Sunday, November 30, 2014

What Is God's Dream for the World?

November 30, 2014 – Advent 1A
© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. 

Do you know what I miss? The Sears Wish Book. Three-hundred pages that stir up within every child (and some adults, too) “the ecstasy of unbridled avarice,” to quote one of my favorite Christmas movies.[1] Yes, I know that there is an electronic version that you can download on your smartphone or laptop, but it isn’t the same thing. As a child, getting ready for Christmas meant flipping through the glossy pages of the Wish Book and marking with a pen those things that I really wanted to find under the tree. The New York Times might contain “all the news that’s fit to print,” but the Wish Book is where a child could find every toy that’s worth getting. And, now that I have children of my own, I miss the Wish Book even more—not because I want to indulge my children in the over-materialistic tendencies of our society but because I just want to know what to get them for Christmas.

My parents had it easy. It was right there—in perfect, clear, unmistakable pen. I literally had circled every toy I might want. All they had to do was go through the pages and make a list of the toys I had marked and then decide which parent, grandparent, aunt, or uncle would be responsible for procuring which gift. Many, of course, were discarded as being too dangerous or too expensive. But I had done my part. I had given them all the consumer data they could possibly need. Oh, how I long for those simpler times! Without a centralized resource, Elizabeth and I have to ask and ask and ask again and try to figure out whether today’s answer is merely the result of a commercial our kids saw on television or whether, when weighted against all the other possible toys, the one they seem to want right now is the one they still will want on Christmas Day.

What about you? What are you hoping for? What’s in your Wish Book? Maybe it’s a toy—some thing that you’ve been wanting—like a new gadget or something shiny and sparkly. Or maybe it’s a different sort of wish—a longing for someone instead of something—like someone to come home to, someone to take care of you, or a tiny little someone to bring home from the hospital. Maybe you dream of finding a new job. Maybe you hope to patch things up with someone you love. Maybe you long for a new beginning. Or maybe you wish for a chance to go back and start over. This is the time of year when anything and everything seems possible. Whether true or not, the gap between us and our dreams feels a little bit narrower. As we prepare for Christmas, we dare to allow ourselves to dream of what life could be like if our hopes and wishes were to come true.

But, if you came to church this morning expecting to hear a joyful message of hope—something to warm your heart as you settle into your pre-Christmas dreams—you might be a little disappointed: “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” Happy Advent, y’all.

What’s the deal with Advent? When the rest of the world is getting ready to wrap presents and sing carols and drink cider, why are we in here talking about the end of the world? Doesn’t it feel like something’s wrong? Doesn’t it feel like there’s a substantial disconnect between the mood of our worship and the attitude of everyone else around us? Isn’t this supposed to be the season of hope? Shouldn’t we be talking about our dreams? Shouldn’t we be bringing our hopes to God as we wait for them to be fulfilled?

Well, this is the season of hope. And it is a time for waiting. But we aren’t supposed to be waiting for the fulfillment of our own dreams. That’s what the world waits for. As Christians we are called to an Advent of waiting and watching for the consummation of God’s dreams—God’s hopes for us and for the world.

What is God’s dream for you and your life? That’s a very different question, isn’t it? So often we focus on what we want—for ourselves, for our families, and for those around us. Rarely are we asked to consider what God wants for us and for those we love. But that is what this season of Advent is all about. It is too small a thing for us to limit our hopes and dreams to those things we think would be good for us. We must believe in a God who has the power to set everything right and to make all things new. That is what the coming of God’s kingdom represents. Our hopes, therefore, must mirror God’s hopes, and that means that we must embrace a vision for the future that involves the whole world being turned on its head.

What does God hope for the world? Is it not that the people of west Africa might be set free from the fear of Ebola? Is it not that little girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan and Nigeria and Saudi Arabia have the same access to education and opportunity as the little boys? Doesn’t God dream of a world in which the kids who go to school across the street are just as likely to succeed as those who go to Eastwood and that the kids who ate Thanksgiving dinner here at our church would be able to eat with their families instead of with strangers? Doesn’t God yearn for a kingdom in which black teenagers in hooded sweatshirts don’t have to worry about whether they will be shot because a white police officer is afraid of what he sees? Isn’t that what the kingdom of God is supposed to look like? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be waiting for and hoping for? What will it take before that dream—God’s dream—for our world is fulfilled?

Jesus said, “In those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” That is the only way that God’s kingdom will ever become a full reality here on earth—when the power of God shakes everything from its foundations and the whole world gets turned on its head. Until then, the powers of this world stand in the way. And those powers aren’t likely to give up their place until God comes and shakes them loose.

Is that good news or bad news? Well, it depends on what kind of kingdom you’re waiting for. If you’re waiting for God’s kingdom, it’s good news. It’s wonderful news. It means that those who have suffered for the sake of the gospel will be gathered into God’s kingdom and set at peace. It means that the meek shall inherit the earth, that the poor shall become rich, and that the oppressed shall be set free. But, if you’re waiting for a kingdom of your own design, of your own success, of your own power, the apocalyptic vision of God’s coming kingdom should scare you to your core…because, when the powers of this world get turned upside down, those who start out on top end up at the very bottom.

So, again, I ask, “What are you hoping for? What’s in your Wish Book?” Jesus reminds us that as his followers—as citizens of his kingdom and instruments of God’s will—our greatest hope is expressed in the cataclysmic reordering of this world. That is what we are called to long for—for the full coming of God’s kingdom. For God’s people, this is good news. This is very good news. Is it good news for you? What are you watching for? What are you waiting for? What are you hoping for? Are your dreams the same thing as God’s dreams? Amen.

[1] A Christmas Story (1983).

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Tears of Thanksgiving

November 27, 2014 – Thanksgiving Day, Year A
© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Lately, it seems as if God is working on me in a strange and somewhat scary way. I haven’t quite figured out why, but he certainly has my attention.

It started a few weeks ago when I was at the Episcopal conference center in the Diocese of Mississippi—the Gray Center just north of Canton. I was there for Credo, which is a program designed to help clergy focus on wellness. The idea is that healthy clergy make for healthy parishes. Anyway, I spent six days there, listening to presentations on physical, financial, spiritual, and vocational wellness. I met with experts in those areas, and I spent time reflecting on my life and ministry with some peers. It really was a wonderful experience—down to every last detail.

One day, instead of eating a typical lunch, a member of the Credo staff led us in an exercise designed to help us appreciate the spirituality of eating. When we arrived at the dining hall, the doors were closed. We were asked to wait outside. So we waited. And waited. Finally, when everything was ready, we were escorted into a room that had been transformed from a camp-style cafeteria into a banquet hall. Each place had been set with a beautiful plate. Perfectly arranged, colorful strips of bell pepper accented a carefully designed palate of hummus, fruit, and salad. The guide asked us to look at the food before eating it, to smell the food before tasting it, to consider where each piece came from, and to appreciate how it had found its way onto our plate. Finally, we were invited to indulge ourselves and taste the meal.

After a few final words of instruction, we began to eat in silence. A few minutes later, someone broke the trance-like experience with a word of admiration. Soon the conversation swelled, and we all ate until we were content—a modest but appropriate amount of food. More important than the quantity was the careful, deliberate, loving care with which each plate had been arranged. The men and women who had been providing all of our meals had clearly gone to great lengths to make this a feast to remember.

But the meal wasn’t finished yet.

The leader announced that the Gray Center staff had decided on their own to prepare a second course. I was astounded that any more could be enjoyed. I had already experienced so much. But the kitchen staff wanted to do this for us. We learned that they had prepared shrimp cocktail over a mango salsa with a side of jambalaya and some bread pudding for dessert. It was like finishing a fabulous meal only to discover that the meal had not even begun yet. It was literally too much to take in—both physically and emotionally. Still, we all began to eat again, and the conversation at every table centered on the staff who had done so much for us. We were astounded.

When everything was finished, the kitchen staff came out to let us thank them with a standing ovation. Although pleased with the offering they had made, they were humble and looked mostly at the floor while we cheered and clapped. I took time to look at the face of every one of the men and women who had given so much to me in that meal—and not just in that meal but in every meal we had enjoyed during our time there. These were the faces of people who called that place home, who took pride in their work, and who understood that even serving a meal in a cafeteria is a ministry in God’s kingdom. As I looked at them, I started to weep. I was surprised—even alarmed. Tears continued streaming down my face, flowing so freely that I didn’t even try to wipe them away. Their generosity, their love, their selflessness was so magnificent that it shook me to my core.

And that’s what’s been following me around ever since. Tears are right below the surface. In everyday conversations, I can tell my heart is on my sleeve—that my emotions are living up here in my throat rather than down here in my gut. Casual moments with my children bring me to tears. Recalling stories of friends and mentors who have supported me makes me weep. What is wrong with me? I’m not a sentimental person. I’m a cold, hard, factual, rational person who doesn’t have time for tears. What is this all about?

One day, while he was making his way to Jerusalem, Jesus was approached by ten lepers. Keeping their distance—as was required by religious and social etiquette—they called out to him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Without otherwise engaging them—never touching them or conversing with them—Jesus told them to go and show themselves to the priests. According to the Law of Moses, a leper, when cured, was to show himself to a priest in order to be readmitted to society. So the ten turned and went on their way, just as Jesus had asked them to do, and while they were walking they were healed.

“It’s a miracle!” one of them exclaimed. “This is what we’ve been waiting for! We can go home to our families. We can go back to work. We can get our lives back!” Indeed, to be diagnosed with leprosy was a fate worse than death. Lepers lived in total isolation. They were kept at a distance. As a result of the rash on their skin, they gave up everything. And Jesus had given them their lives back. All they had to do was go and find a priest who could verify that they had been cured. With that certification, they would be allowed back into society. They would be normal again. Naturally, they raced off to find what they had been praying for for so long.

But one of them stopped and let the others keep running. His heart wasn’t drawn to Jerusalem, where the priests could look him over and send him on his way. He was a Samaritan, which means that he didn’t belong in the holy city along with the others. He could have gone to find a Samaritan priest at Mount Gerizim, his people’s holy site, but that didn’t feel right either. Instead, his heart belonged somewhere else. So he turned around and started running back to Jesus. Exhausted, out of breath, he collapsed onto the ground at Jesus’ feet and cried out, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” Even more powerful than the desire to resume the life he so desperately wanted was the desire to express the gratitude of his heart and to give it where it belonged—at the feet of the one who had healed him.

Then, Jesus looked at him and said something as surprising as the man’s return: “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?...Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Wasn’t he already healed? What did Jesus mean? What did this man get that the others missed out on? The word translated for us as “has made you well” can also be translated “has saved you.” In response to the man’s soul-filled gratitude, Jesus looked at him and said, “Now, you are truly healed. Now, you are saved.”

Gratitude has the power to change everything. It is the foundation upon which faith is laid. It is the avenue through which God’s power can work. It is how we present ourselves to God and say, “Here I am, Lord. What will you do with me?” It all starts with gratitude. That is the lesson I have been learning these last few weeks. Like ground tilled and made ready for new plantings, my heart has been turned over by gratitude, and I sense that something new is about to grow.

What about you? What is gratitude doing in your life? What doors to new opportunities might thankfulness open for you? The other day, as I walked into the cafeteria at my son’s school to enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving lunch, again, as I joined the line, I started to cry. I don’t know why, but the experience I had in Mississippi is still with me. And I believe that it’s just the beginning of something. When you sit down for your Thanksgiving meal today, will you weep with gratitude for all that God is giving you? Will you return to him and throw yourself down at his feet? Don’t let this day go by without making the connection between the blessings you enjoy and gratitude for the one who bestows them. Be thankful and, through your thanksgiving, give God a piece of your heart and invite him to take it and use so that you might never be the same. Amen.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Waiting for Hope Itself

Yesterday, I spoke with two different colleagues about the things that are happening in Ferguson, MO, and the gospel lesson for this coming Sunday (Mark 13:24-37). All three of us feel a connection there and think we might have something to say about it, but all of us are also wary about weighing in on a tragedy that is still in the process of unfolding.

One of them, Steve Pankey, wrote a beautiful, moving, and haunting piece about it in his blog yesterday. As I read his words, my own heart broke afresh. I commend his post to you, and it has helped me get my own thoughts about Ferguson.

The other of them, Jack Alvey, is working on a sermon (I think) about what our response to this event and others like it should be. His take is bold and powerful yet sensitive and not overreaching. His words have helped me gain some insights for my own sermon on Sunday, and I look forward to reading what he writes and preaches.

Today, though, I’m still in that same place where I found myself yesterday: “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” Jesus encourages his disciples to judge by the signs of destruction and torment that the Son of Man—the figure of God’s great and final judgment—is near. He even urges them not to lose heart since “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” But how can God’s people, who continue to experience these signs of conflict, have any hope when the setting-right of all that is wrong still seems so far away?

Steve repeatedly asked the question, “How long?” in his post yesterday. How long, indeed? That’s the question with which the faithful have wrestled for thousands and thousands of years. How do we maintain hope that things will get better when they seem stuck in a place that is so bad for so long? How do we have faith in God to deliver us from all that is evil and broken in this life when generation after generation seems plagued by the same ills?

How did God’s people remain faithful during their slavery in Egypt or their wandering through the wilderness? How long, O Lord? How did God’s people not lose heart when the temple was destroyed and they were carted off into captivity in Babylon? How long, O Lord? How did God’s people not give up when the Romans destroyed the temple a second time? Or when a new European empire subjected God’s people to torture and imprisonment and genocidal execution? How long, O Lord, indeed?

Into this cycle of apocalyptic destruction, Jesus speaks, “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” That is a promise of deliverance. That is a promise of salvation. But how are we supposed to put our faith in a God whose salvation seems so far away? How can we trust what Jesus says when one generation after another faces its own moment of terror?

That is where I fall silent. I cannot tell a people who are hurting as those in Ferguson now hurt how to have hope. I cannot explain to them or to anyone else in such a position of defeat that there is a clear and easy answer. Because there isn’t. Any preacher who claims to know how God will work all of this out is lying. No one knows.

But I still have hope—even in things I cannot see or understand. Do I hope that the “rule of law” will guide us through this time of chaos and produce a result that will satisfy everyone’s hurt? No, I don’t. Do I hope that the “good of human nature” will win out and that peace and calm and understanding will spread even to those who are so bitterly wounded by these events? No, I don’t. But that’s because my hope has never been in this world. My hope is in a God who takes the very worst moments in human history and guides his people through them, leading them always into that new and abundant life that waits for us.

Jesus’ image of salvation in Mark 13 is a tricky one. It presents an end-of-the-world theology in an immediate timeframe. For that, we must admit, we are still waiting. And the waiting is the point. We keep awake because we refuse to lose hope. We look for salvation even when it seems so far away. The desperate cry of God’s people—How long, O Lord—is not a sign of hopelessness but a return to the watch for hope itself. We cannot see it yet, but we wait and watch for it. How else will we survive?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Who Likes Surprises?

Do you like surprises? I love jumping out from around a corner and scaring the bejeezus out of someone. I enjoy hiding in a dark room with a bunch of people and yelling out “Surprise!” when someone enters in order to celebrate the birthday of that unsuspecting person. I like coming home from work and discovering that one of my children has drawn me a picture and wants to present it to me as a surprise.

I don’t like it when the phone rings at three o’clock in the morning. I hate arriving at a hotel and realizing that I left my phone charger or my toothbrush at home. I’d rather that a member of our Vestry not surprise us with an important issue that has been bothering him instead of putting it on the agenda a few days in advance.

I remember that the last time I met with my bishop before I went to seminary he issued me a stern warning, “Evan, keep me informed of what is going on in your life. Bishops don’t like surprises.” I suppose that the ministry of bishops is predisposed to hearing not-so-good surprises. No one calls a bishop and says, “Guess what! We have extra money to send the diocese this year!” No one asks to meet with the bishop because she loves her job and has no complaints. It’s like that scene in the beginning of Ghostbusters when Bill Murray is conducting an experiment by asking two test subjects to guess the shapes on the backs of cards. When you’re the nerd, it doesn’t take long to learn not to like surprises. The attractive woman who can’t seem to get one wrong, however, well, that’s a different story.

As Seth Olson pointed out in his sermon last Sunday, we have heard several parables about the kingdom over the last few months—the king and the wedding banquet, the virgins and their lamps, the slaves and the talents, and most recently the sheep and the goats. Have you noticed the element of surprise in all of those stories? All the uninvited guests who fill the banquet hall are surprised to be there, but the guest who failed to wear his wedding robe is speechless when confronted by the king and is cast out into the outer darkness. All ten virgins fall asleep, but the five foolish ones are stunned to learn that they missed the bridegroom while out looking for more oil. The third slave tried to preserve his master’s money and returns it humbly when the master returns, but, instead of being rewarded, he is punished for his inactivity. The “sheep” are surprised to learn they took care of the king in his moment of need, and the “goats” are likewise surprised to discover that they missed a similar opportunity.

The kingdom of God is like a surprise party… Are you think kind of person who likes kingdom surprises?

This week, we will hear Jesus say, “Beware, keep alert…keep awake…or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.” If that sounds scary, maybe it’s because we are preconditioned not to like surprises. But the reading from Isaiah presents a very different depiction of God surprising his people:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

That’s not fear and trembling—at least not the terrified variety. That’s reverence and awe. That is the poetry of a people who need God to surprise them by doing great deeds they had almost forgotten were possible.

What seems clear to me is this: God and his kingdom are coming, and they will come as a surprise. No one knows exactly when, but we are urged to stay alert lest we be unprepared. The place of the faithful, therefore, seems to be one of anticipation. Yes, the kingdom will still surprise us, but how we receive that surprise depends on us. Does the thought of God coming in power and great glory make us nervous? If so, what does that say about our faith in God’s promise to take care of his people?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Good News: The Sky Is Falling

I feel two equally strong yet directly opposed forces pulling on me this week.

First, there’s the joy that comes with knowing that Advent starts on Sunday. Advent means expectation. Advent means four weeks until Christmas. This is a season of wreaths and candles and greenery. It’s a time to celebrate St. Nicholas and the smiles on children’s faces. Yes, I know it’s a season of quiet longing and waiting, but, at the same time, we also know that in part we’re preparing for the celebration of something wonderful that comes at the end of these four weeks. How can that not be a good thing?

And then there is the lectionary from which I will be preaching on Sunday—a set of readings that suck all the joy and smile and fun out of Advent. As the preacher already knows and the parish will soon remember, Advent isn’t just about waiting for Christmas. It’s also about waiting for the end of the world. So, bring all of your joyful expectation to church on Sunday and let the preacher ruin it by proclaiming, “Keep watch—for you do not know when the master of the house will come…or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly!”

Oh boy. I can see it now: a church into which people with that post-Thanksgiving satisfied glow come but from which they trudge with heavy hearts after hearing a sermon about the apocalypse. Hooray for Advent.

So what’s the preacher going to do about it? I think it’s time for biblically literate Christianity to redeem eschatology from the scary preachers who use a poorly developed “turn-or-burn” theology to ruin the world’s understanding of what the end is really like. I think it’s time for high quality, evangelical preachers to celebrate the good news that the end promises to bring.

Jesus’ mini-apocalypse in Mark 13 is scary and dramatic and confusing. But that’s how it must be. Jesus was promising a total remake of the world. Everything wrong was to be set right. All of the powers were to be turned on their heads. Those who were struggling would be lifted up. God’s reign would supplant the tyranny of the earthly authorities. In the end, when all of that work gets speeded up into one exciting moment of transformation, those kinds of changes don’t happen incrementally. They happen all at once in an event that has the potential to scare us. Of course it’s about the sun being darkened and the moon turning to blood red. How else could a first-century prophet describe the kind of event that succeeds in ripping control away from everything ungodly and evil and restoring it to God and his authority?

And how is that not good news? Don’t we believe that the world needs God to turn it on its head? Don’t we wait for that day when God’s kingdom comes in its fullness? If that’s really our hope—if we wait on the return of our savior—we look forward to that moment when the stars fall from heaven and the Son of Man returns in the clouds. We’re waiting and hoping for those cosmic signs that point to the imminent destruction and recreation of this world. That’s good news. Don’t be scared of preaching it as such. Now I just have to figure out how to convey that in a sermon that doesn’t last 45 minutes. More on this tomorrow.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Life in God's Kingdom

There isn't much text to accompany this sermon. I preached at our parish's 5pm service and did not prepare a manuscript. Instead, I benefitted from several conversations this week about the lessons (thanks especially to Harper Lewis) and also from hearing my colleague Seth Olson preach twice this morning. Here's the bottom line:

What do you think life in God's kingdom is like? Do you think people go hungry in the kingdom? Do you think people lack clean drinking water in the kingdom? Do you think people have inadequate clothing in the kingdom? Do you think the sick are neglected or the poor are ignored in the kingdom? As a two-year-old shouted out in the middle of the sermon, "NO!" Of course not.

Then why aren't you doing more about it?

We are all welcomed into God's kingdom not because of what we have done but merely because of God's gracious love. But what is our response to that radical inclusion? Are we sticking our hands in our pockets, shuffling our feet, staring at the ground, waiting for God to take care of everyone else? Or are we willing to give every ounce of our effort, every dime in our pockets, every second of our day to helping establish the kingdom here on earth?

Look around. Can you see the kingdom? We know what it's supposed to look like. But what are we going to do about it?

Here's the audio for the 4+ minute sermon.

Here's the link to the gospel lesson for today.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Life of an Evangelist

I don't usually pay attention to the headings above sections in my bible. In fact, whenever I'm copying a passage for a handout or to post on a blog, I intentionally uncheck the box that would include the headings. The biblical authors didn't even have chapter or verse numbers--much less headings--so I tend to ignore them. But this Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 25:31-46) comes at an interesting point in the gospel, and it's worth noting the heading that follows.

In the online, free ESV bible (although not an officially accepted translation in the Episcopal Church thanks to some shenanigans at the last General Convention still a great resource for teachers and preachers and others who want online access to the bible) the heading that begins Matthew 26 is "The Plot to Kill Jesus." Regardless of the heading in your version, the end of Matthew 25 marks a change in the narrative. From here on out, the passion scenes unfold. Before we get to the end of chapter 26, we will have the Last Supper, the betrayal, arrest, and conviction of Jesus, and Peter's denial. That means that Matthew 25 is the last thing that Jesus has to say to his disciples before things start unraveling. And I'm fascinated that Matthew, of all the gospel writers, concludes Jesus' pre-passion ministry with these words.

What is the basis for judgment in this Sunday's gospel lesson? The sheep and the goats are separated based on how they took care of one another. In this depiction of the final judgment, Jesus declares that the ones who have ministered to those in need have done so to him and that the ones who have neglected those in need have likewise neglected him. In other words, the last teaching Jesus gives to his followers before our focus turns to the cross is on taking care of one another. It's not about repentance. It's not about belief. It's not about holding fast to his teachings. It's not about being faithful in the moment of persecution. It's about remembering to visit those who are sick and in prison, of feeding those who are hungry, and of tending to those in need.

One time a minister asked me to summarize the Christian faith in 30 seconds. Caught off-guard, I bounced around through a host of ideas that flooded into my head. Although I didn't use any intelligent-sounding words, my answer was a little bit incarnation, a little bit crucifixion, a little bit resurrection, plus some ethics and eschatology mixed in. In other words, I didn't know what to say. After letting me flounder for a little bit, he put it this way: if you came upon a car accident and the driver in one of the cars was about to die and he asked you what it means to be a Christian, what would you say? Good question. I'm still wrestling with it today.

I have a friend who has spent most of his life working as an evangelist. He has travelled around the world to tell people about Jesus Christ. God has used him to bring the good news to thousands and thousands of people. And then, one day, he was on his way back from an overseas mission, and he read Matthew 25. Everything changed. It's his story--not mine--so I cannot tell it with any authenticity, but, when listening to him tell of the encounter, I heard him say that God showed him that salvation was needed right here in his home town--that he didn't need to travel all the way across the globe to tell people about Jesus. Instead, his work as an evangelist could be as immediate as giving food to those who are hungry and a drink to those who thirst. What does it mean to bring salvation to God's people? Maybe we should take Jesus' depiction of the final judgment seriously.

What do you say to the driver in the car accident--that Jesus died for his sins and that by confessing and believing in him he can go to heaven? Perhaps. I could make a strong argument that that is the most important thing to say in that moment. But Matthew 25 invites me to approach that hypothetical encounter--and all the real-life encounters I have every day--very differently. Maybe the right thing to do is to say that God loves you and so do I, and, because of that, I want to do anything I can to make you comfortable in this moment--to hold your hand, to wipe away your tears, to caress your head, and shush you comfortably into death's sleep.

We are called to share the good news. But what does that look like in the world we live in? Where are we called to carry God's saving love? Is it far away to those who have never heard of Jesus? Or is it down the street where people are hungry and thirsty and naked and sick and in prison?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Pairing Wine with Relationships

I have heard two competing philosophies for how to cook with wine. Some say that the wine should be “good enough to drink” if you’re going to cook with it. Others say that using even a decent wine in a dish is a waste. Which is it? Should you splash the $3 bottle into the pot roast, or should you put at least $12 of wine in there?

In today’s OT reading in the Daily Office (Malachi 1:1,6-14), we encounter some priests who faced a similar dilemma. As part of the religious life of Israel, priests would offer sacrifice in the temple every day. In the Law of Moses, God requires that animals with no spot or blemish be presented for the sacrifice, but the priests had been offering “blind animals” and “those that are lame or sick.” Finally, God had had enough of it, and he used the prophet Malachi to cry against these underhanded practices. But why was that so wrong?

God doesn’t need the sacrifices. He makes that clear in Psalm 50:12-13, declaring, “If I were hungry, I would not tell you for the world and its fullness are mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?” In other words, God doesn’t actually consume the sacrifice. So why does it matter? Wouldn’t God want his people to enjoy the choice kid or calf instead of sacrificing it and burning it on the altar where no one would be able to enjoy it? Why wouldn’t God say, “Look, just show up and give me something. I’ll take whatever is left over. You can have the first portion. Just don’t forget to bring me something?”

Of course, that isn’t what God says. God demands our very best. And it’s not because God needs anything. It’s because we need to give it to him.

What happens when we get in the habit of giving to God only what is left over? What happens when we get to the end of our week and look for enough time to go to church? What happens when we wait until all the bills have been paid and try to find enough money for a tithe? What happens when we finish using our emotional energy on work and family and friends before asking whether we have enough reserves in our spiritual tank to direct some energy to our relationship with God? What happens? Our faith falls apart.

God asks for the very best because God knows that our faith suffers when we give him what is left over. Our offerings shape our relationship with God. As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” What do you give to God? No, we don’t travel to the temple with an animal sacrifice in hand, but we do encounter God every day. What are we giving him? Is it the 30-second prayer in the car on the way to work? Or are we giving him our very best?

So back to the wine. Pretend you’re making dinner, and the recipe calls for red wine. You have two options—the $3 bottle and the $12 bottle. Which one do you use? Does it depend on who is coming over for dinner? If it were your boss, which bottle would you use? If it were the President of the United States, which one would you use? If it were a celebrity or a mentor or a rich philanthropist, which one? What if God himself were coming over for dinner? Would you splurge just a little bit, or would you still give him the dregs?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Son of Man and the Throne of Glory

Let me start by saying that I am a reluctant observer of the liturgical feast known as "Christ the King." Every year, on the last Sunday of the liturgical cycle, we stop to celebrate the kingship of Christ. Originally scheduled for the Sunday before All Saints' Day, this practice was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in the wake of the Great War, which had ravaged Europe and had resulted largely from competing versions of nationalism.

Now that it has been moved to its present place on the calendar, on this coming Sunday lots of churches--Protestant and Catholic--will be asking the question "Who is our real king?" as the feast implicitly asks. "Christ is our true king," the church replies. I am admittedly slow to pick up on newfangled liturgical inventions, but this one is starting to grow on me. Here's why.

In my ministry as a parish priest, one of the biggest challenges I face is getting people (including myself) to realize that God's love is a whole lot bigger than we think it is. When salvation comes, it will be far more extensive than we can imagine. When God's victory is achieved, it will be much further reaching than we expected. As this Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 25:31-46) puts it, "When the Son of Man comes in his glory..." the result is a lot bigger than we thought it would be, and that has the potential to catch up with us in a big, scary way.

What does it mean for the Son of Man to come and sit on his throne? In much of scripture, the Son of Man is an image of judgment. It's is the figure used to express the eschatological fulfillment of creation. For the most part (there are exceptions in Ezekiel for example), biblical authors don't harken to the "Son of Man" unless they want to convey God bringing things to their completion. That means that the image of the coming of the Son of Man that Jesus uses in Matthew 25 reminds his hearers of what things are going to be like when God sets everything right. And what that means depends on whom you ask.

If you're part of God's faithful poor, salvation may mean new riches. If you're part of God's faithful oppressed, salvation likely has to do with being set free from oppression. If you identify with the outcast, salvation probably involves you being offered a seat at God's banquet table. Salvation, we trust, is the setting right of all that is wrong. That means the wicked are brought down from their lofty heights and the poor are raised up. For God's people, that's all-around good news...unless it isn't.

Jesus teases us with the image of the Son of Man. By using it, he gets our hopes up. All of God's faithful people look forward to the coming of the Son of Man because it means that finally everything that is wrong with life will be set right. But, just as soon as he gets our hopes up, he dashes them to pieces with a damning warning: "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." It's the surprise that gets us. We thought the coming of the Son of Man meant our redemption, but those of us who thought we were God's favorites might just discover that our hardheartedness has led to our exclusion from the kingdom. Those of us who were waiting on God's victory discover that by caring less about the misfortunes of others than about our own plight we have actually become the oppressors whom the Son of Man comes to bring down from their lofty seats. It's the old bait-and-switch, only we're the ones left holding the goat.

So where is our hope? Jesus came to show the world that God's preference is for the marginalized. Yes, that means that God cares for sinners like you and me, but let's not fool ourselves into thinking that salvation is just for us. God's love is always bigger than we think it is. God's plan is never just about us. When all things are made right--when the Son of Man comes to sit on his glorious throne--everything will be turned on its head. If we are too worried about our place at the bottom of the pile now and thus miss those we're already stepping on, we might miss our chance to be a part of that reversal of fortunes. May the work that we do be about turning the world on its head--not just then but also now.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Giving Some Water to Jesus

In a Monday-morning bible study, we have been reading the story of Abraham. (If you haven’t gone back to read it in a while, I highly recommend it. There’s a lot more to it than “look at the stars of heaven” and “take your son Isaac and sacrifice him.”) There are several moments in the Abraham story when heavenly visitors pay a call on earthly attendants and the hosts bend over backwards to welcome them. For example, when the three men come to Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre, he goes to great lengths to wait on them personally, serving them his very best. We’ve discussed the importance of hospitality in a nomadic culture—it could mean the difference between life and death—but I’m still amazed at how elaborate the expression of welcome was.

To quote Hebrews 13:2, there’s a sense, I think, of “entertaining angels unawares” that fills out this Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 25:31-46).  In it, Jesus describes the last judgment in terms of separating the sheep and goats along terms of whether they provided for those in need. Those who gave food, drink, clothing, welcome, and care to those in need were, in fact, doing it to their Lord without even realizing it. Likewise, to their surprise and horror, those who denied assistance to those in need were, in fact, denying the same to their Lord. “When did we see you in need and fail to help?” they ask as they are being sent to the place of torment. Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” On the surface, it’s pretty scary.

People come into our office all the time asking for assistance. Sometimes it’s as easy as a cup of coffee or a warm place to sit for a few minutes. More often, though, it’s utility bills and extended-stay motel costs. Every once in a while, Matthew 25 or Hebrews 13 comes to mind, and I feel this irresistible urge to ask them, “Excuse me, ma’am, but, by any chance, are you Jesus?” It’s silly, I know. But this shallow reading of Jesus’ sharp words sticks with me.

Jesus isn’t hiding behind the faces of those in need. When we get to the day of judgment, Jesus isn’t going to say, “Do you remember that 35-year-old Hispanic man who came by asking for some gas in his car on February 13, 2012? Well, that was me. You didn’t help him out, and now you’re going to hell.” Of course not. That’s not how it works—because this passage is a lot bigger than that.

Instead of hearing these words of Jesus as a warning, I’d like to hear them as an invitation. Would you like to give your Lord and Savior a cup of water on a hot August day? Would you take delight in sharing a meal with Jesus? If you heard that Jesus were being held in the County Jail, wouldn’t you drop everything to run and go see him? Well, guess what. That’s the invitation Jesus is offering. Any of us would celebrate the opportunity to minister to the needs of our Lord. And Jesus tells us that by ministering to the needs of each other we are doing exactly that.

Maybe tomorrow’s post will talk about judgment. Maybe at some point this week I’ll get around to the question of what happens if we fail to help those in need. For today, though, I’m more interested in the fact that there’s no difference between helping someone out in Jesus’ name and helping out Jesus himself. How might that shape my next encounter with someone in need?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

What Sort of God Do We Worship?

November 16, 2014 – The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28A
© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

There is a certain, unspoken exchange of trust and worry and confidence and fear that happens when a boss hands his young protégé the keys to his car and says, “Here, you drive.” Has that ever happened to you? Did you ever climb behind the wheel of your boss’ car while he buckled into the passenger seat and pretended not to notice every single thing you did? Back when I worked for Robert Wisnewski in Montgomery, it happened a lot, and it always seemed to happen at the worst possible moments.

One Tuesday, we drove over to Augusta, Georgia, to watch a practice round at the Masters. We hit the road right after the 7am service, stayed all day, and then headed home in the darkness. He drove over in the daylight, but, now that it was night and we were both exhausted, he handed me the keys and said, “Your turn.” I think he fell asleep before we even made it to the interstate. As fatigue set in, I couldn’t decide whether I should turn on the radio and risk waking him up or leave it off and risk joining him in a potentially fatal slumber.

Another time in May, we drove up to Sewanee for the seminary’s graduation. It was a wonderful celebration hardly dampened by the steady rain that started to fall as the ceremony ended. As we retreated toward his car, Robert tossed me the keys, not even saying a word. I don’t know how often you drive down the mountain from Sewanee in the rain and fog, but doing so in your boss’ car is not fun. I strangled the life out of the steering wheel as I leaned forward in my seat, straining to see what was in front of the car. All of the sudden, a huge tractor-trailer tire appeared directly in front of us. “Hold on,” I cried, as I tapped the brakes, checked the mirrors, and swerved into the adjacent lane. Robert took a sharp breath and uttered a doubtful groan, but the tires held onto the pavement, and we continued our journey back home—me sweating bullets and him just smiling at the whole situation.

What is it like when someone really important gives you something of great value and says, “Here you go: it’s your turn?” What happens when someone entrusts you with something of great worth and, in so doing, not only hands over the asset itself but also puts the whole relationship that the asset represents into your hands? Well, it kind of depends on what kind of boss you have. Is your boss the kind of person who, if you crashed his car into oblivion, would fire you on the spot? Or is he the kind of boss who would wrap his arms around you and say, “Are you ok?”  

Jesus said, “[The kingdom of heaven] is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.” To the first, he gave five talents; to the second, he gave two talents; and, to the last, he gave one talent—to each according to his ability. We know what happened next. Most of us, even before we heard the gospel lesson this morning, knew what happened next. The first slave doubled the money he was given, and, when his master returned to settle accounts, he produced the ten talents, and he was invited to enter into the joy of his master. The second did likewise, doubling the investment, and, after producing the four talents, he, too, was invited to enter into his master’s joy.

And then there was the third slave. He, of course, was afraid of what would happen if he lost what his master had given to him. He knew his master to be a harsh man, so he went and buried the talent in the ground. I like to imagine that fearful slave walking past that spot nonchalantly every single day, casually glancing over his shoulder to see if anyone was following him, checking to be sure that the dirt above the buried treasure had not been disturbed. And, finally, when the master returned, the third slave handed him the one, dirt-smeared talent, relieved that no one had dug it up when he wasn’t looking. He was delighted merely not to have lost his master’s money. But was his master satisfied? Not in the least.

Before we join Jesus in condemning the “wicked and lazy slave,” I think it’s worth stopping for a moment to consider just how much money had been entrusted to each of them. A talent was a measure of weight used for precious metals, and one talent equaled fifty-seven pounds of silver, which was enough money to pay a skilled laborer for nine years’ worth of work. If you paid a craftsman twenty dollars an hour for nine years, it would cost you around $375,000. So, when the master handed over these talents, he wasn’t just giving the slaves the keys to his car. He was giving them hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of treasure. If your boss handed you $400,000 and said, “I’ll be back in a few years; see what you can do with this,” how would it make you feel?

Again, I guess it all depends on what kind of boss you have—or at least on what kind of boss you think you have. Let me ask you this: who do you think is more likely to crash—the guy who is terrified that his boss will kill him if he crashes his car or the guy who knows that his boss will take care of him no matter what happens? And might it be possible that they have the same boss?

This parable about the kingdom isn’t a story about a tyrannical God who punishes those who fail to earn him a return on his investment. It’s a story about how you and I can be so overwhelmed by fear that we scare ourselves right out of God’s kingdom. God entrusts us with an incredible gift—more precious than we can even imagine. What will we do with that gift? What will we do with the life that we are given? Will we take that gift and risk what we have in order that it might multiply? Or will we bury ourselves in the ground because we are afraid of what might happen if we mess up?

It all depends on what kind of God we worship—on what sort of master we think is in charge of our lives. You know, looking around at the images of God and Christianity that pervade our culture, it would be easy to go through each day worried that God was out to get you. If you drive south on I-65, you can see a billboard with the image of a cardiac sinus rhythm going to a flat line and the words, “Someday you will meet God,” written on it. How is that supposed to make you feel? Like God loves you? If you listen to any of the preachers on the radio or watch any of them on television, what sort of God do they portray? It’s not the kind of God I want to meet when I die. Nor is it the kind of God whom Jesus came to earth to show the world all about. No wonder the world is running away from Christianity! Instead of showing the world God’s unconditional love, Christians have spent the last seventy years telling the world that it had better get its act together before the master returns.
But that isn’t the God I know, and it’s not the God of our faith. My God is the kind of God who says, “I will love you no matter what.” Our God is the kind of God who takes the very worst that humanity can give him—the cross upon which we killed his son—and turns it into new life by raising Jesus from the dead. That’s the kind of God who says, “No matter how badly you screw this up, I will always love you.” How can we be afraid of a God like that?
Jesus Christ came to set us free from everything that separates us from God—from our sin, from our mistakes, and especially our fear. That is the good news that we have to offer the world. That is the real gift that God has given us. But what will we do with that gift? Will we trust that God will love us no matter what? Or will we allow fear to take that treasure away from us? Fear is the only thing that threatens to isolate us from God’s kingdom. Fear is the only thing that can keep us from celebrating all that our gracious God wants to bestow upon us. Will we live in fear of failure because we doubt that God will still love us when we mess everything up? Or will we believe that God’s love is bigger than any mistake we could ever make? Amen.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Prodigal Son or Fearful Slave?

The kingdom of God is like a lot of things. It’s like a mustard seed. It’s like a woman who searches and finds a lost coin. It’s like a farmer who sowed seed on the ground. None of these tells the whole story. Parables give us glimpses of what the underlying identity is. We need to “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” all of them before we consider ourselves knowledgeable of God’s kingdom.

As I wake up this morning and read the Daily Office and the lessons for the upcoming Sunday, I encounter two very contrasting images of the kingdom.

First, in Luke 15:1-2, 11-32, Jesus likens the kingdom to a man who had two sons. One came and demanded his share of the inheritance and then squandered it in dissolute living. We know his story as that of the prodigal son. He came to his senses, returned to his father to apologize and beg to be treated even as a slave, but the father comes to embrace him and orders that his return be celebrated. That which was lost has been found. The other brother’s refusal to join in the celebration heightens for us the extent to which God welcomes back the estranged sinner. Who does such a thing? God does.

Then, in Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus describes the kingdom as like a man who went on a journey and entrusted his property to three slaves. To one he gave five talents, to one two talents, and to another one talent. When the master returned, he found that the first two have made profits of 100%, and they are rewarded. Out of fear, the third hid the talent in the ground and returned it to his master having earned nothing during the span while the master was away, and he is summarily judged by the master as unworthy to share in his company: “So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

So which is it? Is the kingdom like the first image, in which God welcomes back even the most disrespectful sinner? Or is the kingdom like the second image, in which God casts the faithless one out into the outer darkness?

Of course the answer is both. We know that. We might not know exactly how that works, but we know and trust that the kingdom is both of those things…and so much more. So what does that mean for this Sunday’s sermon?

Don’t let the parable of the talents come to represent everything we need to know about God’s kingdom. It isn’t the whole story. But likewise don’t hide behind the parable of the prodigal son and soften the important and true message of judgment that the parable of the talents presents. The kingdom is both. It must be both. As I prepare to preach this Sunday, I feel called not to talk about the “outer darkness” as the damnation that God reserves for “wicked and lazy” sinners like me. That seems to make the parable of the talents into a perfect image of the kingdom, which it was never designed to be. Instead, the questions isn’t one of “heaven or hell.” It’s one of relationship. What does it mean to be in relationship with God?

God is like the father to the prodigal son. When we come to our senses and return to God seeking mercy, we discover a God who is eager to wrap his loving arms around us. And God is like the master of the wicked and lazy slave. When we hide the gifts he has given us because we are afraid of him, we will never discover the God who is gracious and loving—instead we find ourselves in the outer darkness. The issue isn’t one of God’s posture or attitude. God is always gracious; God is always loving. The issue is whether we can see and know and feel his love to the very core of our soul. Fear is the single greatest impediment to our ability to know God’s love. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Be Fed and Feed Others

The following is a sermon preached on the Feast of Charles Simeon, 12 November 2014. The lessons appointed for this day can be found here.

Audio can be heard here.

“When they had finished breakfast…”

It had been long night, and morning was slow to arrive. Peter, unable to think of anything except the strange and tragic and perhaps wonderful events of the previous days, said to his companions, “I’m going fishing,” and they replied, “We will go with you.” They labored in the boat all night, but, as is so often the case when our minds are weighed down with distraction, their efforts were fruitless. They caught nothing, and, as the dawn was breaking they began to head back to shore.

As they approached, they saw a man on the beach. He looked out at them and said, “Children, do you have any fish?” After they told him of their unsuccessful night, he invited them to cast their net on the right side of the boat. When they did, they pulled up more fish than they could bring into the boat—153 of them. When the disciple whom Jesus loved put the pieces together, he declared to Peter, “It is the Lord,” and, upon hearing that wonderful news, Peter grabbed his clothes and jumped into the sea, swimming as fast as he could to embrace the man he loved.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus looked at Simon Peter and asked, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” The question caught him off guard, and it startled the other disciples, too. Other than Peter, in a tearful confession days earlier, no one had mentioned the scandalous denial. In the only response he could give, Peter looked at Jesus and said, “Yes, Lord: you know that I love you,” and Jesus replied, “Feed my lambs.” A second time, Jesus looked deeply into Peter’s eyes and asked, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Searching deep within, Peter uttered from his heart, “Yes, Lord: you know that I love you,” to which Jesus responded, “Tend my sheep.” Then, in brutal fashion, fully confronting Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus, the master asked, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Cut to the quick and hurt by the question and the accusation that came with it, Peter cried back, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” And, finally, Jesus responded, “Feed my sheep.”

When they had finished eating breakfast… This painful yet cleansing exchange took place after a meal—after Jesus had beckoned his disciples to sit down with him and eat the morning meal. And their breakfast followed an exhausting and frustrating night, an unsuccessful fishing trip reflective of their floundering relationship with Jesus. All of their heartache and grief and doubt and worry came with them into that boat, and, out of that place of emptiness, Jesus called them to eat. He fed them. And then he brought Peter’s now-unwavering love into focus, and finally commanded him to feed others.

We are broken. We are fed. We are called to feed others.

Today is the feast of Charles Simeon. Like all undergraduates at the University of Cambridge in the eighteenth century, Simeon was required to attend church on a regular basis and to take Communion at least once a year. That created a crisis of conscience for young Simeon. He was what we would now call an agnostic, and he felt a real personal dishonesty in having to eat the Lord’s Supper without manifesting any real faith in Jesus. So what did he do? As he wrote, “Conscience told me that, if I must go, I must repent and turn to God.” The experience transformed his life. He sought ordination and remained in Cambridge as a clergyman who spent his entire career nurturing undergraduates and inviting them to be fed by faith in Jesus.

We are broken. We are hungry. We are hurting. And we need to be fed before our lives can take shape. How are you being fed? What gives you sustenance? What fills you up to satisfaction? How might God nourish you from weakness into strength, from brokenness into wholeness, from disarray into calmness? In what ways has he already invited you to sit down with him and eat? And will you answer his call to feed his lambs, tend his sheep, and feed his sheep?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What If We Lose Money?

This Sunday’s gospel reading (Matt. 25:14-30) is the parable of the talents. In it, Jesus likens God’s kingdom to a man who entrusted to each of his three servants/slaves a large sum of money before going on a long journey. When he returned, the three servants were asked to make account of what they did with the treasure entrusted to them, and the judgment given is based on what they did with the money.

A few months ago, our Wednesday-night series on spiritual gifts used this parable as a way to begin the conversation about our giftedness and what we are called to do with the gifts God has given us. That work continues to shape my understanding of the parable. In particular, I am still wrestling with one aspect of the parable, and I sense that it will shape my sermon this week. Here’s a little hypothetical exegesis to get our collective theological juices flowing.

After going on his journey, the master returned and summoned his servants, asking them to give account of the money that had been entrusted to them. The first, who had been given five talents, came forward and said, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see I have made five more.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave…enter into the joy of your master.” Then, the second slave came forward and said, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see I have made one more talent. My returns were not as great as those of my fellow slave, but I give to you what I made.” His master said to him, “Not bad, good and trustworthy slave…enter into the not-quite-so-full joy of your master.” Finally, the third slave came forward, with head held down low. “Master, I know that you are a harsh man and that you demand excellence. You gave me one talent, and I invested in a local brick-making business that had a lot of promise. But fuel costs went up, and the returns were not as good as they were projected to have been, and I lost half of your money. Here is half of a talent—all I have left.”

What would the master say?

Of course, the point isn’t to retell Jesus’ parable and improve it. The point is to highlight some of the remarkable features of the original.

In Jesus’ image of the kingdom, there is no difference in the rates of return of the first and second slave. Both double the money they are given, which is to say that both are successful. Both have something to show for their work. The third slave lives in fear of his master, so he goes and buries the talent in the ground, knowing that it would be exactly as he left it. The dialogue between master and slave is critical. We gain insight into the slave’s mindset—fear of a harsh master who squeezed every ounce of profit from an enterprise—and see what’s really behind the master’s criticism—why didn’t you at least invest it with the bankers?

It is fun for me to think about what the master would have said to the third slave if he had invested it in an enterprise but lost money. Would he be happy? No, probably not. But would he castigate the slave for his worthlessness and laziness? I doubt it.

The parable of the talents isn’t supposed to invite fear of the kingdom. It’s supposed to invite us to overcome our fear and participate. The basis for the criticism of the third slave is his inactivity—not the comparable return. God isn’t asking us to achieve amazing returns with the lives he has given us. Yes, that could very well happen, but that isn’t the point. Instead, God’s kingdom is about God’s people stepping out of a place of fear and using what we have been given for the establishment of God’s reign here on earth. Different servants have different abilities. Some shine at the top of the heap, while others labor quietly in the back. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that we take what we’ve been given and use it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

We All Fall Down

It's been a while since I joined hands with some friends and danced around in a circle singing, "Ring around the rosie..." At the end of the song, of course, we all fall down, which is to say that we lean back and sit down on the grass, flopping our legs and arms up in the air, waving them as we giggle. In order to play the game right, you have to fall down. You can't be the only kid standing up when everyone else is flopping around on the grass.

In Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 25:1-13), Jesus tells the parable of the ten bridesmaids. Five were wise, and five were foolish. The wise ones brought extra oil in case of a delay, but the foolish ones came unprepared. After the bridegroom is delayed, the fools ask the others for some oil, but they refuse. While out looking for some oil (who sells oil at midnight?), the bridegroom arrives, and the foolish bridesmaids are left out of the messianic banquet.

But before the fools are separated from their wise counterparts, all of them fall asleep.

I'm sure a good biblical scholar would say I'm making too much of this little inconsistency--that the real point of Jesus' parable isn't to portray the universality of inattentiveness--but, as a preacher, I have the luxury of making a parable something it might not have been intended to be.

They all fall asleep--wise and foolish alike. Why? Why can't they stay awake? Why aren't they all punished for falling asleep? Why didn't the bridegroom show up while they were taking their nap and kick all of them out--oil-packers and oil-forgetters alike? What does the parable say to those of us with boy-scout-like preparation who still get distracted during the delay?

Whatever Jesus wanted us to think about the sleepiness of all the bridesmaids, this parable is about what Christians are supposed to do when God's salvation is delayed. Will we be prepared for the delay, or will we run out of spiritual oil? Sure, there's a sermon to be preached on that, but, no matter how prepared one is, everyone falls asleep. There is a fundamental truth that none of us can sustain ourselves in that place of waiting forever. Yes, we're supposed to be prepared, but sometimes we need a sleep or a distraction or a vacation.

Keep the oil in your backpack, but don't fall victim to the hyperimmediacy of the Lord's return. Yes, it could come at any moment, but there may be a lot of moments between now and then.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Election Embarrassment

Readers of this blog will know that I stay away from politics. That’s because I usually think that discussing affairs of state takes away from the message of the gospel. It’s hard for me to read a politically charged piece from another theological blogger and not lose myself in the politics of the post. Pretty soon, I’m mad at someone for something and have totally forgotten what the point is. Jesus was certainly a political figure, and I bet he would have a lot to say about local, regional, national, and international politics if he were around today. But, as bumper stickers will proclaim, Jesus wasn’t a Republican or a Democrat, yet even suggesting that self-evident point is to invite criticism and a long rabbit chase.

But there’s something on my mind that I need to say.

Tuesday is Election Day. In Alabama, most of our statewide offices are elected during the national election cycle that is dubbed “midterm elections.” That means that tomorrow we will go to the polls to elect a Governor, Lt. Governor, Secretary of State, State Auditor, State Treasurer, one of our two U. S. Senators, an equivocation of representatives (yes, that’s one of the acceptable collective nouns for politicians—one of the nicer ones) at the state and national levels, a sentence of judges (yes, that’s one of the acceptable collective nouns for judges), and one particular office that I can’t seem to get away from: our state’s Attorney General.

I can’t imagine that anyone within the borders of our state has missed this particular election. I am not a shrewd observer of campaign ads, but I can’t help but notice that the only negative ads I have seen have been those of both the Republican and Democrat running for Attorney General. (I’m sure there are others out there, but I haven’t seen or heard any of them.) They are fierce. They are mean-spirited. And there is nothing at all charitable about the whole mess. Why does that matter? Because both men are faithful Episcopalians in our diocese, and I am totally and utterly baffled by the ugly campaigns that they are running.

I know both Luther Strange and Joe Hubbard. I don’t know them well, and I’m not sure either would claim to know me (except if it got them my vote). But the Episcopal Church in Alabama is not a huge institution. It’s hard to be an active Episcopalian in our diocese and not know either or both men. When Joe Hubbard announced that he was running against incumbent Luther Strange, I thought to myself, “Hmm, that’s an interesting move—an Episcopalian running against an Episcopalian. I wonder how that will turn out.”

I had no idea.

St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians,

When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers! (1 Cor. 6:1-8)

Paul was talking about lawsuits, but I think the text applies here—and not just because both candidates are members of the same denomination. As so many candidates in bitterly contested races are, they are both members of the body of Christ. Is this really what politics have come to?

I am embarrassed. I am embarrassed that the nastiest campaign in recent memory is being perpetrated by two men in our church. I am embarrassed to be a part of an electorate that is influenced by such campaigns. I am embarrassed that, at the end of the day, one of these two men will win. But will he really?

What will I do about it? Maybe nothing. I’m certainly not willing to run for office. And I don’t have any intention of writing letters to every candidate urging decorum. Maybe this post counts for something. I really don’t know. But I do know that as I head to the polls tomorrow I do so with a heavy heart because this did not have to end this way. These two men share enough background as Episcopalians in Alabama to work out their differences like Christians should. Yes, politics is adversarial, and, yes, it’s all about money, and, yes, usually the system works. But the only team that will win in this race is the one that seeks to rip God’s people asunder. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

All Saints' Sermon

November 2, 2014 – All Saints’ Sunday, Year A

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

The first Spanish word I ever learned was “santo.” It means “holy,” and fittingly I learned it in church. In the Methodist church where I grew up, we sang them hymn “Holy, holy, holy” fairly often, and there, on the adjacent page of the hymnal, was the Spanish translation: “Santo, santo, santo.” At the time, it did not occur to me that “santo” sounds a lot like “saint,” but, years later, when I went to seminary and started studying Greek, I made the connection.

Just like in Spanish, the Greek word for “saint” is essentially the same word for “holy.” That’s all a saint is, really—a holy person. When the apostle Paul wrote his letters to various churches, he almost always began by calling the recipients “saints” or “holy ones.” But he wasn’t limiting the audience of his letters to Christians of legendary status. He was writing to “ordinary” Christians like you and me. We are the “saints” he had in mind. But how many of us think of ourselves in that way? At some point in between Paul addressing his letters and the institutional church defining the qualifications for sainthood, we forgot what it means to be a saint. And today, on All Saints’ Sunday, when we celebrate the lives of all the saints, I want us to stop for a moment and remember that “there’s not any reason, no not the least, why [we] shouldn’t be [saints] too.”

But what does it take to be a saint? What does it mean to be holy in the way Paul used that word to describe those first Christians?

Jesus, it seems, had his own idea of what a holy and blessed life looked like. “Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…” The Beatitudes are among the most well-known counter-intuitive statements that Jesus ever made. In these provocative words, Jesus lets us know that those who forego blessings in this life—the powerless, the suffering, the persecuted—are the ones whom God will bless in the next life—theirs is the kingdom; they will be comforted; they will inherit the earth. The challenges of this life, it seems, are what lead to the blessings of the next. But I’m not so sure it works like that.

The saints we think of are often people who were poor or persecuted or marginalized. We celebrate their austerity, and emulate their faithfulness. But I don’t think you have to suffer in order to be a saint. Like being a poet or an artist or musician, it probably helps. But I don’t think God wants you to be poor and miserable. (I don’t think he wants you to be rich and happy, either, but that’s another sermon.) I think God wants us to value his kingdom above all else. I think he wants us to remember that this life always pales in comparison with the life that awaits us. And I think he wants us to keep our sight focused on what lies ahead rather than getting lost in whatever is going on around us.

That’s what it means to be a saint—to embrace one’s heavenly identity while still living in this world. Have you ever met someone who seemed out of place in this life—someone whose whole demeanor suggested that he or she had one foot here on earth but another one already in heaven? I have known a few people like that in my life, and I bet you have known one or two as well. They are rare sorts—those who navigate this life while always remembering where their true home is.

One of those saints from my past was Francis Wilson, an old, retired minister who occasionally filled in at my family’s church in Fairhope. He was a sweet, sage of a man. I was too young to appreciate fully the depth of his holiness, but I remember how our youth minister described him as the epitome of prayerfulness. “When I think of what it means to pray,” she said, “I think of Francis Wilson, and I hope that someday I am able to pray like he does.” I remember how, more than once, my mother said that, if she died while he was still alive, she wanted him to officiate at her funeral. He was the sort of man who communicated faith and peace without saying a word. Even sitting silently in the same room with him for a few minutes could give you a taste of God’s kingdom. Saints don’t have to do something courageous or extravagant. Sometimes saints are wise old men like Francis, whose gentleness points us toward God.

Who are the saints from your life? They are all around us. They’re the sweet old lady who has buried two children and a husband and still talks about how blessed she is. They’re the kid down the street who sticks up for the boy everybody picks on even though he knows they’ll start teasing him, too. They’re the man in the hospital bed who says that he’ll be just fine and means it even though he knows he won’t live more than a few more days. You know them. They’re the people who endure whatever life brings them and somehow do it with grace and faith and humility because they know that God’s promises are bigger than any problems they might face. And their refusal to let life get in the way of their one-way track into God’s kingdom is a reminder to us of what our own faith is supposed to look like.

You know what? That’s supposed to be us as well. God calls us his saints—his holy ones. That’s who we are whether we realize it or not. That’s what it means to be Christians—to be saints, the holy people of God—because in Christ we are given a new identity. In him, sinners like you and me are made citizens of God’s kingdom. In him, we are made holy. Yes, we still live in this world, but our true home lies in the life that awaits us. How might we show that to the rest of the world? How might we know so deeply what it means to belong in God’s kingdom that our lives here on earth invite others to consider the same? You are a saint. You don’t have to go anywhere or do anything to become one. You already are one. So, no matter what comes your way, live your life as if you were already living in God’s kingdom, and let your witness invite other people to do the same.