon, and that’s the only reason I can get away with saying this: I actually think that those first nine months of our marriage, when we lived in Virginia, were pretty much an extended honeymoon. There were just two of us, and we were far enough away from our families that we didn’t get many visits. Even though we never played Honeymoon Bridge (I tried), we spent nearly every day and every night with only us two.

Christmas that year really drove the point home. “Where will you spend the holiday?” people asked. “Which family will you go visit?” “Neither,” was our reply, “We’re staying here—just the two of us.” In a very real way, that year was wonderfully lonely. But our romantic solitude also solicited a most gracious invitation. At the time, I was working at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland, and the rector invited Elizabeth and me to join his family for Christmas lunch immediately after the service. Grateful for that gesture of hospitality, we happily accepted, remembering to bring a small gift as a sign of our gratitude.

As we pulled up in the driveway, I felt rather clever. The invitation had been given at the last minute, but I (we) had still managed to get a gift for their family and bring a dish to share. When we walked through the door, however, my countenance changed. “Peter, Ben!” the rector called out to his college-aged sons, “Make sure you put some pants on when you come downstairs. We have company.”

I quickly looked around. Underneath the Christmas tree stood a large pile of unopened presents. Despite my attempt at careful planning, I had failed even to consider that I might be a part of this family’s Christmas morning. That is a sacred and private affair. I had never even met the rector’s sons before. One does not invite strangers into his house for the opening of Christmas presents. But Billy did. He wanted Elizabeth and me to be a part of his family that day. As they handed us one present after another, my one gift and meager dish suddenly seemed wholly inadequate. We were outsiders who had been invited into a moment of real intimacy. We had arrived grateful for their hospitality, but we left overwhelmed by their willingness to welcome us into their hearts.

On this holy day, we celebrate the birth of our savior. We gather to remember that Jesus Christ is God’s son, born of a pure virgin, and that he came into the world as Emmanuel—God with us. As we heard in the opening verses of John, we proclaim that “the Word became flesh and lived among us,” revealing God’s true glory to the world. But that was over two-thousand years ago. Can that light, which first shone in a humble stable, still burn brightly today? Do we celebrate the incarnation as a moment in history—a wonderful chapter from the past—or is the gift we are given something that still penetrates the darkness of today?

Although God becoming flesh is the fullest expression of love the world has ever known, I’ll suggest to you that if the only thing that happened on Christmas was God taking human form then we really have nothing to celebrate. If the incarnation were only the gift of God’s self to the world, then we could look back on that as a nice gesture but one that was locked in the past. Christmas is so much more than that.

Of the incarnate Word, John declares, “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” The boldness of that proclamation is not restricted to the past. It is a belief for all time. When the Word became flesh—when God joined himself to humanity—he did so not simply as a gesture of love but as an invitation. God wasn’t just uniting himself to our human nature. He was and is inviting us to partake in the divine. The real gift of the incarnation is that through the Word-become-flesh God makes us his sons and daughters. We, who would always be outsider, are invited into the intimate love of the eternal trinity.

God did not simply become human. God was not merely born of a virgin. God did more than just send his son into the world. On Christmas, we celebrate the redemption of humanity. As God takes upon himself our broken and incomplete nature, he transforms us into the restored image of himself. All that is tarnished and stained is burnished and made pure. All that we lack is completed. All that is fractured is made whole. And why? Because God himself became one of us, so that we might be invited into the very center of God’s love.

You are God’s child. You are his son. You are his daughter. No matter what burden or brokenness you carry, God is willing to make you whole. Whatever part of you makes you feel unworthy—whatever it is that keeps you on the outside—God has come into the world to make that part of you new. God has taken upon himself the very brokenness of your life so that he might restore you into the beautiful child he made you to be. Hear him calling out to you. Hear the good news of Christmas Day as God’s invitation into his very heart. Amen. 

Christmas Eve Sermon - Luke 24 (12/24/11)

December 24, 2011 – Christmas Eve
Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

Over sixty years ago, a man moved his family from Birmingham to a small Alabama town, where he started a new timber business. An entrepreneur in the truest sense, he built the firm from scratch, which meant that he took his wife and three children from relative security to a life on the margins. Eventually, however, his hard work and his family’s patience paid off, and the business became a profitable enterprise.

As the years passed, the man’s youngest child—a son—watched his father work. Occasionally, he would accompany his dad to the mill, helping out with small chores. Finally, when he was old enough, the son was permitted to take a summer job, working long, sweat-soaked hours under the supervision of his father. Although a bright student, the only son never really considered another line of work. He had fallen in love with the business and, more importantly, with earning his father’s respect.

For over a decade, father and son worked side by side. During those years, several changes came to the timber industry, the result of which was increased financial pressure on their independent family firm. With innovation and strategic planning, the duo was able to adapt to those changes and keep the business afloat. But during that period, something else was changing, too. Years of smoking cigarettes had taken their toll on the wife and mother of that pair. Although father and son were close to each other, the matriarch had long been the glue which held the family together.

As her emphysema progressed, the often solitary father withdrew completely and grew even more quiet. A distance began to grow between him and his son, and, by the time his wife breathed her last, the father was hardly saying a word to anyone. The grief was substantial for everyone in the family, but the father was completely crushed by his wife’s death. He simply didn’t have the will to keep going. So, in the weeks following the funeral, he decided to close the firm and sell off its assets.

Desperate and lost and too wounded to say it out loud, the father made that decision without ever consulting his son—the child who had given everything he had to make his father happy. When he showed up for work and learned that his livelihood had been sold out from underneath him, he was even more hurt than when his mother died. Now, the son was truly an orphan, so he left town, moving his family as far away as he could go.

Years went by with no contact—not only between the father and son but also between the father and everyone in his family. He walled himself off from them, refusing to answer the phone, return any letters, or even open the door when his daughters and grandchildren came by to visit. The brokenness that the father felt at the loss of his wife spread throughout the entire family, and it remained that way for years.

One year, though, at Christmas something changed. It came in the form of a canned ham, delivered by mail to his three children. It wasn’t just the ham, of course, which was little more than a cheap tin of processed meat. What came with that ham was an opening—an invitation back into the life of a lost parent.

I wish I could tell you that everything was fine after that—that all the wounds were healed and that the family became close again—but it didn’t quite work out that way. Things did soften, and the father and son did speak to each other again, but some of the brokenness between them lingered even beyond the father’s death. They never truly achieved reconciliation, but at least the father and son were able to look into each other’s eyes before it was too late. In that moment, as the son now prepared to bury his father, each could see in the other’s face that same pain—the hurt that they had shared throughout the years of separation. It might not be a fairytale ending, but it was enough to give both of them a little peace that each could hold onto.

A long time ago, on a cold, lonely night, in a humble stable, a mother gave birth to a little baby. That baby was Jesus, and he had come to save the world. The world he was born into was broken and hurting. It was a world torn apart by hunger and strife. It was a world plagued by pain and grief. Yet that was the world into which God sent his only son, and it was within that very brokenness that God chose to dwell.

Christmas is a celebration of God’s decision to take on human nature and become fragile, wounded, and broken just like us. Before the birth of the Christ child, God’s love had always been given from a distance—from a place of safety, removed from the pain and suffering of this existence. But, when God became flesh, he took upon himself the very essence of our brokenness—the hurt and the vulnerability that we know too well. God, who is all powerful, became tiny and weak. God, whom no one could ever contain, allowed himself to be wrapped up in a little baby. God, who had never before known what it means to feel lonely or betrayed, accepted a life of pain and sorrow. But why?

God loved the world so much that he sent his only son to take upon himself the brokenness of the world. We are broken. We are hurting. Many of us suffer the ache of lost loved ones or the agony of ruined relationships. Many of us know what it means to be lonely, desolate, and empty. Some of us have felt the sting of betrayal. Some of us have been to the very bottom of life. But so, too, has God. And therein lies our hope.

Tonight we rejoice that God loves us enough to take all of our brokenness upon himself. The true miracle of our faith is that God was willing to become one of us and to suffer as we have suffered. Therefore, we are not alone. You are not alone.

On this holiest of nights, hear the good news of Jesus Christ. God came down from heaven to dwell among us. In the deepest expression of love that anyone has ever conceived, God took our broken human nature upon himself and became flesh—just like you and me. God is not beyond our reach. He is here with us. On this night, we remember that God is with us in our weakness. He accepted our pain so that we, in turn, might be set free from everything that hurts us.

Cast your very brokenness upon the shoulders of your savior. Feel God himself sharing that burden with you. Look again at the birth of the Christ child. And see that birth as a promise that, because God is willing to accept your pain, one day that pain will be yours no more. Amen.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Name This Child

On a personal note, my wife and I are nearing the end of our (and by “our” I mean “her”) third pregnancy. We’ve decided to let the sex of this child be a surprise until he or she is born, but, because of that, we’ve had a harder time picking out a name.

With the first two, when we found out the sex of the baby well before it was born, we were able to zero in on names fairly quickly. I think the not-knowing is making it more difficult for us to narrow our decisions. If we don’t hurry up, however, we’ll be bringing home “Baby Boy Garner” or “Baby Girl Garner” from the hospital.

Choosing the right name is such a huge responsibility.

Do we go with a name that sounds good? Some combinations of consonants and vowels are just more pleasing to the ear. (Sorry, Gretchen.) Do we care more about how the overall name hangs together, choosing a combination of first, middle, and last that gives the most satisfaction, or do we emphasize the name the child will be called and the let the rest come together. Do we try to honor one of our families or both in the choosing of a name? (There aren’t that many duplicates between my wife’s Italian ancestry and my family’s English roots.) So, what do we do?

In today’s lesson from Luke (1:57-66), we see a wonderful moment of naming unfold. In a vision in the sanctuary of the temple, Zechariah was told to name his child John. Because he doubted the angel’s words, he was struck mute. Finally, the unlikely conception and birth came to pass, and, on the eighth day, Elizabeth and Zechariah brought their baby to be circumcised and named. “What name shall be given this child?” the officials asked. Elizabeth, speaking for her silent husband, replied, “John.” The objections went up—“But you don’t have anyone in your family named John.” Her husband interrupted by writing on a tablet, “His name is John,” and, at once, his mouth was opened and he began to speak and praise God. The crowd marveled, and fear spread through the family, the members of which said to themselves, “What will come of this child?”

Sometimes the giving of a name can be dramatic. God hasn’t given me any visions on what to name this coming child, but I still trust that, as we figure out what to call this child, we can indeed be led by the spirit. It’s hard to think that no matter what name we give our baby, God already has that child’s name written on God’s heart. Whatever name the child gets, he or she is still named as God’s son or daughter.

We all have a name. Some were given for obvious reasons (William Scott Johnson, VI). Others were chosen by a parent’s whim (Genesis Sunshine Tynes). But we are still named by God just as John the Baptist was named. Would that each of our families murmured, “What will come of this child?” whenever our names were given. I think that’s how God sees us—no matter what our name is. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Big Letters

Have you ever stood on the asphalt at a major intersection and looked at the size of the turn arrow painted in the turn-only lane? It’s huge. I suppose that when I’m whipping down the road at 45 mph that it’s a good idea to paint it large enough and elongated enough for me to understand it. Likewise, have you ever driven down the highway and seen a billboard with text too small to make out? Actually, those letters are pretty big, but, when you’re driving by in a flash, they need to be even bigger than you’d expect, and sometimes marketing directors miss that point.

Today is the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle—doubting Thomas—and in the Old Testament lesson for today, we get some drive-by advertising. God says to the prophet Habakkuk, “Write the vision; make it plain on the tablets, so that a runner may read it.” I don’t really think that Israel had been bitten by the running bug—all training for various foot races. And I don’t think that Habakkuk was suggesting that reading while running is any safer than texting while driving. But I do think he has a message that we’re not supposed to miss.

The vision he writes in bold, big letters is this: “There is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.” In other words, DON’T GIVE UP! Prophets were often in the business of reminding their people not to abandon hope. Sometimes decades would go by without many indications that God had not completely given up on his people. Wars, famines, earthquakes—after a long string of tough times, it’s easy to think that God isn’t ever going to save us. But Habakkuk was reminded by God that he is indeed coming to rescue his people. But that was a message he needed to write down big enough for rush-hour traffic to read.

It’s nearly the end of Advent, now. St. Thomas’ day always comes 4 days before Christmas. I find it hardest to wait and watch at this point in the Christmas race. I preach the message of patience for the first three weeks of Advent, but, by the time I get to week four, it’s hard to remember to stop and look and listen. There is too much going on. But now is the time when we most need to wait. We are still supposed to be looking for the coming of our savior. But the busyness of the season, now kicked up into overdrive, means that’s a message that’s easy for us to miss.

A few weeks ago, when we were ambling down the spiritual sidewalk and thinking about John the Baptist, the Advent message of waiting patiently for the Lord was easy to read and understand. Now, as the incomplete shopping list has grown to paralyzing length, I need that message to be bigger than Interstate-billboard huge. Yes, God is coming. Yes, I’m supposed to wait for him. No, I shouldn’t give up because things are getting busy and it’s harder than ever to wait. Habakkuk’s message from so long ago is still the message for us now: wait patiently for the Lord—for he is coming soon.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Titus Who?

I know almost nothing about Titus. Its opening lines are the epistle lesson for today, and, when I read them, I realized just how little I know. I don’t know who Titus was. I don’t know why Paul was writing him. The only thing I do know is that Titus comes up every year at Christmas, and that and the fact that it’s a book in the bible are probably good enough reasons for me to know more about it.

The good thing about Paul’s letters is that he usually tips us off on what he’s really writing about in the first few lines, and that seems to be the case with Titus. The letter is Paul’s instruction on what it takes to be a leader in the church, and he’s writing his friend and former companion with advice on how to build up the body of Christ. More importantly, however, those instructions come in the context of the good news. As Paul writes, “in due time, [God] revealed his word through the proclamation with which [he has] been entrusted,” and it’s that good news that drives everything.

What really caught my eye this morning is the nature of that proclamation. In his opening sentence, Paul declares that he is writing “in the hope of eternal life that God, who never lies.” Of course God never lies, but I don’t often think about it that way. God never lies. His word is always sure and certain. Take that image and let it run for a minute. God’s Word—Jesus Christ—is certain and sure. God’s promises from so long ago are trustworthy, and history always shows that God is faithful.

Imagine for a minute what it would be like to live with someone who was always truthful. Imagine how easily that pedestal could (and would) be overturned. But God, by definition, never lies. So even once—if humanity discovered that God had been unfaithful, all would be lost. We put our faith in the forever-tested understanding that God is truth. It may take us several lifetimes to figure out how God’s plan is at work, but we believe and know that he is true.

What does that mean for our understanding of Jesus—God’s very word? Think of all the images and metaphors we use for someone’s “word.” His word is his bond. You can take him at his word. Jesus is God’s Word. There’s a reason the church picked up on that image. God never lies, and he gave his word to the world in the gift of his Son. His son is the very heart of truth. Jesus reveals to us the very definition of God.

When circumstances in my life put my faith to the test, I am supposed to remember that Jesus Christ is God’s word, given to the world. If we want to know who God is we should look to Jesus. God showed himself to us through his Son. So even if we can’t see or know God—even if God’s ways are confusing or troubling or confounding—we do know his self-giving, self-sacrificing, total-loving word.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sunday Sermon - 3 Advent B (12/11/11)

December 11, 2011 – Advent 3B
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

An audio file of the sermon is available here

You can learn a lot about Jesus by listening to the radio. And that’s good because there are plenty of stretches of road in this state where the FM dial doesn’t pick up much more than static. On roads like the one between Thomaston and Faunsdale, there’s not a lot to do other than tune your radio to a thundering preacher or an angry sports jockey. The good news is that it doesn’t really matter what’s playing on the radio. As long as you’re listening out for Jesus, I think you can find him on just about any station.

The other morning, when I was pulling out of our driveway, I heard a tiny blurb on NPR that reminded me of Jesus. It wasn’t anything religious. It was that moment when the local radio host reads out the name of the person who sponsored the current hour of programming. I can’t remember his name, but someone’s family had given an hour of Morning Edition in honor of his birthday. And, when the host read his name, she called him, “a loving and faithful son, husband, father, brother, coworker, and friend.” That’s a lot of different ways to think about someone, and it reminded me of how many different ways we think about Jesus.

Do you remember that ridiculous scene from the movie Talladega Nights when Will Ferrell’s character, Ricky Bobby, mentions the “baby Jesus” a half-dozen times while saying grace at the dinner table? In mid-prayer, an argument breaks out between the family members over which Jesus is the best one to pray to, and Ricky says that he likes the “Christmas Jesus” the best and that anyone else can say a prayer to the “teenage Jesus” or the “grownup Jesus” or the “bearded Jesus” when it’s his or her turn to say the blessing. That movie has almost nothing to do with Christianity, but, like a back-road radio station, you can still learn something about Jesus if you listen out for him.

Who is Jesus? In this season of Advent, as we prepare for the coming of the messiah, which Jesus are you waiting for? We’ve been discussing that topic in our adult Sunday school class, but I don’t think we’ve come up with any clear answers. There are lots of different depictions of the messiah in the Old and New Testaments and in popular culture. A quick survey of sermons available on AM radio suggests that some of us are waiting for a wrathful judge, others are waiting for a heavenly king, and still others are waiting for a peaceful prophet. But, at this time of year, as we journey through Advent and get ready for Christmas, it’s hard to wait for anything other than the little baby Jesus.

As one of the children here at St. John’s recently declared, Christmas is that time when Jesus becomes a baby again. And that’s true. In our hearts, we’re getting ready to celebrate the birth of a baby. But, in order for our faith to mean something to us in the twenty-first century, we need to be getting ready for more than that. Our faith can’t just be locked in the past—trapped in a moment of history that came and went over two-thousand years ago. Yes, Advent is about getting ready for Christmas, but that involves preparing for a savior who is both a tiny baby and yet so much more.

I think that’s why we read today’s lesson from Isaiah, which should sound familiar to us. In fact, of all the messianic prophecies from the Old Testament, this should be the one that we know the best. That’s because it’s the passage Jesus chose to describe himself. In Luke 4, when Jesus stood up to read in his hometown synagogue, this was the passage that he read: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.” If we want to know which Jesus we’re supposed to be waiting for, this passage from Isaiah is where we should turn first.

In some ways, it’s an odd place to start. Originally, this was a message delivered to the people of Judah about five-hundred years before Jesus was born. At that time, God’s people had been through a terrible period, during which their home had been destroyed and they had been carried off to Babylon as prisoners. This message of hope and comfort reflected a change in their situation. In 539 BC, the Persian king conquered Babylon, and he set God’s people free to return to their homeland and rebuild. In a very real way, that foreign king was the one anointed to bring good news to God’s people so long ago. But that didn’t stop Jesus from choosing this passage to describe why he came to earth.

Jesus came to declare God’s good news to the world. And that good news means that the brokenhearted are bound up, the captives and prisoners are set free, and the mournful are comforted. Jesus took that message from the past and brought it into the present. It was as real to his contemporaries as it was to their ancestors. And it should be as real to us today as it was back then.

Which Jesus are you waiting for? Well, which Jesus do you need the most? If you’re only waiting for a cute little baby, I think you might be disappointed. For many of us, the coming of Christmas reminds us that we are brokenhearted and hurting. Some of us are held prisoner by the pain of lost loved-ones or the sting of broken relationships. The season of Advent is not just a time to hear again stories from the past—stories of a birth that happened so long ago. This season of preparation is about waiting and watching for the coming of the messiah who can heal our brokenness and set us free from our captivity.

The great joy that we await is more than a celebration of the past. Instead, we prepare for the coming of a messiah who can comfort us and heal us and save us. As we get ready again to draw near to the stable, let us do so not simply as those who look back into the past but as those who see what happened in Bethlehem as a sign of things yet to come. We must look and listen for a messiah who is as real today as he was two-thousand years ago. Jesus came to bring us good news. He came to be our savior. Let us prepare our hearts to receive him again. Amen.

Computer Troubles

I've been "in between" computers for a week or so. Good news is that I'm back. Hopefully more consistent posts this week. Last Sunday's sermon to follow.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Shaken Not Stirred

Amos is full of powerful, telling metaphors. In today’s OT reading (Amos 9:1-10), buried amidst all of the hard-to-read language about death and destruction, there is an image that the prophet uses to describe God’s work that jumped out away from all the rest of the collateral damage. It’s in the last three verses of the lesson:

The eyes of the Lord GOD are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth-except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, says the LORD. For lo, I will command, and shake the house of Israel among all the nations as one shakes with a sieve, but no pebble shall fall to the ground. All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword, who say, "Evil shall not overtake or meet us."

What does it mean to shake the house of Israel as one shakes with a sieve?

One summer, I spent a long, hot week working with an amateur archeology team. In different spots in Mobile County, Alabama, we sifted and shook pile after pile after pile of dirt. Mostly in places of scant academic value, we used two-person sieves to separate plain dirt from any object that might be worth keeping. Among the very few pieces of pottery or building material were a great many pebbles and stones. Picking through them and throwing them out was a reminder of how tireless and futile our work was. But it served an important purpose: as long as the pebbles and rocks ended up in the sieve and not on the ground the other objects of value (coins, jewelry, etc.) also stayed in the sieve.

Separation. In the midst of chaos and devastation, God seems to be interested in preserving his relationship with those who still love him. I’m not sure Amos’ approach to covenant and grace fit well into contemporary expressions of theology, but I still like the sieve image. Perhaps that’s because there isn’t much else to hold on to from this passage. But I choose to think of the sieve as a sign of careful, discriminating love.

What does it mean for God to remember us and separate us and preserve us in a time when it seems as if God has turned away from everyone else? Well, I’m not really sure that’s how God works—destroying the wicked and preserving the good. But, when we’re surrounded by that much destruction, I think it’s worth holding on to whatever image of protection we can.

God doesn’t dispense with his people indiscriminately—even though terrible things like hurricanes, warfare, famine, and flood do. Behind every tragedy is God’s sieve. Even if we are subject to real tragedy, God is plucking us out and holding on to us. Although, in the original image, it’s the pebbles that get tossed out and the wheat that falls through and is kept, I choose to think about God discriminating in the other direction—much like we did that hot summer. As the sieve is shaken, God retains those whom he loves even through dusty, dirty, bumpy times.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Stuck in the Middle

You can tell a lot about a New Testament letter by the way it opens. Usually, the author not only identifies himself and his audience, but he sets the stage by highlighting those subjects and themes that will be most important in the letter that follows. It’s kind of like a nice subject line in an e-mail or business letter. In today’s NT lesson (Revelation 1:1-8), we see an interesting way to identify the heart of the last book of the bible: “John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.”

Is…was…and is to come. We use that every now and then to talk about Jesus—God incarnate. And I think it’s nice to start out this weird prophecy by remembering that Jesus, who is the focus of what we read, inhabits past, present, and future. We aren’t just worried about the past. And we aren’t just focused on the future. There is an “is” in that description, and the “is” comes first. Right now, Jesus is. And that’s something worth remembering.

In this season of Advent, I think we get pulled in two divergent directions. We are dragged back into the past to the Jesus of ancient Palestine. In our favorite readings, we travel “even unto Bethlehem” to watch the story unfold. Like Ricky Bobby from Talladega nights, we like to think of Jesus as the baby Jesus, and that’s especially true this time of year. But it’s not just the infant. We also think of Jesus as the Jesus of a short 33-year window when he walked and talked and breathed.

We’re also propelled into the future: when will the king come again? Advent is about waiting for the second Advent—the end of the world. We read the end-times prophecies with an eye to the future, waiting for things to be wrapped up in God’s perfect time. And, although we usually don’t dwell too much on whether certain prophecies are being fulfilled, we do spend a lot of time thinking about the Jesus of the future—chariots, swords, power. That’s the stuff of Revelation.

But Jesus also is right now. That’s where we are, too. And I wonder whether Advent should be most about waiting and watching for Jesus to be with us right now. Although I do want to honor our Lord’s command that we watch for his coming with clouds, etc., I think I should be spending more time watching for his coming to me today. Jesus is. He is alive. His identity is not just locked in the past and precipitated in the still-distant future. Jesus is. That’s where we start. That’s where Revelation starts. What does it mean to watch for someone who is already here?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

To Spank or Not To Spank...

The younger of our two children is a non-sleep walker. By that, I mean that he’d rather get out of bed and wander around than lie in bed and go to sleep. That’s particularly true after his older sister has fallen asleep. They share a bedroom, and, when he no longer has a playmate to laugh and sing with, he starts wandering around the house, trying to stave off the inevitable. Sometimes we find him asleep in the hallway. Sometimes he runs back into bed when he hears our footsteps coming to get him. Often, however, his wanderings result in frustrated parents who are willing to try anything to keep him in bed.

One technique we use is the good old-fashioned spanking. I’m a spanker—not eager to spank but happy to do it. And I’m usually more happy to do it at 10:30 on a Tuesday night when my son has gotten out of the bed for the 15th time. Seriously. For the most part, though I’ve tried other techniques because there’s something heartbreaking about spanking your son for the 8th time in one night for the same issue. Clearly, repeated corporal punishment is not the answer.

Why, then, has God not learned that punishing Israel isn’t the best way to bring them back? In today’s lesson from Amos (4:6-13), we read a ghastly account of God’s persistent punishment: “I gave you cleanness of teeth…I also withheld rain from you…I struck you with blight and mildew…I laid waste you gardens and your vineyards…I sent among you pestilence…I killed your young men…yet you did not return to me.” That’s an abbreviated list. Go back and read it. It’s terrifying—not just because of what happened but because God is saying that he did all of those things to try to turn his people back to him. Why would he do that?

Actually, as I mentioned in Tuesday’s post, I’m not 100% sure that we can say that God did that in the same way that Amos seems to say it. For him, the calamities that befall Israel are obviously God’s will to try to win their hearts back. But, as any parent who has spanked his child a dozen times in one night can attest, that’s not how you win them over. It might not be fair to Amos, but I’d rather think of it this way.

Bad things happen. Let’s save the how and why questions for another time, but, for now, let’s start simply with the fact that bad things happen. In the face of such disasters, we can have one of two responses: either we bring God into the situation or we reject him outright. Sometimes, human tendency is toward the latter—in the face of disaster, we declare God’s absence and divorce ourselves from him. Amos wants to ensure that Israel’s response is the former. He wants to make sure that Israel doesn’t give up on God, and he does so by reminding him that God hasn’t given up on Israel. In other words, for Amos it is better to think of God as being the perpetrator of these disasters as a corrective measure than it is to take God out of the equation.

Ultimately, the question is this: in the face of a catastrophe, what do you need to do to keep God in your life? Is it to be angry at him? Is it to accept his wrath? Is it to look for his sympathy in the midst of your pain? Whatever it is, we must cling to the promise of one-day redemption. Amos didn’t want Israel to turn their back on God because they felt like God had turned his back on them. He hadn’t. That’s the constant message of history—throughout the centuries of good and bad, God is still God, and he pursues a relationship with his people.

Perhaps Amos’ methods aren’t the ones we would choose. He was probably a spanker, and I’m learning to let go of those outdated techniques. But his purpose is the same as ours. We must maintain a relationship with God—even (especially) when times are really tough. How can we do that? What do we need to remember in order for us to stay in relationship with him? Perhaps the Jesus-event reminds us that God is present with us as a loving, caring God even when the deepest tragedy befalls us.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

St. Andrew's Day

It’s St. Andrew’s feast day, and that makes me think about Scotland. I love Scotland—not as much as others (e.g., Jonathan Chesney)—but I do love a good bagpipe (when outdoors and at a great distance) and a good haggis (when accompanied by a goodly quantity of Scotch whisky). But I’m actually a little embarrassed that I think of Scotland first when I remember it is St. Andrew’s day.

St. Andrew never went to Scotland. His bones made an unexpected pit stop, which led to the founding of the city in Scotland that bears his name, but his ministry was never focused there. In some ways, the connection between Scotland and St. Andrew is a happy accident. I don’t know about the connection between Andrew and Russia, another nation for which he is the patron saint, but I’m willing to bet he never made it to Moscow either.

All of that to say that there are better reasons for us to remember Andrew, and I think today’s gospel lesson bears that out. In Matthew’s version of the calling of the disciples, Andrew and Peter are the first whom Jesus calls. In that account, we get scant details about the background—Did the disciples know who Jesus was? Had they heard enough about him by reputation that they were willing to follow him so readily? Had they met him in a previous, undisclosed encounter? I think the answer is no…or at least it’s not supposed to be yes. Matthew tells the story this way because he wants us to be most impressed with Andrew’s willingness to say yes.

Honestly, we don’t know a lot about Andrew, which is why his connection with things like Scotland dominate our remembrance of him. He’s mentioned several times in the bible, but always as a disciple or apostle and never about what he did after Jesus ascended into heaven. Early church leaders record that he went to places like “Cappadocia, Galatia, and Bithynia” before being crucified on a supposedly X-shaped cross (hence the flag) ( But what we do know about Andrew is that he said yes, and he did so without hesitation.

What does it mean to remember St. Andrew? What does it mean to have faith like his? Well, what is Jesus calling us to do? And are we willing to drop everything and follow? If we want to remember Andrew, let’s start by asking how we might follow in his footsteps—not to Scotland or Russia or even Bithynia—but out of whatever boat we’re being called from and without hesitation.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cause and Effect

Does God cause bad things to happen? Amos thought so.

I read the lesson from Amos this morning (3:1-11), and I was astounded. Not only is it clear that God is responsible for disasters—“Does disaster befall a city, unless the LORD has done it?”—but Amos suggests that such a horrific-in-the-21st-century conclusion should be obvious. He writes, “Does a bird fall into a snare on the earth, when there is no trap for it? Does a snare spring up from the ground, when it has taken nothing?” In other words, he says, “It’s obvious, folks. God is behind everything that happens. Can’t you see that?”

But I’m not sure that’s where we are as contemporary Christians. In fact, whether Christian or not, I’m not sure that’s where many contemporary humans are. It’s hard for us to figure out how God can be both all-loving and the source of things like earthquakes, famine, floods, and tsunami. Why was that so much easier back then?

Do you think it’s because Amos and his compatriots didn’t believe that God was all-loving? That might be the easy answer—just to assume that ancient Israel thought of God as an angry, mean-spirited torturer. But that’s not the case. Look at the first few verses in today’s reading: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” God identifies Israel as his own family. He’s not out to get them because he doesn’t love them. God’s love must be more complicated than that.

And that’s where I think the real gap exists through the centuries. We have grown and matured as a people. We understand that earthquakes are the result of tectonic plates shifting, submerging, and abutting. We don’t automatically assume that an earthquake is God’s punishment for his people. But that doesn’t mean the two concepts are completely divorced from each other. And that’s what I think the role of the prophet is.

Did God cause the nations around Israel to rise up and attack his chosen people, sending them into exile? Well, sort of. But it was mostly the natural result of geopolitical developments in the 8th, 7th, and 6th centuries BCE. The real question, however, isn’t whether God caused it to happen but what are we supposed to make of it. Prophets aren’t about telling the future—though sometimes they can see good or bad things on the horizon. Prophets are about making sense of the world around them and calling God’s people to make those connections.

Did God cause Hurricane Katrina to flood New Orleans and kill so many people? That’s a repugnant question—and I don’t seek to answer it here. But an appropriate question for us is this: How can such tragedy point us to God’s presence and will for the world? Is it fair to ask where God was in that devastation? Absolutely. Is it ok if the answer is nowhere? Sure. Should our ultimate conclusion be that God abandoned the people of the lower 9th ward? No. Our history throughout all those centuries—as exemplified by Amos’ task—has shown that God repeatedly reaches out to his people in good and bad times. It’s easy to find God when things are great. It’s hard to figure out where God is when things go wrong. And that’s why we have prophets. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Passport Photos

Sometimes the best way to read and study a bible passage is simply to allow it to take your mind wherever it wants to go. I’m not sure this is a good example of that, but, when I read this morning’s Old Testament lesson (Amos 2:9-16), I thought about passport pictures.

The prophet writes God’s word to his people, “And I raised up some of your children to be prophets and some of your youths to be nazirites. Is it not indeed so, O people of Israel? says the LORD. But you made the nazirites drink wine, and commanded the prophets, saying, ‘You shall not prophesy.’” God reminds Israel that he had given them spiritual leaders only to have their leadership rejected. But, in this case, not only were they ignored (what we usually do to a prophet), their precise gift was rejected by the people.

Nazirites are those who adopted a strict lifestyle of holiness (think John the Baptist), whose public stance on things like alcoholic beverages and radical haircuts was a witness to others about God’s will for the world. By forcing the nazirites to drink wine, God’s people were thumbing their nose at what it meant to be holy. Prophets, of course, are easier for us to understand. They are those who have been sent to deliver a message from God. But turning a deaf ear to a prophet is different from commanding that a prophet cannot speak. Israel didn’t even want to give God’s chosen messengers the opportunity to exercise their ministry.

I accept the fact that I cannot know what it is like to be forced to remove a religious veil worn for divinely commanded modesty before having my passport photo taken, but I wonder whether there’s a similarity with this passage. State Department guidelines allow for hats or headscarves to be worn even if they obscure the hairline as long as they are worn daily for religious purposes, but the face-covering veil cannot be worn. And that makes sense. We still rely on visual face recognition to identify individuals passing through immigration checkpoints. But what does it feel like to be forced to give up something that defines your religious identity (your relationship with God) in order to meet government obligations?

I realize that this comparison only goes so far. Its real purpose is to invite further reflection. In what other ways are we inhibiting God’s people from showing us his will? What other cultural, political, or institutional practices are preventing prophets or nazirites or other religious people from speaking God’s word or demonstrating his will? A better question: in what ways have I refused to allow a prophetic witness to speak to me because I’ve dismissed it before it even reaches me? Honestly, there are lots. Prophets don’t usually come with name badges that identify them as such. Nazirites are usually weirdos with whom we don’t like to spend time. What might I be missing?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving Day Sermon - Year A (11/24/11)

November 24, 2011 – Thanksgiving Day, Year A

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

I remember how I felt the first time I led worship at seminary. From time to time, people ask me if I get nervous when I preach or preside at a service in church. Usually, the answer is no. Occasionally, something special will stir up inside of me, and I’ll feel those exhilarating butterflies in my stomach. But, when it comes to leading worship for a bunch of future priests, nervous doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Here in church, everyone is watching and paying attention to what I say or do, generally just interested in how the service will go. In seminary, everyone watches with a hypercritical eye, waiting to pounce upon the slightest error with that smug sense of clerical superiority. They might not say it, but they all think that they can do a better job than everyone else. And, when I wasn’t standing up here, those thoughts weren’t far from my mind.

Only in my second month of seminary, I hadn’t been around long enough to appreciate that fact, so, when I noticed that November 27 was available, I signed up to lead worship that day without really thinking about it. That year—2003—November 27 fell on a Thursday. For an American like me, that was Thanksgiving Day, but, for the rest of the seminary residents, it was just the fourth Thursday in November. I saw it as a chance to bring a little American holiday observance to Cambridge.

As I prepared for the service, I told some colleagues that I hoped to mark that occasion by incorporating elements of the Thanksgiving holiday into our usual morning worship. The response I got caught me off guard. “Why would you do that?” they asked. “That’s typical of Americans, isn’t it? Needing to set aside a special day to be thankful. Aren’t we supposed to give thanks every day?” I panicked. How could someone not like Thanksgiving? What is there not to love about it? Turkey and dressing and pilgrims and Indians. Come on, it’s Thanksgiving? But, then again, maybe they were right. Do we really need to set aside a national holiday in order to induce a sentiment of communal gratitude? Shouldn’t we be thankful every day?

In our Old Testament lesson, we get a glimpse into why structured observances like Thanksgiving Day are not only good but also necessary. With more than a hint of foreshadowing, Moses said to the people of Israel, “Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinance, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses…do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord.” What happened? Of course, it was exactly what Moses had feared. The people did forget. They moved into the land that God had given them, and they built their fine houses and ate their rich foods and amassed their great wealth, and then they forgot that it was God who had given it all to them in the first place.

There’s something about human nature that causes us to take more credit than we deserve. Just as Moses warned, our tendency is to say to ourselves, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But, of course, that isn’t true. Behind every success and beneath every accomplishment is God’s gift. It all comes from God. And that’s easy to remember when it first happens. We remember to say thank you to God when we land that new job, when our child is newly born, or when that first lottery check comes in. But, once we’ve lived in that place of plenty long enough, the real source of our blessings gets buried beneath our own self-importance. “Look at what I’ve done!” we say to ourselves. But that’s a long way from thanksgiving.

We forget to give thanks because that’s our nature. Remembering to be thankful takes one of two things. Either the bottom falls out, and we become thankful out of necessity, or we set aside ritual observances through which a greater sense of gratitude can develop. In the former case, the motive has less to do with thanksgiving and more to do with fear. When the markets crash and we have nothing left, we suddenly realize what it means to depend upon God’s generosity. When the doctor walks in and gives us bad news, suddenly everything in life is worth being thankful for.

But, thank goodness, those moments are rare. And I think you’ll agree that it’s better for us to be grateful when things are plentiful than to wait for catastrophe to hit. So what does it take to be thankful when everything is going well? What do we have to do to stay in that place of total gratitude even though it’s our tendency to forget the source of our blessings? I think it starts with days like today—with appointed occasions for giving thanks.

In order to help them remember the source of all that they had been given, the nation of Israel had a host of obligatory gestures of thanksgiving. Offerings from individuals and the whole nation were appointed for everything from the birth of a child to the ingathering of a harvest. Each day, people would give to God an offering of thanks as a reminder of all for which they were grateful. I’m sure that some of those offerings were more heartfelt than others, but that’s not the point. The purpose of having a regular, ritualistic pattern of thanksgiving is so that habits of thankfulness can form. That’s why Moses told his people not to forget those statues and ordinances—because once we stop going through the motions of being thankful, gratitude itself begins to slip away.

What are some ways in your life that you are regularly and routinely thankful? And I hope the answer is something more than observing the fourth Thursday of November as a national holiday. How have you incorporated a practice of gratitude into your life? Do you write down those things for which you are most grateful in a daily journal? Do you thank God each day in your prayers for all that he has given you? Have you decided to give back to God the first ten percent of all that he has given you—that stewardship practice known as the tithe?

My friends in England were right about one thing: we are supposed to be thankful more often than once a year. But getting to that place of true gratitude starts with a pattern of thanksgiving. Adopt a practice of giving thanks to God for all that he has given you. Often the practice itself is what leads to heartfelt gratitude. Amen.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Apples and Oranges

Just when I think Jesus has a zinger left in his quiver, he goes and gets soft on me. Today’s gospel lesson about it being harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle (Matt. 19:23-30) is the perfect place for Jesus to shatter Peter and the disciples’ worldly expectations of success. But then, right when the moment comes, Jesus tosses them a softball instead of a high-and-tight, 95-mph, better-duck-or-your-career-is-over fastball. What happened?

Jesus is continuing on from his encounter with the rich young man (see yesterday), and he explains what has happened (why he sent the man away discouraged) by making the hyperbolic comparison with the camel and needle. It’s the ultimate teaching that those who hold onto their wealth can’t fit into God’s kingdom. That’s a hard teaching, and it’s supposed to be hard. We’re supposed to be challenged by that. We’re supposed to finish this lesson and squirm in our seats more than just a little uncomfortable at Jesus’ words. And we can tell that the disciples were there—they were right at that point. Peter says, “How then can anyone be saved?” And Jesus’ initial reply should be enough—“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” But then he keeps going.

Peter, hoping to make himself feel better, asks Jesus, “Master, what about those of us who have left everything to follow you?” And Jesus replies, “Those who have left their earthly life and all the stuff that comes with it behind will inherit treasure in heaven—100x what they left.” That’s nice and all, but it caters to my human need for physical remuneration. And I don’t like that part of me. I want to know what sort of reward I’m going to get.

Do you remember that great moment in Field of Dreams when Kevin Costner’s character looks at the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson and says, “What’s in it for me?” It’s a moment when the main character breaks down a little bit and shows his human side in an almost repugnant though still endearing human quality. That’s not what we’re supposed to do. We’re not supposed to follow Jesus just to get a heavenly reward. I hate to say it, but this isn’t the kind of equation that lends itself to a cost-benefit analysis. You shouldn’t become a Christian because you think the heavenly reward will be 100x richer than your earthly life. That’s like trying to fit a camel through the eye of a needle. God’s kingdom doesn’t work that way.

There is a reward, and that reward is far greater than anything we have on earth. I think that’s what Jesus means when he uses the 100x multiplier. It’s an image rather than a calculation. But the quality of eternal life in heaven is so completely magnificent that it doesn’t lend itself to a comparison with earthly wealth.

But this is supposed to be a comforting passage. We’re supposed to realize that there is a good reason for giving up our earthly life. And Jesus is using whatever words we can understand. In this case, it’s about reminding us that there is a reason we accept the sacrifice of the Christian life. There is something more wonderful waiting for us. But it’s not as simple as more money or more happiness. It’s immediate fellowship with God. But how do you describe that?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Why Children?

Why children? That’s the question on my mind today. In this morning’s gospel lesson (Matthew 19:13-22), we have the familiar and sweet, “Suffer the little children unto me.” The crowd is bringing children to Jesus, but the disciples don’t like that, so they try to stop it from happening. But Jesus intervenes and says, “Let them come—for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” And then he lays hands on them and moves on with his day. So why children?

This passage is in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), but why? Why is this important? Nothing happens. No one is healed. No dramatic revelation about the nature of Christ or the nature of God is given in this conversation. There is hardly a teaching here (kingdom of heaven belongs to children). Why this passage? There are lots of stories about Jesus that didn’t make it into the gospel, so why did this one make it in? I don’t think it’s because Jesus is sweet, and we need to think of him that way. I don’t think it’s because Jesus was good with children—though he may have been. I don’ think it’s because this encounter makes for a good story. So why children?

I think the answer lies in all the other stories around this one. And it’s interested to me that this passage is part of a longer stretch of stories that is almost identical in all three synoptics. Let’s start with the rest of today’s reading: the rich young man comes to Jesus and says, “What do I need to do to get to heaven?” And Jesus says, “Keep the commandments.” The man seems to have done all of that, so Jesus says, “You’re missing one thing. Go and sell all that you have and give it away and follow me, and then you will have treasure in heaven.” Of course, as the story goes, that makes the man sad because he was rich. I believe that’s the reason for the children.

They are a contrast—a wonderful counterbalance to the rich young man. The man is approaching the kingdom the way every adult does. “What do I need to get in?” But the kingdom belongs to those who look at it like children—who just want to be close to Jesus.

Another example: have you ever tried to make a deal with a 5-year-old? I remember from my childhood that I could often convince my younger brother to make wild and foolish trades with me as long as I played the deal right. He was willing to give up every toy he had if I could make that one bucket of mud seem appealing enough. That’s because children don’t value things the way adults do. Children live in the moment—the immediate is all that matters. They don’t worry whether they have enough money to pay bills. They don’t care about account balances or stock markets. All they want is what they need right now. And that’s how the kingdom works.

Usually, I subscribe to the “simple is best” approach to biblical interpretation. Just read the passage and see what it means. But this time, I think we need to read this lesson in its broader context. Matthew, Mark, and Luke set these two stories right next to each other for a reason. The story about children is included to help us know how we are supposed to approach the kingdom.

If you have a minute, take a look at the other passages around this one. All three synoptics have very similar stories at this point in their accounts (Mark 10, Matthew 19, and Luke 18). There’s the teaching on divorce—what does God really want us to do? There’s Jesus’ prediction of his death. There’s the question of whether James and John get to sit at Jesus right and left in heaven. There’s the healing of the blind, and then there’s the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. This is all about the kingdom and how we’re supposed to approach it. The children play a lynchpin role in this series. They are the real teaching here. Why children? Because we’re supposed to learn a lot from them.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Good News

A few years ago, on Easter Eve, a buzz started spreading through the church. We were at the Easter Vigil, and Kedron Jarvis, the preacher, climbed down from the pulpit, ran back into the sanctuary, and whispered something to one of our acolytes. This move was totally unexpected, and the acolyte’s face revealed nothing but astonished confusion. Then, Kedron ran down the chancel steps into the nave and began whispering to a few members of the congregation. We all stood and watched and wondered. Of course, we all wanted to know the same thing: What’s she saying?

If I remember correctly, she was demonstrating how the good news that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead began to spread through the Christian community. It was good news indeed, and the women who followed Jesus and his first disciples began passing along the confusing, astonishing news that their master’s tomb was empty. It took a little while for the message to become clear, but eventually word got out. That news was too good to keep private. It had to be shared.

At the end of today’s epistle lesson (1 Peter 1:1-12), we read a wonderful, irresistible description of good news: “It was revealed to [the prophets] that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things which have now been announced to you by those who preached the good news to you through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.” It’s that last little bit that grabs my attention—“things into which angels long to look.” What great marketing! Peter writes about this wonderful revelation of good news that is so fabulous that even angels are eager to hear it.

He’s right, of course. The message of God’s gracious salvation through the life, death, and resurrection of his son Jesus Christ is good news of the first order. It’s life-changing, life-empowering good news. It’s the kind of news that is so good it just shouldn’t be kept quiet. So why are we sitting on it like it’s a secret to be kept?

For a myriad of cultural and personal reasons, evangelism is tough. We don’t like inviting someone to church because it may be politically incorrect to imply that we have an answer that someone else might not. We don’t like sharing our faith with others because we don’t exactly know what to say. We don’t like telling people that Jesus Christ is risen because the king of people who usually do that are the preachers on television with whom we’d rather not be mistaken. But if you’ve heard the good news as just that—good news—then why wouldn’t you be eager to share it?

Forget all of the religiosity that accompanies the Christian faith. Put aside all the tricks and sermons and bible trivia you might think go with Christianity. Start, instead, with your experience of faith. What do you think about Jesus? Why are you a Christian? To what extent do you think the good news is good for you? If you can get to that simple, straight-forward place, then you’ve got something to share. If you can get back to the good news, you will find something worth passing on.

In Peter’s day, the good news was new. It was shocking and powerful and life-giving. All of those things are true today. Our collective reticence indicates that we’ve let our faith get clouded by things that distract from the good news—guilt, hell, money, morality, sectarianism, politics, etc.. Yes, our faith has something to say about all of those things, but the good news needs to come first. Rediscover that message that even angels are dying to hear, and find someone with whom you can share it.

Sunday Sermon - Last Pentecost: Christ the King, Proper 29A (11/20/11)

November 20, 2011 – Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King, Proper 29A
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

About fifteen years ago, my father and I took a trip to Texas. I was nearing the end of my high-school career, and we headed west to look at Rice University in Houston and Trinity University in San Antonio. Since most of my college tours had been conducted with my mother at my side, a trip with my dad was a chance to mix collegiate investigation with a manly exploration of Texas culture. When we spent the night in San Antonio, it seemed appropriate for us to venture out to an authentic Tex-Mex restaurant.

We were glad to sit down at the table after a long day of driving and touring. Meals between a teenage son and his father are often uncomfortable, but this night everything seemed to be going right. My father ordered a margarita, and I ordered some sweet tea, and we began to look through the menu. “So many great choices,” my father said. I agreed as I scanned through the long list of dishes. Most of them were familiar to me, but a few were not. As I tried to hone in on my selection, my dad said almost to himself, “I can’t decide between the fajitas and the cabrito. What about you?” “Cabrito,” I replied, “What’s that?” “Baby goat,” my father said without hesitation, “It’s delicious.”

The seed had been planted. It germinated in my brain while I looked over the rest of the menu. Finally, when my father reached his decision, he announced that he would be ordering fajitas even though the cabrito sounded great. “Really? Cabrito?” I asked. “Sure, he said. It’s fabulous—especially in a place like this. But I can’t pass up the fajitas. I’m sure they don’t get much better than they are here.” “Ok, then,” I told him, feeling brave, “I’ll get the cabrito.” “Good choice,” was his reply.

After we both announced our selections to the waiter, who turned and walked away, my father let out a pronounced snicker. “What?” I asked him. “The cabrito,” he said, “I can’t believe you ordered it.” “Wait a minute,” I replied, “I thought you said it was good!” “I’ve never had it,” he exclaimed. “I just wanted to see whether you’d order it.” I had been tricked, and I had chosen poorly, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Later that night, having barely picked at the kid on my plate, my father ribbed me incessantly, asking whether I could feel the cabrito kicking all the way down. “Thanks,” I mumbled in reply, “Thanks a lot.”

That goat, for me, was an unwelcomed surprise. Actually, it was probably delicious, but I never would have known it because my father had played a trick on me. I thought I was ordering something fabulous—something he had enjoyed in the past—something I, too, would surely enjoy. But the dish I was served turned out to be something that I didn’t expect—something I wasn’t looking for. And it was the surprise that did me in.

Today’s gospel lesson is about sheep and goats, both of whom are surprised at how things turn out. Today is the last Sunday after Pentecost—the last Sunday before Advent—a Sunday that has become a celebration of the kingship of Jesus Christ. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been hearing lessons about what the kingdom of God will be like, and today we read about that great and glorious moment when Jesus finally takes his seat upon the throne. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory…,” Matthew writes, “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

I don’t know about you, and maybe it’s still my lingering fear of cabrito, but I get a little uncomfortable when I think about the day of Christ’s kingship being a day when people like you and me are separated like sheep and goats. And I’m even more uncomfortable when I read that those goats who were cast into the outer darkness were as surprised as I was that night in San Antonio to discover their fate. This gospel lesson makes me wonder whether I will be surprised on that day when Jesus comes. And, more importantly, I want to know whether that surprise will be pleasant or terrifying.

For me, the key to understanding this passage—and, indeed, the key to understanding what it means to wait for God’s kingdom—is held in the surprise itself. Both groups—sheep and goats—are surprised when Jesus comes and reveals to them their fate. The king says to those who are declared righteous, “Come, inherit the kingdom, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you gave me clothing, sick and you cared for me, imprisoned and you visited me.” But the righteous ones ask, “When did that happen? When did we see you in need and reach out to take care of you?” And the king says, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

The wicked also are surprised, though in the opposite way. The king declares that when he was hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick, and imprisoned they turned their back on him. “But wait!” they cry. “When did we ignore you? When did we fail to take care of you?” And the king’s damning reply reveals that every time they ignored even one who was in need they were ignoring the king himself. Both groups—both sheep and goats—are surprised to discover what it really means to be a part of God’s kingdom.

When that day comes, I think we’re going to be surprised. I think this scripture lesson tells us that God’s kingdom comes in ways we don’t expect or even realize and that, when we’re given the chance to look back, we’ll be surprised to see where the king of kings showed up. We are supposed to be waiting for the kingdom as if we were waiting for a surprise. But how do you get ready for something you don’t expect? The whole point of jumping out and startling someone is that they don’t see it coming. How, then, can we prepare ourselves for God’s surprising reign?

Well, we look for it around every corner. We wait for it in every moment. We search for it in every relationship, and we seek it in every encounter. This passage isn’t about waiting for God’s kingdom as if it is going to jump out and scare us. It’s about realizing that God’s reign is made manifest on earth when we approach every moment as if God were present and seated on his throne. The surprising truth of God’s kingdom is that it’s already here—all around us—and that God dwells in every moment of our lives.

What does it mean to be righteous? What does it mean to be one of God’s sheep? It means being surprised to discover that we are a part of God’s kingdom and that his kingdom is already here. If we go through life thinking that the kingdom only comes to earth on the last day, then we’ll be surprised to discover that we’ve been missing it our whole lives. We are already God’s sheep. We are his beloved children. So let your identity as God’s chosen and beloved so transform your life that every moment becomes an opportunity for God’s kingdom to be manifest here on earth. Celebrate the surprising arrival of God’s kingdom in every minute of every day. Rejoice in that wonderful surprise that God’s kingdom is already here and that you are already a part of it. Amen.