Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Morning Wedding Revisited

You may think I'm crazy. I set my alarm for 3:15 on Friday morning just to join the royal wedding hype. Although I'm definitely not a Republican (in the British, anti-monarchy sense of the word), I'm not head over heels for the royals either. They're nice, and I admire them, but I'm not flying over to England just to stand in a crowd in Hyde Park and maybe catch a passing glimpse of the Glass Carriage on its way to Buckingham Palace. No, I'm content to wake up and watch the festivities from my bed.

But I'm not even really interested in seeing Kate and William--now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge--tie the knot. Her dress was beautiful. And he did look dashing in his Army uniform. But that's not my focus. Here's the real reason I woke up at 3:15 on Friday morning to watch the wedding:
http://pd.npr.org/anon.npr-mp3/npr/wesat/2011/04/20110430_wesat_03.mp3?dl=1.

I think Linda Wertheimer got it JUST right. Listen to her short story from NPR. Her perspective on the event was precisely correct in the best possible sense. Her observations of the wedding from an American's point of view highlight every good reason to have tuned in. Most important among those observations comes at the 1:41 point.

She recalls for the radio audience all the royal weddings that have gone before and have "beg[un] beautifully and end[ed] badly"--Charles and Diana, Andrew and Fergie, Margaret and Peter Townsend. This marraige, she notes, is starting off like all the others, "lavish and lovely, the brides tucked into carriages filled with their fluffy veils..." But she draws our attention to the repeated admonitions given by "bishops and the Book of Common Prayer" that these wedding vows will be in effect until the end of their lives. In other words, despite all the tragedy of previous royal marriages, this time we hear again an expression of a life-long committment.

For me, this marriage is a very public celebration of the Christian principle of life-long union. The people of Great Britain and the entire world have a reason to be excited about marraige. Too often lately we have had reasons to disparage the institution, and this event gives me new hope. I don't know whether it will be any different, but Friday morning's event wasn't a secular affair. It wasn't even a royal affair. It was just a wedding--a from-the-Prayer-Book, straight-up, Jesus-and-all, Christian wedding. And if we can get several million people to watch it...that's something to celebrate.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Halibut Omelet

Do you remember the scene from Ghostbusters when the ghost who would later become known as “Slimer” was in the hotel hallway, eating off the room-service cart? Everything he put into his mouth fell right through and splattered onto the floor. Why? Because ghosts don’t eat. Apparently Luke knew that, too, because in today’s gospel lesson (Luke 24:36b-48) he goes out of his way to describe Jesus’ fish-breakfast.

I’m not really one to request fish for breakfast, but I think the point is clear. When they saw the risen Lord, the disciples were confused. “Who or what is that?” they must have asked themselves. Luke reports that they were “disbelieving and still wondering” and that, in response to their doubts, Jesus asked for some food. Apparently he and the disciples also knew that ghosts don’t eat or drink. I guess I missed that day in science class.

Perhaps the fish-point is a little too specific, but the reality it suggests is clear. The disciples and those in the early church who would have been reading Luke’s account wouldn’t have understood what the risen Jesus represented. Was he real? Was he just a vision? Was he a disembodied ghost? And Luke wants everyone to know that the risen Christ was a physical reality—not just a spiritual one. If Jesus had only risen from the dead in spirit—if the disciples had only beheld him in their hearts—then Easter would be empty.

The empty tomb must be empty. It can’t just be an image or metaphor. If the risen Jesus were only a ghost, the resurrection would only represent the disciples’ ability to choose positivity despite failure. And that’s not good enough for us. We need a resurrection that doesn’t depend on our ability to imagine it or articulate it or cling to it. We need a risen Christ who comes to us and shows us that God’s victory has implications for this life—not just the life to come. Eating fish may be a silly way to get the point across, but Luke needed to tell you and me something that we wouldn’t have the privilege of knowing first-hand: the tomb was totally empty—body and spirit had risen.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Penniless Apostles

It’s Wednesday in Easter Week, and we’ve already begun our annual pilgrimage through the book of Acts. Today—like most days in the coming weeks—we have a reading that chronicles the work of the apostles (Acts 3:1-10). And in today’s reading, we encounter for the first time an important theme in the book—money and gospel don’t mix.

In this passage, we see Peter and John walking into the temple and being approached by a lame beggar for alms. The two apostles stare intently at the man, and, as the story goes, he expected something from them, but Peter declared, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” There’s an implicit tension there between money and Jesus, and I hear the author suggesting a familiar truth: “money can’t save you; only Jesus can.”

Luke (the author of Acts) showcases several encounters between the apostles and money that show the early church that personal possessions ran contrary to the way of Christ. Last year, I took part in a bible study that went all the way through Acts, and I was surprised to discover how many times the subject comes up. I think Luke’s audience (“most excellent Theophilus” and more) was probably a little too familiar with wealth, and the author wanted to push back a little bit on that.

It’s probably good, then, that we read this, too. Luke doesn’t jump on rich people for being rich. He isn’t telling a story that stigmatizes the wealthy in any negative light. Instead, he takes a more gentle tone—one that seems appropriate for today’s fragile economy. Peter and John—some of the biggest hitters in Christianity—declare with confidence, “We have no silver or gold, but we do have salvation in the name of Jesus.” And we should hear them saying, “Silver and gold are fine, but they won’t get you very far. Don’t put your confidence in earthly possessions but in the power of Jesus.”

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Easter Sunday? No such thing.

Yesterday, Easter Monday, was a day spent mostly away from church work in an attempt to recover from the Holy Week blitz. My family and I all went to the grocery store together—a fairly unusual occurrence—and on our way out we ran into a parishioner—a very common occurrence. Unprompted, our daughter exclaimed to the somewhat-familiar face, “Happy Easter!” “Happy Easter!” was the reply, and he continued, “Way to keep it alive!” That encounter was, for me, a succinct expression of Easter.

Easter isn’t a day; it’s a season. It’s fifty days of celebration, and in mid-June it will still be liturgically appropriate to wish someone “Happy Easter!” in the grocery story, though it would probably garner some queer looks. That fact, and today’s lessons (Acts 2:36-41 & John 20:11-18) have me thinking about why Easter is a 7-week-plus-one-day season.

Partly, it’s because Jesus hung out with his friends for 40 days (until Ascension Day) and then Pentecost came on the “fiftieth day,” hence the name. Also, it’s partly because it’s a jolly good thing—the resurrection—and, like Christmas, we enjoy celebrating it for longer than a measly day. But I also think there’s more to it than that. I think, as Mary Magdalene shows us, it takes us 50 days (at least) to figure out that the Lord is indeed risen.

Mary Magdalene peers into the empty tomb and weeps. She sees two angels there who ask, “Why are you weeping?” and yet she still weeps. She even gets a tap on the shoulder by the risen Jesus, whom she mistakes for the gardener, and yet she still weeps. One doesn’t get much closer to the resurrection miracle than that. Why is it so hard for MM to figure this out?

I think it’s because the resurrection is more than just an empty tomb. It’s more than Jesus coming back from the dead. It’s the cosmic victory of God over every evil, and that’s not the sort of thing one grasps without pondering it for a while—maybe for a lifetime. We need all the time we can get to figure out that the Lord is risen and what that means for us.

If we really understood what Easter means, would we worry about death? Would we be sorrowful? Would we be anxious? Would we continue to live in fear? Easter is a once-a-year opportunity to spend 50 days trying to figure out what the resurrection really means. And if you don’t think it takes at least 50 days, then you’re missing the point.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Sermon - Easter Vigil (04/23/11)

April 23, 2011 – The Great Vigil of Easter
Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 28:1-10

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

Yesterday morning, I got an e-mail from a parishioner, who posed an interesting question: “When does Lent end?” I thought about skirting the question with a wishy-washy answer like, “Whenever you decide it does,” but he mentioned in his e-mail that my professional opinion was being sought to help settle a small wager. Not being one to let opportunities when theology and money intersect pass by without comment, I pulled out my Book of Common Prayer. Quoting the rubrics that outline the details for this service, the Easter Vigil, I replied, “The Great Vigil, when observed, is the first service of Easter Day. It is celebrated at a convenient time between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise on Easter Morning.”

That’s still a fairly vague answer, but I’m told it was enough to secure a small payment for our fellow parishioner—10% of which I expect to see in the offering plate. Basically, Lent ends whenever we first behold the empty tomb and realize that Jesus has risen from the dead. For us, that happened about 12 minutes ago, when we turned on the lights and cried out, “Alleluia!” But really, it could have happened at any point between sunset on Saturday and sunrise on Friday. In most cases, it’s hard to know when the good news first breaks. Regardless, as Christians we celebrate the reality of the resurrection rather than a particular moment locked in chronological precision.

Of all the gospel accounts, however, Matthew’s seems most interested in pinning down the miracle of the empty tomb to a specific moment in time. As tonight’s lesson reads, “After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.” Matthew is the only gospeller who tries to explain how the stone was rolled away. The other three are satisfied by leaving that little detail unexplained. Matthew, though, wants us to encounter the empty tomb as it happened—to ring out that first great Easter moment with such clarity that could only be delineated by an earthquake.

An earthquake—really? Might there be just a touch of overstatement there? You may not be surprised to hear me say that I don’t really like those passages in the gospel that are completely over the top. Of the four gospels, usually I prefer Mark’s account because his is the plainest, the simplest, and the most straight-forward. Passages like this one in Matthew, when a central moment in our faith (like the resurrection) gets yoked to an unbelievable phenomenon (like an earthquake), seem to have their impact ameliorated by their hyperbolic quality.

But that’s where I was last week—before I read a letter that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to a six-year-old from Scotland. Tonight, something is different.

Lulu Renton is like many British six-year-olds. She goes to school in a country where the lines between church and state are blurred even though she lives in a home where no faith is practiced. Her father, a journalist for the Times of London, was surprised when she came home with an assignment that required her to write a letter to God, asking, “How did you get invented?” To his credit, he decided not to let his ardent non-belief influence her letter, instead forwarding it to the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, and to the theological head of the Anglican Communion—Rowan Williams—who was the only person to write back with an age-appropriate reply. This is the content of his letter:

Dear Lulu,

Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –

‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected.

Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like.

But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’

And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off.

I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too.

+Archbishop Rowan

“Then they invented ideas about me—some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible.” That’s a wonderful way to think about humanity’s relationship with God. God created the universe, and we’ve been trying to figure it out ever since. Sometimes God’s hints are subtle—like a gentle breeze—and other times they are earth-shattering. And, as Rowan Williams points out, God’s clearest revelation came in the form of his son, Jesus.

What, then, is God like? God is resurrection. God takes our darkest moments and brings light where no light seems able to shine. God is the empty tomb. He takes our broken and damaged lives and puts us back together in his love. God is victory over death. Anything that we could ever imagine coming between us and God—even our very worst—is overwhelmed by God’s transformative love.

There is no superlative too great, too powerful, or too magnificent for the miracle of Easter. No account of the resurrection could overstate that which happens on this night. Tonight we celebrate that God has made himself known to us—not only in the stars of the night sky and in the quiet calmness of a morning’s dawn—but in the greatest expression of triumphant love that the universe has ever seen. Even the rocks and the hills cry out in celebration that the Lord is risen this night. Even the earth quakes under the magnificence of the empty tomb. Amen.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

History Repeated

In the Daily Office appointed for “Holy Saturday” (I prefer “Easter Eve”), we read a familiar Old Testament passage—Job 19:12-27a. In that reading, Job states, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been destroyed, then from my flesh I shall See God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” Although a different translation from what we find in the BCP, it’s almost the same as what we hear in the Burial Office—same scripture, same cadence.

I love it when we find texts from our Burial Office in the Old Testament. That suggests to me that our understanding of resurrection wasn’t invented when Jesus came around. It reminds me that he didn’t stand for something completely new. Although unique and brand new in its expression, Jesus’ understanding of resurrection finds its roots in older ideas about who God is and who we are.

Actually, I think resurrection isn’t just an OT/NT concept. I think Job reminds us that belief in God (in any age) is one’s trust that in the face of the absolute worst (see the rest of Job’s story) God will save. In our lesson this morning, Job utters a ridiculous statement of faith. Despite all his hardship, he still has confidence that God will make himself known in an expression of salvation. And that takes faith. That is faith.

We can be forgiven for not having Job-like faith in our weakest moments. Think back to the disciples: none of them were expecting the miracle of Easter when it happened. And that’s the beauty of this. God’s victory doesn’t depend upon our faith. God’s going to win. He’s going to show up whether we expect him or not. That’s why the story of scripture (both OT and NT) and the wider story of human history (God continuing to work in the world) are so important. They show us how things work out even when we can’t see how they will.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday Reflection

Something happened to me this afternoon. And I'm really glad it did. But first, let's back up.

Last night (Maundy Thursday) is supposed to be one of the most moving services of the year. We hear about Jesus' last supper with his disciples. We hear how he washed their feet and mandated they do the same. We gather with him around the table and partake of his body and blood, knowing that in a matter of hours he will be hanging on a cross. At the end, we strip the church and the altar of practically every movable adornment, draping anything that will hold still with a black, sheer cloth. We embrace the betrayal that happens as Jesus and his disciples left the table that night. The church is black. The world is dark. Hope is lost.

But for some reason, it just didn't hit me this year. And, come to think of it, I'm pretty sure I missed it last year, too. I don't know why for sure, but for some reason Maundy Thursday doesn't wrench my heart the way I think it should. Why not? What's missing? Perhaps it's because we don't actually read the gospel story of Jesus betrayal and arrest. Or maybe it's because I'm caught up in the mechanics of stripping the altar and forget to allow the sentimentality of the moment wash over me. Maybe it's something else. But I remain convinced that I'm supposed to tear up a little bit at that service, yet I never get even close. Why?

Today, that changed. There's something powerful about the Good Friday liturgy. Finally, the passion caught up with me, and the death of Jesus became real. For me, that happened around 12:15 today, as we were reading the lessons. But I don't think it's because we get the full passion story in the readings. And I don't think it's because the church is draped in black. I think it's because there's nothing else we can do on Good Friday but sit...and listen...and pray.

This is a day of emptiness. There are no liturgical acts that can fill up the void that is left by the death of our savior. No Eucharist to be celebrated. No recessional hymn. No blessing or dismissal. We just sit and deal with the fact that Jesus died on the cross. We don't try to explain it. We just sit in reaction to it, praying for the world and for ourselves.

I'm thankful we don't overdo it. Sometimes it's the simple moments of emotion that get me right where I need to be gotten.

Sermon - Maundy Thursday (04/21/11)

April 21, 2011 – Maundy Thursday
Exodus 12:1-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-36; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

When telling a good story, timing is everything. The ability to set the scene, reveal just enough information to draw us in, build the tension to an almost unbearable point, and then hold us there long enough to make us squirm before wrapping everything up with an exhaustive release is a gift that few people have. And I’m not one of them. My idea of good timing involves a telling a simple tale that will occupy my children just long enough to get them to settle down for bed.

John, the author of tonight’s gospel lesson, is quite the storyteller. Many people pick John as their favorite of the four gospel accounts because he portrays the story of Jesus’ life with such captivating energy. In his version, the narrative tension builds as the reader’s understanding of who Jesus is grows with each successive chapter, and, by the time we get to the last week of Jesus’ life, all of that drama is hanging in the balance. When will the people realize who Jesus really is? Will they figure out that he is God’s son before it’s too late?

The timing buried within this particular passage, as the disciples gather with Jesus for the Last Supper, is dizzying in its significance. They have huddled together in a tucked-away room, shutting out the chaos of the Jerusalem crowds. Yet all of that frenetic tension that swirls around the city—the Pharisees and scribes, the High Priest and Pilate, the Romans and the Jews—it all comes with them into the quiet space where Jesus sits at table with his disciples…because one of them is going to betray him.

John reveals that tension as he introduces this scene, writing that “the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him.” That’s the little detail that stuck out to me this year when I read this familiar story. It’s all about timing. Judas and Jesus—the inevitable betrayal has already been set into motion. And both of them are aware of it. None of the other disciples knows, but these two do. And so they sit with each other in that little room, bathed in flickering candle light, looking at each other and knowing the truth.

When Jesus looked at Judas and Judas returned his gaze, I wonder how each of them felt. What’s it like to stare into the eyes of one who has betrayed you or to look at one whom you have betrayed? Although the trap had not yet been sprung, Judas and Jesus both knew what was going to happen, and, more importantly, they shared that unspoken knowledge.

I remember a time from my childhood when my physician and family friend asked me a question to which I gave a dishonest answer. And I remember that awkwardness when he asked a second time and yet I still told him a lie. And we looked at each other, and he knew I was lying, and I knew that I had been found out, but, even though we both knew, nothing was said. That’s one of those moments in my life when I felt smallest and most ashamed. What, then, must it have been like to share that moment with Jesus?

And yet, despite all that was known, despite the evil betrayal that had already taken hold in Judas’ heart, Jesus took off his outer robe, tied a towel around his waist, poured water into a basin, and washed all of his disciples’ feet—including the feet of Judas. It must have been tortuous for the betrayer to have Jesus kneel at his feet and wash them in an act of love and service. But that isn’t why Jesus did it. He did it because, whether Judas realized it or not, Jesus’ love wasn’t limited only to those who loved him. Even though Jesus already knew the treachery that lay in Judas’ heart, he still loved him to the end.

The dual reality that we face in the middle of Holy Week is just as tortuous for us as it was for Judas. Like him, we have betrayed our Lord. We have turned our backs on God and rejected his gracious offer of love. Indeed, it is our sin—and the sin of the whole world—that betrays Jesus into the hands of those who would kill him. Yet, in the midst of our disloyalty, our Lord and savior still reaches out to us with a gesture of love and humility. Every day of our life, we sit at a table with Jesus, and, as he looks into our eyes, he sees just how faithless we really are. Yet, fully aware of our sin, he still loves us. When our eyes meet, the look he gives us in return is not one of judgment but of love. Amen.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Conscientious Objector

For me, 1 Corinthians 11:29 sums up ethics in light of the gospel (click here for the whole lesson). That is, what Paul writes here about conscience is for me a lens through which all questions of right behavior gain their focus. “For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else's conscience?” That’s the gospel in libertarian form. If it’s right for me, then do it.

Paul is addressing a problem that the Christians in Corinth have been having. It was common in that day for meat to be offered to idols and then sold in the marketplace for common consumption. Christians, who were forbidden from participating in idol worship, were caught in the middle. What if I go over to a non-Christian’s house for supper and they put some meat on a plate in front of me? Can I eat it? Paul says, “Yes…as long as you don’t know where it came from.”

That statement—and my understanding of ethics—depends on a two-fold assertion. First, Paul’s approach is built on the conviction that Christians aren’t spiritually harmed by the meat itself. That is, whether a rib eye has been offered to Athena or bought in an idol-free market doesn’t matter. Meat is meat. Superstitious, empty idol-practices can’t harm a Christian’s liberty established in Christ. Second, Paul tempers that claim by emphasizing the importance of the psychology of belief. If the host identifies the meat as having been given to idols, the Christian should refrain—but not for his own sake but for the sake of the host. To eat that meat would be to confuse the host even though it wouldn’t really matter for the one eating it. That means the ethics of behavior have more to do with psychology than with physicality.

What does that mean for us? It means that we’ve been set free from a morality that is based on simple rules and instead have been attached to a system that stresses something more important than rules—relationship. Some Christians say alcohol is bad. Some say it’s a jolly good thing. What’s the answer? Well, it depends on who’s around. If drinking is going to impair one’s relationship with God or influence another’s relationship with God, then it’s probably a bad idea. If everyone can agree that Scotch is a fabulous gift of God, then we’re A-OK. That’s a simple example, but it runs much deeper.

Jesus didn’t come to set us free from the Law because the Law was bad. He came to show us that relationships matter. We should base our behavior on our relationship with God and on the community’s relationship with God.

Whodunnit?

Posted a day late. Lessons are for 4/20/11.

I have always found John’s version of Judas’ betrayal at the Last Supper fascinating. In today’s gospel lesson (John 13:21-32), Jesus tells his disciples, “One of you will betray me,” but then refuses to say who that person is. Then, before giving it to Judas, he says pseudo-enigmatically, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Satan enters into Judas, and he leaves the table. Mystery solved, right? But the disciples still didn’t get it. They’re still thinking that Judas must have gotten up to go buy some supplies. Stupid disciples?

Although the disciples are a little slow on the uptake, we can forgive them. Jesus was intentionally oblique. I think that’s because he partially wanted to differentiate between Judas and the remaining 11 “faithful” disciples but also wanted to allow each of them to consider his own role in betrayal. In the dark hours that followed, it was important for each disciple to realize, as he hid from the authorities and watched his master undergo incredible pain, that he too played a role in the Passion. And with them, so do we. All of humanity puts Jesus on the cross through our betrayal of God’s love.

When I read the events of Holy Week, it’s easy to identify the villains—Judas, Pilate, the High Priest, and the angry mob. But the danger of singling them out is that we lose our place in the story. Forgetting our role in the betrayal isn’t only dangerous because we lose touch with our own brokenness, but that amnesia leads to an emptier experience of the resurrection. Jesus’ victory over death isn’t just to defeat the wickedness of the few who handed him over, put him on trial, or demanded his execution. Jesus redeems all of our wickedness. When Jesus tells his disciples, “One of you will betray me,” he does so to break their hearts so fully that only he could put them back together again.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Black Jesus

When I was in the eighth grade, my mother and I travelled back to Atlanta during spring break. I had been born there, but my family had moved to Fairhope seven years earlier. We still had some friends in Atlanta from my early childhood, so we took a short visit to see them. Although it was my spring break, our host’s daughter was still in school, and, being an eighth grader, I wasn’t that interested in spending spring break by myself while my mother and her friend did whatever it is that the mothers of eighth graders do during school hours. So I went to school.

It must have been an early spring break for me that year because I distinctly remember sitting with my friend in her school library listening to a presentation on black history. The room was racially mixed—roughly half black and half white. I remember hearing a passionate presentation about black history, beginning with its roots in northern Africa. With great passion and fervor, the guest lecturers were driving home the point that all human history can trace its roots to African history when a hand shot up. A student asked, “What color was Jesus?” And the solemn reply was immediate: “Jesus Christ was a black man.”

I wanted to raise my hand and say, “But Jesus was Jewish,” but that would have been missing the point. It had never occurred to me to think of Jesus as a black man. Up until that point, even though I knew he was Jewish and probably looked like a Palestinian, in my mind he had always looked like me—white with relatively fair features, perhaps even blue eyes. But that’s not who Jesus was. It didn’t matter what Jesus looked like. It didn’t even matter what his ancestry was. Jesus was a black man.

Now I wish I could go back and say, “Yes, Jesus was a black man, but that’s a far bigger statement than a simple claim of racial heritage.” We worship a God who became man, but the Incarnation can’t be limited to a particular ancestry (Jewish) or a skin tone (olive) or hair color (black) or accent (countrified Aramaic).

In today’s gospel lesson (John 12:20-26), Jesus’ disciples are approached by some Greeks—some gentiles—who want to know Jesus. In today’s world, on this side of the cross and empty tomb, that doesn’t matter. In Jesus there is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, rich nor poor, black nor white. But in this story, in this moment before the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, race and religion were locked in a fixed framework. These Greeks could never be fully Jewish. Even though they had come to Jerusalem for the festival as faithful worshippers, they would always be on the outside looking in. Yet, when Jesus dies and is buried in the ground, he does so in order to bear much fruit.

Part of the fruitfulness of Jesus’ death is to eliminate the particularities of race and religion. We now live in a world in which Greeks can come to Jesus without needing to navigate the world of political and religious correctness. Before the triduum, that was impossible. Before Jesus’ death and resurrection, he was just a Palestinian Jew, faithful to his ancestry. Afterwards, he is everything to everyone, and through him we are reconciled—not only to God but to each other.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Sunday's Sermon - Palm Sunday A (04/18/2011)

April 17, 2011 – Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday A
Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

They didn’t remember the exact moment when they met, but, since they had grown up in the same small town, they had always kind of known each other. He was two years older than she was, but that didn’t stop him from noticing her. It wasn’t just her physical appearance that caught his attention. She was both strikingly attractive and remarkably unassuming—approachable and yet, in his adolescent mind, unattainable. Although he didn’t know it at first, she fancied him as well, and, after he mustered up the nerve to ask her out on a date, she said yes.

For both of them, it was the first time they had ever felt this way—in love. The world seemed to stop whenever they were together, and, even though they were so young, what they had was truly special. Over the years of high school and college that followed, they had their struggles. He graduated and went off to school when she was only sixteen, and for a while they stopped dating. Given how close they had been, he was a little surprised when their relationship didn’t automatically pick back up when it was her turn to go to college. Now, separated by hundreds of miles, they kept in touch, but it wasn’t until he drove all the way down to her dorm in the middle of the night to tell her that he loved her that their relationship was rekindled.

When they stood in church and looked at each other, exchanging their vows, everything felt perfect. The love that God had given them for each other had never been as real or as powerful as it was in that moment. And the promises they made to each other were expressions of a deeper commitment that they shared—one that couldn’t be put into words. The next night, when they sat at a small dinner table in their honeymoon cottage, they just knew. They knew they loved each other, and they knew that they love they shared was the kind of love that doesn’t die.

One night, about eight years later, everything changed. He was in Tulsa on a business trip and was wrapping up a difficult project for a client. His small team had gone the extra mile in making sure that the client was happy, and, although at one point their success seemed in doubt, they had pushed through and gotten the job done. The woman on the team wasn’t particularly attractive, but they had worked together long enough to build an intimacy, and, that night, when the celebration lasted a little bit too long, he made the biggest mistake of his life.

The return flight was agonizing. He replayed the previous night in his mind over and over in utter disgust. He revisited the biggest moments of his marriage—the first kiss, the wedding day, the birth of their two children—and wondered how he had gone wrong. He never wanted to betray his true love. He never even thought it was possible. As he drove home from the airport, his heart beat faster and the weight in his stomach grew heavier as each successive mile passed. By the time he pulled into the driveway, he knew that he had to tell her. He couldn’t bear this pain by himself, and, strangely enough, he needed her now more than he ever had. He parked in the driveway and stayed in the car for several minutes, watching through the front window as she finished setting the table. As he walked up to the door, the last question in his mind was whether she could still love him despite what he had done.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Fatalism for Jesus

Fatalism is usually a bad thing, but, in today’s gospel reading (John 12:9-19), it’s the Pharisees who sound desperate. At the end of the lesson, frustrated with Jesus’ increasing popularity and convinced that any attempt to arrest him would fail, the religious authorities say to one another, “You see that you can do nothing; look, the world has gone after him.” When was the last time someone threw up his or her hands and exclaimed, “We might as well give up. The whole world has fallen in love with Jesus.”

Oh that it were that simple! In the height of Jesus’ ministry, the crowds were drawn to his miracles and preaching. They had seen him heal the sick, restore the sight of the blind, and even raise Lazarus from the death—or, as John makes clear, if they hadn’t seen it they had heard about it. The pro-Jesus momentum was infectious. The crowds were snowballing, and those who sought to oppose Jesus felt unable to stand in the way of Jesus and his ministry.

Nowadays, the Christian fatalism seems to be working in the opposite direction. One minister might say to another, “You see that you can do nothing; look, the world has gone after anything but him.” I don’t agree fully with that sentiment, but it does resonate somewhat with my experience. The world seems to have moved beyond a Christian era. So many of the trappings of contemporary life—flashy expenditures of wealth, celebrity-style relationships, glorified violence, etc.—seem fundamentally opposed to the Jesus movement. And those things feel like a tide that Christianity could never turn back.

Yet our faith began as something small—something almost certain to be overwhelmed by the dominant religious and cultural movements of the day. According to the odds-makers, Jesus didn’t stand a chance, yet, by the time he approached Jerusalem for the final time, the opposite was true. How can we get back to that point where we are fatalists for Jesus? What part of the good news do we need to share with the world in order to make the Pharisees’ statement about Christianity’s momentum true again?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Staying a While

Seventy years is a long time. It’s a lifetime. It’s enough time for three generations to begin. And, back in Jeremiah’s day, it was even longer than that. Seventy years—that’s how long the prophet told the exiles they must wait before the Lord would visit them and bring them back. To that end, in this morning’s Old Testament reading (Jeremiah 29:1, 4-13), Jeremiah offers some startling advice to the leaders of the Israelites in exile: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and five your daughters in marriage…multiply there, and do not decrease.” In other words, the prophet says, “Make yourselves at home. This is going to take a while.”

So much of the New Testament is focused on “Stake awake! Be ready! The Lord could come at any minute.” But this passage from Jeremiah is just the opposite. And I wonder how that sounded to the exiles who were desperate to see their homeland again. The Christians who were eager to see their Lord’s return, like Paul, encouraged each other by making the parousia (end times) seem imminent. And, even though it’s been 2000 years of waiting, we still talk about the coming of Christ in immediate terms. I think that’s because we’ve figured out that God’s work, although it takes a long time, should feel like it’s just around the corner. We’re supposed to keep watch so that we might see just how God is already working in our lives.

But the exiles were told to be comfortable. They were encouraged by being told to sit and wait…for a long time…long enough for many of them to live and die without ever realizing the fulfillment of their hopes and of God’s promises. Why? Why did Jeremiah tell them to take their time? Maybe it’s just because the editor of this book of the bible was writing after the exile was over and knew that the exile would take about sixty years (597-538 BCE). But I think it’s more than that.

I think the prophet wanted his people (and us) to understand that sometimes God’s providence takes a lifetime (or longer) to be realized and that we are called to make the best of what we’re given in the present era. Although valid and useful forms of prophecy, telling a people that they must wait forever or that God is coming at any minute leaves us with the sense that God’s work may never be accomplished. By giving the people in exile a sense both of the length of their troubles and the expectation that they will abate after a reasonable period, the prophet invites the people to live in the present. They aren’t hopelessly tied to an abstract future nor are they attempting to inhabit a frenzied understanding of what might be coming any minute. Instead, God tells his people (and us) to wait but also to carry on.

We might find ourselves in a long stretch of challenges, but we can neither dismiss them nor be defeated by them. We must live into the struggles, put down roots, seeks God’s assistance with what we’re facing, and not get lost in an abstract hope.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Wrong Messiah

In today’s Gospel lesson (John 10:19-42), Jesus encounters the religious elites of his day, who ask him, “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” His response, “I told you, and you do not believe,” reveals just how far apart these two actually are. The authorities are looking for a messiah (a.k.a. “Christ”), but they aren’t looking for Jesus.

In the exchange that follows, Jesus reminds them that the works he has done show that he is God among them: “I and the father are one”; and “Believe the works [that I do], that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” In other words, Jesus says to them, “Can’t you see what I’m doing and realize that God has come among you?” But that isn’t the sort of savior they were looking for.

Throughout history, people have wanted a “messiah” but have preferred one who would come on their own terms. Jesus came as God among us—one who could not be subjected to the will of anyone but God. So often, I want a savior to come and do what I want him to do—solve my problems the way I want him to, give me the things I want, and rescue me from the challenges I think I need saving from. But that’s not how God works. God sent us himself, and an encounter with God is very different than an encounter with a “savior” who comes on my terms.

If I sit a listen to a gifted preacher or I go to a conference and hear an amazing presentation, I might be touched, but I can still leave unchanged. If I enter the presence of God, I cannot leave without being transformed. The salvation that Jesus came to bring wasn’t a word of inspiration or a gentle pat on the back. Jesus came to transform lives. He brought with him the presence of God, which, upon being encountered, requires a new life from all who experience it. But I’d rather have a messiah who fixes my life the way I want it to be fixed—not one who requires that my life be transformed.

As I heard someone say recently, “I don’t want a life-changing experience. I like my life just the way it is.” Well, if that’s true of any of us, we’d rather have a messiah who meets our needs rather than a God-incarnate who pulls the rug out from underneath us. Sure, it’s easier to pay a motivational speaker to come and tell us what we want to hear, but that’s not Jesus. Jesus is God among us. Encountering Jesus means salvation through transformation.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

All We Like Sheep

I have a hard time imagining a shepherd’s life. One summer, I helped out on a small farm, and I got to know the animals pretty well. The cattle had names. The chickens didn’t—at least I don’t remember that they did—but I still got to know them. The horses, of course, had names, but I never got to ride them (didn’t ask). There were no sheep, but if there were they might have had names.

That summer, I was definitely a hireling, and, although I wanted to do a good job, I never would have considered laying down my life for any of them. I did lie down on the ground and help tag a young bull calf and got peed on a good bit, but I don’t think my life was ever really in danger. Had it been in jeopardy, I almost certainly would have run the other way. Was I a bad hireling? Perhaps. Could I have been a good farmer? Probably not, but I’m not sure even the best of farmers or shepherds is really willing to sacrifice his life for the herd. Then again, maybe I have a hard time imagining what it means to be a good shepherd.

In today’s Gospel lesson (John 10:1-18), Jesus introduces himself as the Good Shepherd—the one who lays down his life for the sheep. He knows his sheep  by name, and they hear and know his voice. When the wolf comes, he does not flee but stays to protect the flock—even if it costs him his life. To me, that’s foolishness. What is a sheep? What are ten sheep? What are a hundred sheep? How many sheep is one shepherd’s life worth? Sheep are simple creatures that are raised for a purpose. Why would anyone want to die for some stupid sheep?

I don’t think God holds us in the same regard with which I hold sheep, but still…he’s God, and we’re us. And yet he gives up his life for us. I can understand giving up one’s life for family and friends and maybe even a complete stranger in an act of selflessness, but Jesus did something more like giving up one’s life for a bunch of livestock. Who does that? Who loves sheep that much?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Litmus Test

What does it mean to be a Christian? Having grown up in a different denomination, I’m all for ecumenism. We share so much in common with each other that it makes sense for us to celebrate those commonalities and downplay our differences. As soon as I’m ready to build a bridge between the denominations, however, I discover again just how far apart we actually are. Pick an issue—one that seems critical or one that seems rather benign—and we realize that there’s still a lot that separates us.

Baptism—infant or adult? Confirmation—necessary or not? Communion—memorial, sign, means, or actual? Alcohol—for it or against it? Dancing—same story. Crucifixion—divine punishment for sin or purification of human nature? Empty tomb—really empty, a metaphor for salvation, or doesn’t matter? Virgin birth—essential or out-dated? Scripture—literal or figurative, simple or complex, instructive or informative? Church governance—congregational or hierarchical? Tradition—historical or binding? Women—unequal, separate, prescribed, or no distinction? Divorce—sinful or lamentable? Abortion—evil or unfortunate? Where does it end?

While it’s true that I have a lot in common with people from any number of churches in town, it’s also true that we’re miles apart. This weekend, I’m leading the program for EYC convention, and the theme I’ve been assigned is “The Human Puzzle: Piecing Together the Body of Christ.” It’s a reflection of the youth’s interest in what holds Christians together despite all that divides us. Honestly, my answer depends on what side of the proverbial bed on which I wake up in the morning. Perhaps Paul’s words from today’s New Testament lesson (Romans 10:1-13) can help.

Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them [unbelieving Jews] is that they may be saved. I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.

Paul’s worried about his Jewish brothers and sisters who have not understood who Jesus was and what he represented. Although a different time and a different problem, I think Paul’s concern is one we share today. The “Christianity” put forward by others (e.g. Terry Jones and the burning of the holy Koran) can repugnant. Although less extreme examples aren’t quite as distasteful, I take strong issue with any Christian minister who teaches a) that women must submit in all things to their husbands, b) that homosexual people are going to hell, or c) that sharing in the Lord’s table fellowship is reserved only for those who agree with everyone else at the table. None of those things represents the Christianity I love nor the God I worship. And I would say, with Paul, that those other “Christians” have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. And I’m sure they would say the same thing about me.

What is it that holds us together? Can we find a simple formula to which all Christian can ascribe? That was the endeavor of the great ecumenical movement of the 1960s, which is still alive in smaller ways today. Honestly, I’m not sure whether there’s a statement of faith basic enough to attract all of those who would call themselves Christians. There would always be someone that someone else would want to exclude. But Paul, despite his willingness to criticize his fellow Jew’s misplaced faith, does give us the gospel in what might be its simplest form: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

I’m sure we could quibble over that. Invite more than one church leader to comment on it, and I’m certain disagreement would ensue. But let’s not do that. Instead, let’s just take Paul at his word and resist the temptation to solidify what might otherwise be a beautifully fluid statement of faith. What does Paul mean? I don’t want to know. (Well, I do, but I’m deciding as a Lenten discipline not to dissect his words.) I’d rather just read it again and let the gates swing as wide open as God can swing them.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Blind

In the last three weeks, I’ve heard several snide comments about lengthy gospel readings. Someone recently said that the lectionary’s idea for a Lenten discipline is to make us all stand up for long periods of time in the middle of church. After this coming Sunday (the Passion narrative) and Good Friday’s lengthy lesson, we won’t even remember how our knees began to tremble towards the end of the man blind from birth.

Today’s gospel reading from the daily office (John 9:1-17) is the first half of that story, and I love the fact that we get both to revisit the story but also do it in an abbreviated form. I’m finding something new and fresh this time around—hard to believe given how ready I was to move on even before the gospel lesson was finished being read. In today’s passage, I am drawn to the man’s explanation of how he was healed: “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash’; so I went and washed and received my sight.” His is a gentle, innocent, almost passive description of the healing, and I am fixated on his impersonal encounter with the man who healed him.

The man who was blind says, “The man called Jesus…” Not only did he not know Jesus, but he didn’t even know enough about him to refer to him directly. He buries his encounter beneath others’ perception of Jesus. He doesn’t say, “The man we call Jesus…” He pushes it away from himself, adding distance between him and the miracle and the one who performed it. Why? Where’s the intimacy we want to read into this passage? Well, it comes at the end of the story, when the man recognizes Jesus as the Son of Man, but that isn’t until tomorrow. For now, we’re left with distanced familiarity at best.

Sometimes it feels like those who “know” God the best are the ones he favors. There are people we know who exude faith and relationship with God. They seem to have their religious lives in order, and it feels like we’ve missed something important and are unable to have that kind of reciprocal relationship with God. But this man who was blind from birth didn’t know Jesus. He never spoke to him. He never asked for healing. He didn’t cry out, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.” He knew so little about the healer that he said, “The man called Jesus made clay…” You don’t need to know Jesus to be healed by him. Sometimes we need God to heal us even when he’s a totally foreign concept.

The challenge, however, is connecting the dots after God has entered our lives. We might not be able to see how God is working before or even during a moment of grace, but, like the man blind from birth, we are supposed to reflect on it afterwards and attribute that salvation to its source. The man didn’t understand why the miracle happened. He couldn’t see what made him “special enough” to receive the miracle, but he was able to explain step-by-step how it happened. The man called Jesus—even though I’d hardly ever heard of him before—gave me back my sight. I think he might be a prophet.

If you’re stuck in a state of spiritual blindness—unable even to recognize that God is near you—don’t fret. We don’t need to be able to see God in order for God to be a part of our lives. Sometimes it’s only after we’re healed that we can figure out what’s happened.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Truth, Justice, and the American Way

Like most Americans who aren’t comatose or living in a hermitage, I’ve noticed a lot of political chatter lately—on the television, in the newspapers, and in electronic media like facebook. I’m not really eager to join that furor that seems to demand everyone’s attention all the time, but today’s lesson from Jeremiah (23:1-8) is a clear example of how the bible and politics are supposed to mix.

In one of his most famous passages, Jeremiah cries out, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.” These are cutting words that are designed to sting the egos of those in power and rally the proletariat in criticism of their leaders. Unlike the modern American state, God had appointed—through the human institutions of heredity and nepotism—the leaders of Israel to watch over his people. Perhaps, one might extrapolate to our system of government and identify a “God-appointed” responsibility in our public leaders, but I think that’s pushing the image a bit too far.

Yet the message for those in power over us is the same as it was for those who were rulers over Israel nearly three-thousand years ago: When you forget to take care of the people for whom you are responsible, someone else will come along to do it. Unfortunately, the “righteous branch” whom God envisions leading his people may never find himself or herself in charge of the American people. Nevertheless, we should be looking for someone who “shall…deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” Sound like anyone in government?

The funny thing that this passage reminds me is that wisdom, justice, righteousness are not exclusive to the religious sphere. We don’t need a “Christian” leader in order to have someone promote the same ideals identified in this passage. Wisdom, justice, and righteousness are about taking care of God’s people (in the broadest sense). Most of the time, I trust that those in positions of public trust genuinely have the people’s interest in mind when they make decisions. I might not agree with their logic or prioritization of needs, but they’re usually pretty good at what they do. Why, then, are we still at odds? Aren’t wisdom, justice, and righteousness things we can all agree on?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Minor Leagues of Mammon

I think I have a new favorite verse in the bible. It comes from today’s Old Testament lesson (Jeremiah 22:13-23): “Do you think you are a king because you compete in cedar?” I’ve known that Jeremiah has a sharp tongue, but this isn’t a verse that I had previously committed to memory. In so many ways, it sums up my experience of contemporary society.

Like many others, I have fallen into the trap of materialism. It’s hard not to—we live, as Madonna put it, in a material world. I’m not ready to concede that money is what makes the world go around, but it’s pretty close. Although this verse is actually directed at the King of Judah, what I love about it is that it stings me like salt in a fresh wound. “Who do you think you are? Do you think you are royalty because you compete in material possessions?”

I don’t have any cedar in my house that I know of…well, except for a few shoe trees. And I certainly don’t have the sort of house or car or other possessions that are the envy of the world. But I do have that attitude which says, “Look at me. I deserve this. This makes me special.” Where does that come from? Who do I think I am? Why am I insistent on looking at my life and comparing it with the lives of others?

This verse from Jeremiah smacks me with three things: pretense, competition, and possessions. The material world draws us in with the fancy lure of being someone we’re not. “Do you think you are a king…?” We may not fool ourselves into thinking we’re royalty, but we do overstate our own worth (not just in the financial sense). As I heard from the pulpit a few weeks ago, more and more of us think we’re “very important people.” Actually, we’re just people. But the real fun of it—that which really drives a desire to accumulate wealth—is competition, and this verse get that. “Do you think you are a king because you compete in cedar?” It’s a competition. It’s a race to see who can end up with the most stuff when he dies.

The power of this verse isn’t in its ability to speak not only to those consumed by the love of money but also to the rest of us—those who are only slightly tainted (is there such a thing?) by an over-attachment to the material world. I’m not a Bill Gates. I’m not a Ke$ha. I’m not even your average income in our parish. But I’m still competing. I might be in the minor leagues of mammon, but I’m still playing the game. Although on a smaller scale, I’m still buying into the contemporary phenomenon that says you can be (need to be) someone you’re not through an expression of your possessions. I might not have as much money to buy in to the game, but I’m playing it. Are you?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Laser Show

I had a great eighth-grade English teacher. Mrs. Simmons was everything I wanted in a teacher—she was young, attractive, energetic, fun, and seemed interested in building genuine relationships with her students. I really enjoyed every minute in her class, but, as I think back on it, I learned a lot more about Mrs. Simmons than I did the English language. I fell in love (not literally) with the teacher but, in so doing, missed the content of the class.

Today’s gospel lesson (John 6:27-40) has a little touch of admiring the messenger above the message. Jesus claims rather boldly, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” He’s putting himself out there. He’s letting the crowd know that he is the one who has been sent by God to reach out to God’s people. Naturally, they want some proof: “Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate manna in the wilderness…”

That last line about the manna that had come down from the sky while Israel wandered through the wilderness reveals a great deal about the hearts of the crowd whom Jesus is addressing. They remember well Moses—another one sent by God to reach out to Israel—and they recall how Moses had called down life-sustaining bread when God’s people seemed on the verge of starvation. Invoking Moses and his example, the people look at Jesus, wondering what he might do for them.

But Jesus points out that they have fallen in love with the prophet rather than the message he brought: “It was not Moses who have you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.” Moses was a miracle-worker, but he wasn’t the miracle itself. Moses reminded Israel that God would save them, but God’s people got lost in the show-stopping performance of manna from heaven, and they forgot that the bread (and the one who actually sent it) was most important.

Jesus was a miracle-worker. Jesus did amazing things and performed many signs. But, as John’s gospel points out, all of those signs point to something else. If we get lost in the sign itself, we fail to see what Jesus is trying to show us—that God himself has come down from heaven in the form of his Son to give life to the world. I don’t know about you, but Jesus opening the eyes of the blind or loosening the tongues of the mute doesn’t do a lot for me. I have need of salvation, and a first-century miracle show isn’t what gets me to heaven. It’s the message itself—that Jesus came to bring me and the whole world God’s love.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Mandated Relationship

When talking with a friend the other day, she told me that her boss stressed the importance of taking a day off each week. At least on the surface, she understood that there was an expectation by her supervisor that she would schedule “Sabbath time” into each week. Unfortunately for my friend, the nature of her work makes it hard for that to happen. But it got me wondering—what’s the point of forcing someone to take downtime?

I understand in principle why each of us needs some time off—one day a week, a few weeks a year. Although it’s possible to keep a frenzied pace going for several weeks in a row, eventually the lack of a change of pace catches up with us and exerts its physical, mental, and spiritual toll on our health. We need a break. Maybe not one day out of seven, but we require some sort of break every once in a while. But why would someone mandate that rather than just make space for it? Can you have “downtime” if you’re being forced to take it? Is rest as restful when someone else has written it into your schedule? Is it truly a break when it’s forced upon you by your boss?

One of the earliest (chronologically speaking) commandments in Israel’s cultural history was the Sabbath rest: “Remember the Sabbath day at keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work…” This one didn’t require any special liturgy or rite. One didn’t need to know how to make any specific sacrifice or utter a special incantation. The Sabbath just was, and God’s people were supposed to honor it by resting. But people of the Old Testament aren’t that different from us, and they struggled with it.

In today’s reading from Jeremiah (17:19-27), the prophet stands at a major thoroughfare and reminds the people of Judah and Jerusalem to observe the Sabbath as was commanded to their ancestors. Apparently, God’s people had forgotten why they were supposed to honor the seventh day of the week, and they had begun to do what every one of us has begun to do—fill up a day of rest with all the other “stuff” that wouldn’t fit into the rest of the week. But, as Jeremiah declared, there’s a price to pay for forgetting the Sabbath.

And here’s the real reason we’re supposed to have “Sabbath time”—whether an observant Jew or a Christian whose boss likes to use contemporary religious language in inappropriate ways: Sabbath time is for our relationship with God—not for our relationship with ourselves. Rest, relaxation, downtime is for us. We need a break. We can’t keep working at this pace. We must have some time off. But “Sabbath time” isn’t empty time. It isn’t R&R. It’s time apart from our lives in an effort to reconnect ourselves with God.

Imagine spending one full day each week structuring every action, every conversation, every bite of food, every destination, even every thought on God. It’s hard to spend 24 hours each week that focused on God without being transformed. Sabbath rest is the stewardship of time. We give proportionally out of our week (one-seventh in this case) just as we are called to give from our financial resources (one-tenth as a tithe). And, as I’ve written before, we don’t give up our time to God in response to something we feel. We give it up first because we’re told to, and we then watch as a relationship of gratitude and appreciation develops.

You might not want to set aside a whole day only to do God’s work, but once you do it as a mandated obligation something happens inside you. Like the people of Judah and Jerusalem, you discover again that you belong to God. You renew your relationship with him and reconnect in ways only possible by spending time together. One day out of seven is a tremendous cost—can’t argue with that. But there’s a reason it’s costly. There’s a reason we need to find a different “day off” besides the Sabbath (in the Christian case, probably best observed on Sunday). That’s because that one day a week is already spoken for.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Avoiding Heresies - Gnosticism

We're in our penultimate week for the heresies class, and this week's topic is Gnosticism. One of the oldest "heresies," Gnosticism actually predates Christianity. Although there are many different "schools" of Gnosticism, some central beliefs are common to most, and many of those principles find their roots in Greek philosophy.

Basically, Gnostics believe that there are two types of existence--material and spiritual--and that the latter is to be preferred to the former. As humans, we are called to detach ourselves from the material world and seek union with the spiritual as the material world is somewhere between "an obstruction to the realization of our calling as human beings"  and downright evil (Bergquist).

When Christianity came along, to many Gnostics it sounded surprisingly familiar: God descended from heaven to earth, we strive to ascend with Jesus into heaven, we are called to let go of our attachment to material things and live simply for the sake of the kingdom. To them, Jesus represented the "supreme Gnositc master," who showed humanity how to escape this physical existence in favor of union with God in heaven. And, to our modern ears, all that sounds both vaguely Christian though definitely Gnostic.

So why is Gnosticism bad? Where did it go wrong? Why were the Gnostic gospels banned as heretical texts? And why is there such a renewed interest in those texts today? Well, to put it plainly, Gnosticism, by de-emphasizing the physical world, 1) undermines the beauty/goodness of creation, 2) undermines the importance of the incarnation, and 3) leaves no room for the redemption of the created order. Instead, it prefers to escape this material world in favor of a purely spiritual realm. And that's heresy. We can't exist without our bodies. We're not just "spirits" or "souls" trapped inside a body. We are human beings--body and soul, inseparably united. Gnosticism isn't salvation; it's escapism.

But that's an easy trap for us to fall in. Sometimes this physical life doesn't seem all that good (cancer, drunk driving, tsunami, etc.), and sometimes this physical realm is the only thing that seems to be separating us from God. Sometimes it seems like Jesus is telling us to leave this world behind. Sometimes it feels like there's a spark of divinity hidden within each of us, and that, if we only get back in touch with it, we'll be in better shape. But all of that denies the beauty (though brokenness) of creation. Each of us is a beautiful part of God's world made in God's image--beautiful enough for God to become one of us (incarnation) in order to redeem and transform us (without destroying that which makes us human/physical). So, just say no! to Gnosticism.

Here's a video on the subject from the Rt. Rev. N. T. Wright, who was the most recent bishop of Durham before retiring to become a research professor in New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Andrews University in Scotland. He does a good job of explaining why Gnosticism is back.


And here's a copy of this week's slide show. It includes the scripture lessons--even some Gnostic references. If you have questions or comments, please leave them.

video

Sunday's Sermon - 4 Lent A (04/03/11)

April 3, 2011 – 4 Lent A

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

A few weeks ago, an earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated parts of the Japanese coast, and the world is still waiting to see just how terrible the already-devastating tragedy will become as the challenges at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors remain unresolved. But, even though that crisis is still unfolding before us, countless people have already wondered—either aloud or to themselves—why that catastrophe has occurred. And I don’t just mean the nuclear scientists and engineers who are studying design flaws in sea walls and reactor shields. Ordinary people, like you and me, can’t encounter a disaster like this one without asking why.

Why does something like this happen? Why do we live in a world where forces out of our control unleash their terrible power, leaving tens of thousands of people dead? Similar questions arose after the earthquake and tsunami of 2004, which wreaked incomparable damage across the coastlines around the Indian Ocean. Not long after Hurricane Katrina, I heard individuals searching for the real reason behind the disaster that flooded New Orleans. Are occurrences like these the unintended consequence of industrialization? Or do disasters like these signal God’s punishment for human sinfulness?

You might have read that the governor of Tokyo had to apologize for and retract his statement that the recent tsunami was “divine punishment” for Japan’s egoism. Though a very poorly conceived tactic on his part, the governor seized the opportunity provided by the disaster to lambast his countrymen for their self-centeredness, which had, as he put it, “attached itself like rust to the mentality of the Japanese people,” provoking divine punishment. Apparently, however, his approach to the disaster wasn’t the typical reaction of the Japanese people.

In a recent young adult bible study, we looked at the faith-based questions behind the earthquake and tsunami, and one of the aspects we explored was the difference in the approach of the typically eastern and western religions. As Dan Gilgoff, the Religion Editor for CNN.com wrote, “Indeed, where Christianity, Judaism, or Islam are often preoccupied with causes of disaster—the questions of why God would allow an earthquake, for example—Eastern traditions  like Buddhism and Shinto focus on behavior in reaction to tragedy.” In other words, you and I might stand amidst the rubble of a coastline devastated by a tsunami and ask God, “Why did this happen,” while the Japanese might stand on the same coast and ask, “What should we do now?”

“As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” It was common in Jesus’ day for an individual’s troubles to be attached to something he or she had done wrong. If you were a horrible sinner, you might end up with a terrible disease or some financial challenges. Figuring out why someone was born with a disability or disfigurement was a little tougher, and the disciples seem to have stated that predicament succinctly: “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” It was a philosophical and religious question being debated by many in that day.

Jesus, when asked, responded definitively, saying, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” He resisted his contemporaries’ need to explain the man’s blindness as a product of an individual’s sinfulness—whether that of the man or his parents. Instead, he took the difficult circumstances and looked forward, insisting that God’s will is to be found not by looking backwards in search of a cause but by looking ahead for God’s glory.

We don’t hear anything else from the disciples in this gospel lesson, so we don’t know for sure whether they got what Jesus was saying, but we do read that the Pharisees struggled with it. For starters, they were surprised and perplexed that this man, who came out of the womb blind, was now able to see. Surely God would only punish a person with a lifetime of sightlessness if he or his parents were particularly sinful. How, then, could the man who was “born entirely in sins” now be given his sight—that which God had denied him?

And, when the Pharisees learned that the healing had occurred on the Sabbath, their confusion only grew. Not only, therefore, was the blind man steeped in sin, but Jesus, who had healed him on the divinely appointed day of rest, had performed an amazing miracle and yet simultaneously committed a grievous sin. To try to make sense of the situation—which is to say to try to determine for sure that their understanding of sin and punishment was correct—the Pharisees interrogated the man and his parents a total of three times. But they never found a satisfactory answer, so they drove the man out of the synagogue, cutting him off from the religious community and ridding themselves of a conundrum they couldn’t accept.

Sin and punishment. Transgression and consequence. Action and reaction. Cause and effect. We are taught from a very early age that there are consequences for our actions. Talk back to your mother or father, and you may receive a painful whipping. Drink and drive, and you may get arrested or even kill someone. Have intercourse out of wedlock, and you may have an unplanned pregnancy to deal with. None of us would call those God’s punishment for our sins. They’re just examples of reaping what you sow. But, when we’re faced with a personal crisis that we can’t explain—like an illness or a death or a disaster—it’s easy to fall back on that familiar pattern of cause and effect. Even though our rational selves might not believe it to be true, there’s often a part of us that thinks we deserve this tragedy—that God is paying us back for our faithlessness.

Do you remember the game Mouse Trap? It was a favorite in our house even though none of us ever even attempted to play it. The board game features a Rube-Goldberg-type contraption that involves a series of interconnected steps that results in the successful drop of a mouse trap onto an unsuspecting plastic rodent. With the turn of a crank, the inevitable is set in motion, and my brothers and I sat for hours setting up and resetting the mechanics of the game, smiling in satisfied bliss when everything went as planned. That’s how I’ve been preconditioned to interpret a terrible situation. I am programmed to explain any undesired outcome by searching for that mythical series of steps that led in succession up to it. And, even though I know in my heart that God doesn’t work like that, there’s a piece of me that nods in silent resignation: “Yep, I should have seen this coming.”

Jesus wants us to know that that isn’t how the world works. Although cause and effect may apply in the tiny and specific instances of drunk-driving and premarital sex, when we expand the situation to the cosmic level, we discover that God isn’t a God of cause and effect. He’s a God of reality and response. The reality of the world that we live in is that it’s a broken place. And we, as its inhabitants, are broken and sinful people. That isn’t the cause—it just is. That’s how things are. We are all sinful, and none of us is any more responsible for the world’s brokenness than anyone else. We all share the sin of the world equally. As Jesus said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” God doesn’t make a person blind, or give a person cancer, or send a devastating tsunami because anyone or even an entire nation is sinful. Instead, the world is a broken place so that God’s glory might be revealed in it.

If the reality of our existence is our brokenness and need for redemption, then God’s response is to love us and redeem us. That’s how his glory is revealed—not by finding a cause for our pain and suffering but in knowing that God can save us from even our most terrible disasters. Although it may not come naturally for westerners to let go of a need to explain everything, we can learn from those who stand in the aftermath of tragedy and ask, “What is our response to this? And what is God’s response?” The hope that God gives us is not in comprehending why suffering exists in the world but in knowing and trusting that God can save us from it. Amen.