Thursday, January 29, 2015

When Does Evil Show Up?


As an ordained minister, I often find myself in that thin place between superstition and faith.

If I go to church every Sunday, will God bless me and my family? If we had prayed more fervently, might she have recovered? If I preached better sermons, would more people show up?

Sometimes it’s other people making the questionable connections between their faith and what’s happening in their lives. Other times, I’m the one wondering whether something is coincidence or evidence of spiritual forces at work.

In Sunday’s gospel lesson (Mark 1:21-28), good and evil confront each other in a way that, to a twenty-first-century ear, might sound a little suspicious. Jesus and his disciples come to Capernaum, where on the Sabbath Jesus enters the synagogue to teach. More than just a good teacher, Jesus delivers a message that leaves the congregation “astounded.” His authoritative proclamation distinguishes him from other teachers of his day. There is a buzz amidst the people about this new, powerful preacher. And that’s exactly when evil shows up.

Immediately after describing the effect that Jesus’ teaching had on the congregation, Mark writes, “Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit…” It’s hard not to notice that Mark connects the preaching of Jesus with the appearance of a demon-possessed man by using the Greek word εὐθὺς, which means “immediately.” Admittedly, Mark is over-fond of using that word. It appears eleven times in the first chapter alone! Still, I don’t think this transition is an accident. For Mark, the godly message of Jesus and the arrival of an evil, unclean spirit go together sequentially, intentionally, and even causally. We might, at first, balk at such a seemingly superstitious explanation for what might just be coincidence, but I think there is reason to ask whether evil still tends to show up when God is at work.

I think it’s interesting that throughout the gospel the evil spirits that Jesus encounters seem to recognize who he is in a way that even his disciples struggle to see. In this passage, the unclean spirit says, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth…I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” That kind of recognition is repeated in other examples of exorcism. Why? Sure, there’s power in a name, and this could simply be an ancient form of exorcism according to which knowing the name of one’s spiritual adversary is important, but I also think it’s an indication that these encounters are a direct confrontation between good and evil. The evil within the man seeks out Jesus and identifies him in exalted terms. It’s as if the good that Jesus represents (God at work in the world) provokes the encounter with the evil that the spirit represents (forces that seek to undermine God’s work in the world).

Not long ago, I encountered a little hiccup in the life of our parish. Things seemed to be going very well. Giving was up. Attendance was up. Enthusiasm was up. And then a series of little bumps made me wonder what I had missed. Without warning, a tiny handful of people who had been faithful, eager, vocal supporters of the direction in which our church was headed began to complain about how things were going. And they did so not in a constructive, “let’s-reevaluate-things” kind of way. Their grumbling was subversive, spoken through back-channels, as if an attempt to fracture our congregation. Quickly, it passed—so quickly that hardly anyone in the congregation even noticed something was wrong. I think it disappeared so quickly because our parish is a fairly healthy system that instinctively knows that conflict and discord belong in the open. The disaffected individuals were encouraged to bring their concerns to the leaders of the parish, who listened and responded, and, in short order, everything returned to normal. But, right in the midst of the conflict, someone asked me whether I thought it was a spiritual issue.

“Do you think this is the devil at work?” he asked. The question caught me a little off-guard. I hadn’t really considered whether the issue was in any way spiritual. I had assumed that someone got his or her feelings hurt and was responding out of woundedness. Sometimes people do hurtful things simply because they are feeling hurt. But evil? I certainly wouldn’t describe the people who were upset as evil. But the man who asked me whether the issue was a spiritual one is a person of deep faith, and I trust his insights. “Just when God is really doing something powerful,” he explained, “the devil shows up and tries to ruin it.” I might not use that exact language to describe it, but I tend to agree: when good takes a stand, evil isn’t far behind.
 
Some of us shy away from using the label “devil” to describe the presence of evil in the world. Such a personification seems antiquated or at least out of touch with a modern perspective. “Who is the devil, really?” we might ask. Such primitive labels feel superstitious. But it’s not a coincidence that God at work in our lives reveals to us the presence and power of ungodliness all around. Perhaps that’s purely psychological. Maybe Jesus’ authoritative preaching simply enabled the congregation to see that the man with the unclean spirit was in their midst. Maybe the Spirit-inspired energy and momentum a congregation experiences highlights the pitfalls and impediments that stand in the way. Or maybe it’s more than that. Maybe we’re just afraid that the world will criticize us for using unsophisticated language to describe a real phenomenon that individuals and congregations and entire societies experience all the time. Whatever we call it and wherever it comes from, those who stand up for good should be prepared for what happens next.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Seek and Ye Shall Find


This sermon is for the feast of Thomas Aquinas. The lessons for today can be read here.

There are some things we have already begun to find once we begin to look for them.

Not long ago, I met with someone who was overcome with anger. Someone close to her had hurt her very badly, and her instinctive emotional response was a deep and abiding fury that, given the circumstances, made a lot of sense. But she loved this person and did not want to be angry anymore. “Please,” she pleaded with me, “please pray that this anger will go away. I don’t want to hate anymore. I can’t live like this.” I smiled and told her that it sounded to me like I didn’t need to pray for anything. Simply wanting not to be angry is enough to help us begin to let go of our anger.

Again, not that long ago, someone came into my office and presented a tough situation. Should he give up the familiarity of a job and a life that were comfortable for him and his family, or should he accept a new job offer that came with new opportunities but required a big change for their family? He asked me to pray that he would have the wisdom to make the right decision: “I want to be sure to do what God wants me to do. I’m worried that I will make a bad choice. Please, pray that God will help me know the right thing to do.” Again, I smiled and said that it sounded like I didn’t need to pray for anything. Simply asking for wisdom and discernment is the first step in making a wise, God-led decision.

What more can we do than pray? What more can we do than ask? When faced with a situation we cannot control, when we seek something beyond ourselves, how can we get where we want to go except for to ask God to take us there?

I don’t believe in magic prayers. I don’t believe that God hears the words that come out of our mouth or out of our heart and then makes the happen just because we asked. God is not a wish-giver. That isn’t how prayer works. But I do believe in the power of prayer. It’s just that the power of prayer comes not in the granting but in the asking.

“Therefore I prayed,” the poet-author of Wisdom wrote, “and understanding was given me; I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.” The account of his quest shows us how precious in his sight wisdom really was: “I preferred her to scepters and thrones, and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her.” The granting of wisdom, as you might recall from the story of the Lord’s appearance to Solomon in a dream (1 Kings 3), is given to the one who asks for it: God said, “Because you have asked [for an understanding mind], and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, behold, I now do according to your word.”

That doesn’t mean that anyone who utters the prayer, “Dear God, please make me wise,” is suddenly granted the wisdom of Solomon. But it does mean that the person who seeks wisdom above all else is already asking the questions, saying the prayers, and seeking the answers that make one wise. If one’s heart yearns so fully to hear what God is saying that his human desires fade and his entire life is then consumed by the quest for God, he can be sure he has already found what he seeks.

If you’re consumed by anger, you can only find peace by asking for it, and, if you really ask for it, you will have already begun to find it. If you are desperate for wisdom beyond yourself and your heart desires that more than anything else, you have already learned what it means to be wise. God wants to be found. In Christ, he has shown us that he loves us. He has made his love apparent to the world. He isn’t holding back his mercy, his wisdom, his peace, until we seek them. He has already showered them upon us. Our call is to seek them with all our heart.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Taking Evil Seriously

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in evil. I believe that evil is a positive force (i.e., not just the absence of good), and I believe that evil can take control of individuals and communities and systems. Sometimes, that evil manifests itself in the political process (e.g., disenfranchisement). Often it shows up in economics (e.g., pay day lending practices). Frequently, it plagues human relationships (e.g., abuse). And I even believe that, in rare circumstances, it can possess a person in a real, total, physical-and-spiritual way that we call "demonic possession."

Let me be clear that I do not believe that mental illness or neurological disorder is akin to demonic possession. I'm sure that many of the exorcisms in ancient times were misprescribed solutions for things like epilepsy and schizophrenia. No, I don't think that people who do bad things are necessarily demon possessed. There's a difference between the effects of sin and the effects of demonic spirits taking over an individual's life. No, I've never encountered someone in my ministry who has suffered from demonic possession or demonic attachment (a less significant, incomplete manifestation of evil in a person or place), but I believe it happens, and I think we should take it seriously.

Take it seriously? Yes, that's right. We should take evil seriously--not because we ever expect to meet someone who is possessed by a demon but because we encounter other, not-as-complete-as-possession-but-as-real-as-it-gets effects of evil every day. If evil is powerful enough to take over someone or a group of someones completely, imagine how easily it can begin to shape us and the world around us.

In Sunday's RCL gospel lesson (Mark 1:21-28), we read that Jesus, when confronted by "a man with an unclean spirit," rebuked the spirit and ordered it to come out of the man. We aren't told what happened to the man. He never even says a word. But we are clear that the response of the congregation was amazement: "A new teaching--with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." Jesus, it seems, is able to exercise authority and power and control over even the powers of evil. And that, I think, is the importance of this passage.

In human history, Jesus stands alone as one who has authority over heaven and earth. That's what makes this gospel lesson significant. The people are discerning just how new Jesus' authority is. He isn't just a teacher or preacher who "talks the talk." He has the power to back up his words and do something about it. In other words, Jesus isn't just advocating for the good and preaching against that which is evil. He is actually standing up against the forces that work to undermine God's reign and defeating them.

What about us? What about those who act in Jesus' name? Can we do the same? Should we try?

No, I don't advocate stocking up on holy water and crucifixes. No, I'm not calling for Christians to prepare to fight in the zombie apocalypse. Yes, there is a time and place for exorcism, but I don't expect to find it. I do, however, expect to take a stand against evil. And there's a difference between simply preaching a message against the evils of the world and actually standing up against evil.

To call upon Jesus' name and stand against evil means confrontation. It means a power-struggle. It means using the power of God to wrest power away from those whom evil has corrupted. It might start with preaching, but it's more than preaching. It means performing actions that reflect those words.

What does it mean to stand up against evil in the 21st century? Some might call that a fight for social justice, and maybe that's an example of it, but I don't want to limit the battle against evil to "sticking up for the little guy." To fight evil in Jesus' name means not merely looking the oppressor in the eye and calling for justice but to stare Satan in the face and repudiate his claim in this world. Who's up for that?

Monday, January 26, 2015

Knowing God's Will


This Sunday’s lessons in the RCL seem to be about the rubber meeting the road. In the first lesson (Deuteronomy 18:15-20), we hear Moses convey God’s command that the true prophets shall be listened to, but “any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.” No wonder no one wants to be a prophet! Then, in the second lesson (1 Corinthians 8:1-13), we read Paul acknowledging that if his dietary habits caused anyone to stumble, “I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.” I can’t even imagine giving up BBQ or bacon or hamburgers or, well, any sort of meat because of another’s conscience. Finally, in the gospel lesson, the congregation at the synagogue initially behold Jesus’ teaching as astonishing because of his authority and conviction, but their admiration becomes amazement when they discover that he has the ability to cast out demons: “What is this? A new teaching-- with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

All of this week’s lessons have me wondering…what’s the difference between doing God’s will and pretending to do God’s will?

The inherent challenge of figuring out God’s will is that it takes human beings to figure it out, but, because it’s God’s will and not our will, it can’t be left up to us to figure it out. We interpret things like scripture and revelation and history and philosophy to discern what God is trying to tell us, but sometimes we get it wrong. And when we do, prophets get stoned, and people see our behavior and stumble, and preachers proclaim a bold message that has no effect on people’s lives.

When it comes to prophets, church leaders, and preachers, what does it mean to be an effective servant of God? And who gets to decide? What’s the evidence that a leader is doing what God wants them to do? I’ve never met someone who has the power to cast out demons, but I’ve heard some preachers who have the ability to deliver God’s message in a life-impacting, heart-changing way. I’m not worried about whether prophets can see into the future, but I do care whether they can call God’s people to examine the reality of their sinful situation and return to God’s way. And, as I wrote last week, I think Paul’s communal approach to ethics in 1 Cor. 8 is a fruitful pursuit that the church should maintain as we try to decide together what God’s will is.

As I prepare to preach a short homily at our Vestry Retreat this Sunday, I’ll be thinking about what it means to do God’s will, to teach God’s will, to help lead a congregation where God is calling us to go. And I’ll be looking for evidence of that—communal confirmation that we’re not just following our own interests but, indeed, God’s will for us.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Measure of Discipleship



January 25, 2015 – 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here.
 
Only once in my life have I been doggedly pursued by a member of the opposite sex, and I was terrified. I was in middle school and hadn’t grown up enough to appreciate what it meant that a girl was actually interested in me. Sure, I liked girls—the thought of them, at least—but the reality of it was a little more than I could handle.

Anyway, one day as school ended, a girl I knew ran up to me and handed me a folded-up piece of paper and, without saying a word, turned and ran off. Confused but intrigued, I unfolded the note, and my eyes beheld the words that struck fear in my heart:

Dear Evan, my heart is split between you and another. I cannot choose which one I want, and so I give you both that choice. Since I am unable to decide which one of you I should ask to the homecoming dance, I have decided to go with whichever one of you calls and asks me first. The two of you must duel it out. Here is my number. Don’t wait too long. I hope to hear from you soon.

Well, I knew right away which other guy she was talking about. There was only one other kid anyone who was interested in me could possibly be interested in—the other smart, nerdy, stocky guy I hung out with. He and I were close friends and did everything together, which is probably why none of the other girls was interested in either us. (We’re both happily married, by the way, to smart, attractive women, so I guess everything works out in the end.) Naturally, I did what any panicky, self-esteem-lacking boy would do: I folded the note back up and thrust it into my pocket and tried to pretend that it didn’t exist.

Later that evening, at home, I reached into my pocket and felt the note, still where I had put it. I pinched my thigh several times, hoping I would wake up from this terrible dream, but it was no use. It was really happening. So I waited. And I waited. And I waited some more. We had dinner. It felt like a prisoner’s last meal. Afterward, I sat in front of the television, looking at the screen but thinking only about the note. Finally, at eight o’clock, which seemed like the latest possible hour one could make a polite phone call and not disturb someone in the middle of the night, I went upstairs and sat down next to the phone and dialed the number, slowly pressing each button to be sure to give the other suitor every last opportunity to call ahead of me.

After one ring, she picked up the phone. “Hello?” she said eagerly from the other end. “Hey, it’s Evan,” I said. “Has Tim called yet?” Of course, he hadn’t. That little rascal never did call. (He is smarter than I am. It didn’t occurred to me that I could simply ignore her note altogether.) After some apologetic small talk, I let her know that I couldn’t go to the dance with her because I didn’t believe in going to dances with just one person. “We’re in middle school,” I rationalized, trying to sound well-reasoned. “This is a time in our lives when we should dance with lots of people.” I lied. But it was the best I could do. She said the she understood, but she made me promise to save at least one dance for her. And I did.

There are some invitations that we would do anything to decline. Dates with guys or girls we do not like. (I heard a story over the weekend of a woman who faked her own death to get out of a date.) Dinner parties with people who can’t talk about anything except how smart and successful their children are. Requests from friends to help them move from one side of town to another. But nothing sends people scattering faster than a preacher who is looking for someone to take on a new ministry. People see my name or the church’s name on the Caller ID, and they let it go straight to voicemail. There’s something about being called into ministry that scares people to death.

Why is that? Why do we act like unnerved middle school boys when someone asks us to be in charge of something at church? Is it because all of us have something better to do, or is it because we’re afraid that we don’t have what it takes to do God’s work?

I wonder which you find more surprising: that Simon and Andrew and James and John would answer Jesus’ call so quickly or that they were the kind of people Jesus would want in the first place. They were fishermen, which means that they were laborers who worked hard and smelled bad. They were, at best, functionally literate, and their social skills were what you would expect from some guys who spent all day in a boat with other men. But Jesus saw them and said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” whatever that means, and, strangely enough, they did. Immediately, they dropped their nets and followed him. What’s more bizarre—that these men left their career and family to follow Jesus or that Jesus wanted some fishermen to be his disciples?

Think about it this way: if you were starting a brand new church, what sort of people would you want to be a part of your team? Yes, you’d need a preacher, but Jesus was in charge of that, so let’s assume that part is taken care of. Who else? Probably someone who is good at communications—someone who could use social media to get the word out about your church. You’d probably need some administrative types—people good with money and numbers and details. And every new upstart church needs some attractive, hip, young people to recruit other attractive, hip, young people and their families. And churches need money, so it’s a good idea to bring on board some people with deep pockets and generous hearts. That sounds like a good place to start.

But what about fishermen? Where do they fit in? Or farmers? Or tax collectors? What about out-of-work programmers? Or washed-up stock brokers? Or retirees on fixed incomes? What about stay-at-home moms? Or disabled veterans? Or homeless people? What about addicts? Or ex-convicts? Or imperfect, unholy sinners like you and me? Would Jesus have a place for us in his “church?” If he saw us sitting in our boat, would he call out to us, saying, “Come and follow me?” Absolutely.

As Bishop Michael Curry from North Carolina recently stated, “Jesus didn’t come to start a church; he came to start a movement.” In other words, Jesus wasn’t putting together a carefully crafted team of sleek, silver-tongued evangelists. He was calling people who were willing to leave their life behind in order to follow him. And he still is. Jesus doesn’t care who you are or what you have to offer. He isn’t interested in your résumé or your qualifications. The only thing Jesus cares about is whether you will say yes when he calls.

Our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ isn’t measured in terms of the qualifications we bring but by our readiness and willingness to respond to his call. There is no such thing as “not good enough.” There is no such thing as “not smart enough.” There is no such thing as “not holy enough.” The story of Jesus’ disciples isn’t a story of greatness. It’s a story of great commitment. They were the ones who said yes. What will you say? When Jesus looks at you and calls out for you to follow him, what will you say? Will you make up an excuse because you’re worried that you aren’t up to the challenge? Or will you drop everything and follow him? Stop believing that Jesus wouldn’t want someone like you. You’re exactly the person he wants. All you have to do is say yes.

 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Evangelism All Over Again

Two weeks in a row of Jesus calling disciples means two weeks in a row for preachers to talk about evangelism--everyone's favorite word. As Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 1:14-20) makes clear, the invitation is, indeed, to believe the "good news," which is what the word evangelism means. Maybe this second-chance for preachers is an opportunity to preach about how evangelism is still good news for the church.

Today, however, I'm drawn to the reading from Jonah, in which we read about the success of the reluctant prophet's work: "The people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth." But, before we get there, we need to remember what the story of Jonah is all about.

We all remember the "belly of the fish," in which Jonah lived for three days before being vomited up on the beach. But do we remember how he got there?

We probably even remember that Jonah was running away from God and God's call and that God caught up with him in a violent sea storm that caused the other passengers on the ship to thrown him overboard. But do we remember why Jonah was running away?

The people of Nineveh were the sworn enemies of God's people. They were members of the Assyrian Empire, which was located north of Israel. For years, warriors from Nineveh would come south and raid the northern cities of Israel, pillaging the towns, burning the crops, killing the men, and abducting the women and children. Essentially, they were terrorists. To God's people, they were the epitome of evil. When the prophets dreamed of a day when God's people would be saved, those dreams were articulated in terms of the total and terrible destruction of Nineveh. So imagine then what it felt like for Jonah to hear God call him to go north into the heart of enemy territory to ask the most evil people in the world to repent. Not fun, huh?

But you know what's worse than being sent into enemy territory to proclaim the need for repentance? Succeeding in that mission. In chapter 4, we read that Jonah ran away from God not because he was afraid of what the Assyrians would do to him but because he was worried that the object of his evangelism would repent and convince God to change his mind about the calamity he had promised to bring upon them. And that's exactly what happened.

This is evangelism at its hardest. This is God giving good news to the people we hate the most. This is grace and forgiveness and love for the most unlovable scum of the earth. Isn't that great?

This Sunday, preach evangelism--good news for bad people. And that doesn't just mean bad people like you and me--those of us who shake our fist at bad drivers or take the larger slice of cake for ourselves. That means good news for the kind of terrorists who have hurt us the most. Can that be possible? Can God really extend the offer of forgiveness to our sworn enemies? Absolutely. That's the real good news. And it's our job to share it with them.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Our Message to the World: Come and See

There is no text for this sermon--just some brief points below. Audio of the sermon from the 5pm service can be heard here.

Have you ever met someone who was burned by the church? Ever known someone whose church failed him or her in a moment of deep need? Ever heard a story about someone who was told, "You should have prayed harder?" Ever heard someone say to you, "These kinds of things don't happen to people whose faith is strong enough?"

Lots and lots and lots of people have been burned by the church. They are absolutely justified in thinking that the church has nothing to offer them. No one should dispute their pain or its source. When someone from the church tries to reach out to them and invite them back, their response makes sense: "Can anything good come out of the church?"

But this Sunday's gospel lesson has some hope for them.

When Philip said to Nathaniel, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth!" Nathaniel's response was, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" And what was Philip's invitation? Come and see.

Evangelism is about connection. It isn't about telling someone the whole story. It isn't about relating the gospel to the unchurched in a way that makes them fall down on their knees and give their heart to Jesus. Evangelism is about helping people make positive, loving connections with God and with the Christian community. Our words to those who have been hurt by the church shouldn't be argumentative or combative or excuse-ridden. When they tell us that they don't expect to find anything worth hearing or believing in the church, we should simply say, "Come and see."

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Sin is Individual and Communal


While I don’t advocate making Sunday’s sermon about any particular ethical shift in popular culture or in the church, I think 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 gives the preacher the opportunity to invite the congregation to deepen their faith by considering the nature of law, grace, commandment, and sin.
 
If there is a letter in the New Testament that seems fitting for the twenty-first century, I believe it’s 1 Corinthians. Earlier and less refined and more personal that Romans, 1 Corinthians includes Paul’s struggle to articulate what it means to be free from the law yet bound by grace. He deals with a divided community—some who believe that God demands dietary purity and others who think the freedom of the cross has made keeping kosher irrelevant. Some within that community are able to eat meat sacrificed to an idol without being distracted from the truth, but others are struggling to do so without feeling their hearts pulled back to their old, pagan ways. Some in Corinth are ready for the Christian community to embrace the no-holds-barred grace of “anything goes,” and others are just trying to make it one day at a time without going back to the temple prostitutes. Really, it’s a pastor’s nightmare.
 
In 1 Corinthians, I think Paul makes two very important and very bold conclusions about the Christian life. First, he articulates an understanding of sin that is fundamentally relative to the experience and context of the individual believer. Second, he holds up unity within the Christian community as more important than any individual’s experience or context. Held together, those two principles guide the Christian church all the way into the twenty-first century and beyond.
 
In the opening words from Sunday’s reading, Paul writes, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are beneficial.” Hear how he holds the freedom of grace in tension with the call to holy living. To borrow imagery he refines later in his letter to the Romans, yes, we have been set free from the law, but we are now slaves to righteousness. “Is it sinful?” we might ask. Well, that depends. Paul makes it clear that “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you,” which suggests that we have a responsibility to live a holy life. But what holiness means for you and for me might be different.
 
Paul expands upon this principle in chapter 8, applying it to meat sacrificed to idols. Is it inherently sinful? No, that’s ridiculous. What is an idol but an empty piece of wood? But, if eating such meat causes you to stumble, avoid it. More importantly, Paul writes that we must consider not only ourselves but also those with whom we share the community: “However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled” (1 Cor. 8:7). In other words, even though something might not be sinful for you doesn’t mean it can be done with impunity because your actions may lead another to sin. That’s a bold, communal understanding of ethics, and I think we need to remember it as we face big changes in the church.
 
And that brings me (hesitantly) back to Sunday’s reading: “Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, ‘The two shall be one flesh.’ But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” Sex with temple prostitutes is a problem for Paul and the Corinthian community. It was a habit from the pagan life that some new Christians found hard to break. But Paul says break it. Sex, it seems, has the power to unite two people in a way that casual sex ignores or, perhaps, mocks. As Cameron Diaz said to Tom Cruz in Vanilla Sky, “Don't you know that when you sleep with someone your body makes a promise whether you do or not?” Sexual relations, it seems, are fundamentally about union and not about physical satisfaction. I think we can all agree on that.
 
So how do we approach sexual ethics in the twenty-first century? No one in the church advocates giving a nod or a wink to casual sex or sex with prostitutes. Let’s not confuse the issue. That’s not at issue in the conversation about blessing same-sex unions. But Paul’s ethical approach—the relativity of sin combined with the importance of the community—is important to remember. What is a sin for you may not be a sin for me, but I need to remember you before I act.
 
For example, in the evenings, I enjoy responsibly a beer or a glass of wine or a mixed drink (one drink, not three). I can have a drink—one drink—and then move on with my life. I don’t struggle with an addiction to alcohol. But maybe you do. So, surely, you shouldn’t have that drink. And, if that’s a difficult struggle for you because you’re new in your recovery, I won’t sit in front of you and have a glass of wine when we’re eating a meal together. Your recovery is too important to me because community matters.
 
What is good for the individual and for the community? Something isn’t sinful simply because it’s written down somewhere that it’s sinful—even if that somewhere is in the bible. Perhaps that’s shocking to you, but, if it is, I suggest you read all of 1 Corinthians. That’s the exact issue Paul is dealing with. The nature of sin is absolute but the expression of sin is relative. Yet it’s up to the community together to figure that out. No one individual or group of individuals can decide that the relativity of sin trumps the needs of the community. Community is always more important. But the community must recognize that a sin isn’t necessarily a sin just because it was a sin in the past. Maybe it still is—this post isn’t about saying that it isn’t—but we need to take sin seriously just like Paul does. Sin is about effect not cause—individual effect and communal effect. We need to accept the importance of experience and context when asking what is sinful, but we also must recognize that such an inquiry is a communal one and must be shared by all of us.
 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Make Time for Prayer


To hear audio of this sermon, click here.

I can’t tell whether I should be encouraged or disheartened that Jesus himself struggled to get some quiet time all alone. Take a look at the gospel lesson for today, Mark 1:29-45. As soon as Jesus was finished teaching in the synagogue, he went to Peter’s house, where at once he healed his mother-in-law. Soon afterwards, the crowds starting bringing their sick and demon-possessed relatives to him so that he could heal them, too. Then, very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he snuck off to a lonely place so that he could pray, but his disciples tracked him down and said, “Come on, boss! Everyone is looking for you!” So he got up and went with them from one town to another. Along the way, a leper came to him, begging for healing, and, as soon as he was cured, he went around telling everyone the good news. Jesus became so popular that he couldn’t even stay in the towns. He had to go camp out in the countryside, but they found him there anyway.

Should I take heart that Jesus, too, knew what it was like to have a busy schedule that interferes with needed time for prayer, silence, and reflection? Or should I panic that, if the incarnate Son of God couldn’t figure it out, it’s utterly hopeless for me?

All the way through the gospel story, Jesus fought to get time away. He snuck out when no one was looking. He sent the disciples away ahead of him so that he could hang back by himself. He went up on mountains and out into deserts and away into lonely places so that he could escape the pressure of the crowd that craved his attention, his prophetic words, and his healing touch. And why? Because even the Son of God could not be effective in ministry without taking care of his own, personal spiritual life.

How do you take care of your spirit? How do you tend your relationship with God? How do you nourish the part of you that seeks to be in an undistracted, uninterrupted, unhurried communion with God? Do you catch a few minutes here or there? Do you say your prayers in the car when you’re on your way to work? Do you lie in bed, fighting to stay awake long enough to thank God for a good day? Do you wake up on Sunday morning and think, “I’m exhausted. My family is exhausted. We’ve been running non-stop. We need a day off. We can’t go to church today?”

Almost everyone I know is busy. Yesterday, I spent time with the clergy from the diocese, and I heard a retired priest talk about needing a sabbatical. At first, I laughed and thought to myself, “A sabbatical from what?” But I woke up this morning realizing that everyone is busy—too busy. Whether it’s the demands of a job or a family or a house or a garden or a civic organization or a church—all of us feel the demands of busyness. None of us has enough time to take care of ourselves. But is that true?

The encouragement I get from Jesus isn’t based on the fact that he struggled to get enough time to tend to his spiritual life but that he, despite all of the pressures of a busy life, made enough time to tend to his spiritual life. The question isn’t one of time. It is one of priority. And Jesus shows us that, even when individuals’ lives and health and wholeness hang in the balance, time apart for prayer was still a priority. Those moments were important enough to run away from the urgency of those in need. Those moments were critical enough to leave the office a few hours early. Those moments were just as needed as his healing touch.

Follow Jesus’ example. That doesn’t mean you have to run out into the desert to pray. But let him give you permission to let go of some of the things that seem too busy to drop. Trust that scheduling time alone with God is more important than even the most critical demand in your day.

Joyful Noise


This post first appeared as the cover article of yesterday's View newsletter. To read the rest of the newsletter and know what's happening at St. John's, Decatur, click here.

Because our altar is fixed against the wall, the congregation cannot see my facial expressions when I am presiding at the Eucharist. Perhaps the quietest part of the service, the Great Thanksgiving is usually a time for one person to speak on behalf of the congregation, which kneels or stands quietly…except when they don’t. Every once in a while, the near-silence is broken by a jubilant screech or a frustrated yelp or a panicked wail or an excited shriek. Even though you cannot see my face, perhaps you can hear in my voice that, in that moment of spontaneous distraction, I am smiling. Even when the most solemn moments of our liturgy are interrupted by a noisy child, I cannot help but smile.

That has not always been my response. Years ago, before I had any children of my own, I would assure parents of noisy children that no one in the congregation felt more uncomfortable at their children’s outbursts than they did. I lied. A screaming child made me squirm worse than a former governor out on parole when the preacher delivered a damning sermon about sleazy politicians. Partly, I squirmed because I found no pleasure in the noises of children. Mainly, though, I was consumed by the irrational worry that people in the congregation wanted me—the preacher—to silence those annoying urchins even though there was nothing I could do about it. Each little squeak threatened to undo everything we had gathered in church to celebrate.

And then my daughter was born.

Like all infants, she screamed when she was hungry. She screamed when she needed to burp. She screamed in the middle of the night and in the middle of the day and any time she felt like it—sometimes right in the middle of church. Pretty soon, when I was standing at the altar with my back to the congregation, I could tell which squeaks and coos belonged to my child and which ones belonged to others, and a shift began to take place in my heart. I didn’t learn to like my daughter’s screaming or to favor her noises above others. In fact, if anything, hers bothered me more than theirs. But I learned to listen for the noises that children make and to hear them not as an interruption but as the joyful noise of a growing congregation.

As Jesus’ ministry and popularity grew, the crowds followed him everywhere, swarming to hear him preach or to receive his healing touch. He struggled to get quiet moments by himself when he could pray, and at times his disciples did their best to shield him from the needy multitudes. One day, a group of children were brought to Jesus so that he might lay his hands on them, but the disciples intervened, rebuking the people and shooing the children and their parents away. Indignant, Jesus scolded the disciples, saying, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:14).

Maybe we should take Jesus seriously—not just by making a little time for children’s ministry but by learning to look for God’s kingdom through the eyes and experiences of children. For the most part, we approach ministry for children by escorting them out of the room. We shoo them away when it is time for the sermon, and we whisk them out when they interrupt the prayers. We hold a finger over our lips and shush them into silence, stressing that only adult voices belong in worship. No, it would not be beneficial to anyone to let all of the children run loose during church, but maybe we can learn to hear their presence among us as a joyful sign of God’s kingdom.

Occasionally I hear stories about parishioners turning around backwards to shoot a disapproving glare at a mother who is struggling to contain her boisterous children in the back of church. Sometimes people will ask me, “Why doesn’t she take her children out of church when they make noise like that?” Usually I shrug my shoulders and say, “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask her?” Maybe next time I’ll ask them what Jesus had to say about that.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Bearing Bad News


I don’t like giving people bad news. I don’t know anyone who does. But, sometimes, it’s your job.



In Sunday’s OT reading (1 Samuel 3:1-20), Samuel hears a call from the Lord. Three times, he mistakes the call as a summons from Eli, his master, but, after the third time, Eli discerns that the Lord is calling the boy, so, on the fourth try, when the Lord calls Samuel, he responds, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

But I don’t think Samuel wanted to hear what God had to say: “I am about to punish Eli’s house forever.” Eli’s sons were wicked. The scriptures describe them as “worthless men” (1 Sam. 2:12). They would pervert the sacrificial offerings of the people, taking them for themselves. They would use their position to force the women who served at the entrance to the temple to have sex with them. Eli confronted them about it, but they would not listen to him. So God planned to punish them and kill them, and God chose to reveal that to Samuel. Great news, huh?

The next morning, Eli was eager to hear what the Lord had spoken to his young protégé, but Samuel didn’t want to reveal it. Remember, Samuel’s mother, Hannah, had given her son over to Eli and the authority of the temple from the time Samuel had been weaned. Samuel was a gift to Hannah from the Lord, and, as she had promised, she had given him back to God. Eli had taken Samuel under his wing. He had taught him not only the faith of their people but had trained him how to serve in the temple. He was more than a mentor. Eli was a father-figure for young Samuel. And, now, God had shown Samuel that his master and his family were doomed. And, now, Samuel had to tell his master what was going to happen.

What does it mean to speak truth to power? What does it mean to break the heart of one you love because you have a truth to tell? What does it mean to ostracize yourself from your community because you have a prophetic message to share?

Notice how Samuel’s integrity is described as this reading comes to an end: “As Samuel grew up, the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.” The result is that he was trustworthy in all of Israel. Everyone knew and believed that Samuel would tell them the truth because he was willing to accept personally the consequences of his words. This wasn’t easy for him, but he had to say it.

How do we bring hard news to one we love? Whether it’s a life-crippling addiction or a life-threatening illness or a life-destroying career or a life-robbing relationship—how do we break the heart of one we love? Never with self-righteous condemnation nor with even an ounce of joy but only and always with fear and pain and sorrow. The prophet’s call isn’t easy, and it isn’t supposed to be.

Sermon: Make Your Baptism Matter

January 11, 2015 – 1st Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

In between my first two years of seminary, I spent half of the summer living and working in a parish in the industrial north of England. It was St. Martin of Tours in Middlesbrough, and I probably learned more about being a parish priest there than I did in any classroom. The vicar of that parish was Fr. David, and he and his family welcomed me into their home—the vicarage that sat adjacent to the church building. At first, I thought, “How convenient—to live only a fifteen-second walk from the church!” but, within two weeks, I discovered first-hand the challenges that come with sharing a parking lot with the place where you work.

The doorbell rang all the time. Occasionally, it was someone who actually went to church—a parishioner who came by for a pastoral counseling appointment or a church leader who needed to meet with Fr. David about an upcoming event. Usually, though, it was someone with absolutely no ties to the congregation…except that he or she lived within the geographic boundaries of the parish. Because the Church of England is an established church, it means that anyone who resides in the parish is entitled to a baptism, a wedding, or a funeral. It doesn’t matter whether you have ever been to church or ever intend to go to church. If you’re in the parish, you’re considered a parishioner. More often than not, when that doorbell rang, it was someone who was asking, “May I have my baby christened?”

The part that gets under your skin—even after just two weeks—is the tragic confluence of evangelistic opportunity and superstitious motivation. You see, even though every minister I know gets excited at the thought of bringing a new person into the church through the sacrament of baptism, practically none of those people who rang the doorbell was interested in raising her child as a part of the church. They just didn’t want their baby to go to hell. They had learned from their parents and grandparents that “christening” is the thing that makes a child a Christian and that only the waters of baptism could ensure that their little bundle of joy would escape the fires of hell. So, every time the doorbell rang, like Pavlov’s dogs, I learned to sigh an exasperated sigh of disappointment at what could have been but was not to be.

Now, I have the privilege and pleasure of being the rector of a church where everyone takes his or her baptism seriously and where all the parents who call me up asking for a baptism do so not thinking about the white, antique baptismal gown or the opportunity to stand in front of the congregation and show off their baby or the belief that simply splashing water on a baby’s head is enough to constitute a relationship with God. No, all of us, when we think about baptism, we think about initiating a lifelong relationship with God, which will require intentional daily maintenance and will find its principle expression in the shared life of the church. That’s what we think about baptism…right?

Think about your baptism and ask yourself why it matters—or, maybe better than that, ask yourself when your baptism matters. When is or was or will your baptism be important? Is it a moment from the past when something special happened? Is it an eternal life insurance policy—a golden sacramental ticket that someday will get you into heaven? Or is your baptism something that affects and directs your daily life?

I think that’s what Paul was thinking about in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. On his third missionary journey, Paul came to Ephesus—an ancient cosmopolitan coastal city, where the gospel had reached but apostles like Paul had not yet visited. There, Paul found some “disciples,” a word which means that they were believers or followers of Jesus. They knew the gospel, and they had committed themselves to following the way, but, clearly, something was missing. “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” Paul asked them. Puzzled, the disciples replied that they had never even heard of the Holy Spirit. “Then, into what were you baptized?” Paul asked incredulously. And they replied that they had received only John’s baptism—the baptism of repentance.

Therein was the problem. “John baptized with the baptism of repentance,” Paul declared, “telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” In other words, John’s baptism was about preparation. It was a way to get ready for the one who was to come. But the Christian life is about more than just getting ready. It’s about more than repentance. Being a Christian means giving one’s life over to God, being filled with the Holy Spirit, and living each day on fire for Jesus. How’s that for language we don’t often use to describe our faith? Well, if you’re uncomfortable with it, take a look at what happened to those dozen disciples: they were baptized in Jesus’ name; Paul laid his hands on him; the Holy Spirit came upon them; and, then, they spoke in tongues and prophesied. In other words, they became the kinds Christians who don’t just sit still in the pews and nod their heads in agreement with the preacher.

So back to the question about baptism: when is or was or will your baptism make a difference in your life? Is it locked away as a moment from the past? Have you tucked into your back pocket as if it were a ticket to heaven? Or does your baptismal identity define your daily life?

In just a moment, we will stand and renew our baptismal vows. I must to confess to you that I have not always liked the Baptismal Covenant. This series of questions and answers seems to shift too much of the emphasis of what happens at baptism onto us, when, in fact, the beauty of baptism is that it is an expression of God’s love that has nothing at all to do with what we say or think or do. But I am learning to take my own baptism seriously—not only as a powerful experience of God’s unconditional love but also as a life-long gift of that love to which I must respond daily as a Spirit-filled, Spirit-led disciple of Jesus Christ.

In a moment, you will be asked in a series of questions about whether you take your baptismal identity seriously, and I want you to think about it carefully. Will you accept that what it means to be a Christian is more than just a one-time splashing of water on your head? Will you believe that your identity as a Christian should have an effect on your daily life? Will you recognize that your baptism has as much to do with today as it does with your past and where you spend your future? Imagine what the church—our church—would be like if it were filled with people who spent every day on fire for the love that God has for them. That is what it means to be a Christian. That is who we are supposed to be.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Why Baptism Matters, Part 4


All week long, I’ve been writing about baptism and why it matters to the present-day church. Yesterday, I discussed infant baptism. The real focus of that piece was grace—that infant baptism demonstrates that God’s redeeming, saving love is not based on anything we do or say or believe but on God’s love—pure and simple. But, in that post, I also discussed my view on sacraments, and that drew some good, sharp, and on-target criticism. Do I really believe that baptism isn’t unique? Do I really believe that baptism is largely symbolic if not merely symbolic? What, then, is my understanding of the role of baptism in the life of the church? Why do we still do it? Why not throw it out? All of those are important questions, and they get to the heart of my tendency to over-psychologize sacramental theology.

Today’s topic is an antidote to that—or at least I think it is. Today, I want to discuss the necessity of baptism—why it’s essential to the contemporary church, why there is no substitute for it, and, ultimately, why Communion should be restricted only to those who have been baptized. (How’s that for surprisingly orthodox?)

To make this point, I’m back to the reading for Sunday fromthe Acts of the Apostles (19:1-7) and the transformative story of Christian baptism. Paul, upon arriving in Ephesus, meets some “disciples,” which is to say “followers of” or “believers in Jesus.” When he asks them if they had received the Holy Spirit when they became believers, they respond that they had never heard of the Holy Spirit. Shocked, Paul asks what sort of baptism they received, and they replied that they had only received John’s baptism. Immediately, Paul baptizes them in the name of Jesus and lays hands on them, and the Holy Spirit comes upon them in clearly visible and audible ways.

It’s a story with (at least) two important implications. First, it lets us know that something happens at Christian baptism. These “disciples” were already believers in Jesus. They had already heard and known and put their faith in his story of death and resurrection. They are identified to us as followers of Jesus’ way. Call them “believers” or “converts” or “Christians,” they are in…except that they aren’t. Something tremendous and revolutionary and life-changing happens to them when they receive the baptism of Jesus. The manifestation of their faith—the way they show what it means to be a Christian—goes from essentially nothing to essentially everything. Their whole selves are taken over by the power of the God in whom they believe. That wasn’t present before. Baptism and laying on of hands—two things that, in this story, combine for a Trinitarian expression that is analogous to our modern-day baptism—make all the difference.

Second, it confirms for us that believing alone isn’t a complete expression of what it means to be a Christian. Since something was missing—since something integral to the Christian faith only came upon the disciples after they received Christian baptism—we can conclude that merely giving one’s intellectual assent to the way of Jesus isn’t sufficient. (It might be sufficient for salvation, but it isn’t complete Christianity.)

Baptism is that thing that we can’t do on our own (see yesterday’s post on infant baptism). It is an experience of God’s love for us that has nothing to do with who we are or what we do or what we believe. It is God’s unmerited, indiscriminate, unmitigated love for us. It’s that thing the dozen disciples in Ephesus get not from being disciples (i.e. from believing or following) but from encountering the power of God’s love. And it is, therefore, the thing that transforms them from disjointed, mind-only disciples to unified, heart-and-mind-and-soul, Spirt-filled Christians.

And that means that Baptism is the difference between calling one’s self a believer and living the life of the Christian. Is there any factor more appropriate for discriminating between those who are invited to the transformative messianic banquet we call Communion?

I don’t want to start a whole new post about the nature of the Eucharist (this one is already too long), but I do want to claim that Communion is about transformation. It’s about repentance and forgiveness and rebirth. It’s not about evangelism or hospitality. At the 2012 General Convention, I argued against waiving the baptismal requirement for Communion because Communion is not about welcoming people into the church. I don’t care how many people will speak of being unbelievers who felt the call to follow Jesus when they unwittingly (and contra-canonically) received Communion. That only speaks to a failure on the part of the church to bring the good news to those who hadn’t heard it yet—in other words bad evangelism combined with a poor baptismal theology. The Lord’s Table is for those who seek new life—not for those who seek a tasty snack or a socially convenient expression of belongingness. Communion is the place where Christians live out the transformation that begins at baptism.

But here’s where yesterday’s post about baptism comes full circle: I don’t ask for a baptismal ID card when people come to the altar rail and put out their hands. In fact, I don’t even use the discriminatory phrase, “All baptized Christians are invited to receive Communion.” Don’t call the Title IV police yet. Keep reading. If I know that someone has not been baptized, I will offer them a blessing instead of offering them the consecrated bread. (Actually, I will have already called them privately and invited them to consider baptism because THAT’S MY JOB AS A PRIEST.) In our bulletin, we print that Communion is open to baptized Christians and that people interested in receiving baptism should contact the rector, who would be happy and eager to offer that sacrament.

But I don’t use the word “baptized” in my verbal invitation to Communion. Instead, I say, “Communion is open to Christians of all denominations. It doesn’t matter where you go to church or even if you don’t have a church home. If you are a follower of Jesus, you are invited to his table.” Why? Because I am not convinced that genuine, life-changed, Spirit-filled, transformed-and-seeking-transformation believers are only those who have been baptized. No, I don’t believe that there is way other than baptism for the church to express that. Let me say that more clearly: I still believe that, institutionally speaking, there is no such thing as an unbaptized Christian. But I live in a community where adult baptism is the predominant mode. And I know that there are intentional, Spirit-filled followers of Jesus whose families left the churches that don’t baptize infants before they were old enough to be baptized, and I accept that for some the stigma of having not been baptized as a child or youth is a hard one to overcome. (Yes, I need to work harder on undoing that stigma, and that is part of the focus of Sunday’s sermon—read it here later.)

So, let’s bring all of this together. I believe that Christianity necessitates baptism. I believe that baptism conveys power. I believe that baptism is initiation into a life of discipleship that focuses on transformation. And I believe that Communion is primarily an encounter of continued transformation. And, because of that, I believe that unbaptized individuals should not be allowed to receive Communion but should, instead, be eagerly and enthusiastically ushered to the font. But I also believe that it is possible for that transformative initiation to happen in a way other than baptism—even if I don’t know what it is and wouldn’t dream of attempting to name a substitute for baptism—because I trust that baptism is, at its core, God’s work and not ours.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Why Baptism Matters, Part 3


I’ve been writing about baptism this week. This Sunday is the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, which always falls on the first Sunday after the Epiphany. All of the readings and the collect seem focused on baptism, and, as I prepare to preach on Sunday, I’m enjoying an exploration of why baptism matters in the contemporary world. Monday, I wrote about distinguishing between the baptisms of John and Jesus. Yesterday, I wrote about baptism as a way of being claimed into the divine life of the Trinity. Today, I’m taking the end of yesterday’s post and expanding it to discuss infant baptism.

A short while ago, my friend and colleague Steve Pankey wrote an Advent blog piece about Mary. He started by identifying himself as one who “tend[s] to skew to the low-church side of Anglicanism.” Although the post was a great take on reclaiming the importance of Mary in our Protestant, low-church tradition, there was a line in his low-church résumé introduction that has stuck with me for these last few weeks: “I love the sacraments of the Church, but I don’t believe that baptism is, in and of itself salvific…” That claim has been rolling around in my head ever since. I like it, and, although it’s not really fair to take a part of someone’s work that wasn’t actually the focus of that work at all and make it something worth picking at, I want to use that as a starting point for my take on infant baptism.

For starters, let me say that in the lineup of churchpersonship (is that really a word?) I’m standing right next to Steve (he just cringed a little bit). I, also, don’t believe that sprinkling water on someone’s head in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit in and of itself has a salvific effect. I don’t believe that the taint of original sin has stained the souls of little babies and that the only thing that can wash it off is the holy water of baptism. (I should note that I do believe in original sin and that a tiny infant is just as sinful as a grown-up axe murderer, but I don’t think that the act of baptizing someone is what “fixes” that inherited condition. Now, it may take me a while to get to that point, so please be patient.)

So what is baptism? Personally, I believe that God’s love is what saves us. “For God so loved the world…” is a pretty good place to start. God loves us enough to send his Son to earth. God loves us enough to die on the cross. God loves us enough to redeem us from the wages of our sin through the power of resurrection. And baptism is a way of expressing all of that. Let me say that another way: baptism is a way of demonstrating God’s unrestricted, unmerited, unreserved, undeserved, unbreakable, unstoppable love for us. It isn’t a way to make that love happen. And it isn’t a way to distinguish between those whom God loves and doesn’t love. Baptism is merely a way to show us and the world just how much God loves us.

We are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. As such, when we emerge from the waters of baptism (symbolically for those of us who were sprinkled or splashed, which is to say most of us), we hear God say to us the same thing that he said to Jesus at the Jordan River: “You are my beloved son/daughter. With you I am well pleased.” As we say in the proper preface for Baptism, which I’m a little surprised isn’t the appropriate preface for this Sunday, “…in Jesus Christ our Lord you have received us as your sons and daughters…” Baptism isn’t magic. Baptism is a sacrament, which means it is a way in which human beings encounter and experience a divine grace. It doesn’t manufacture the grace, but it does convey it. It might convey the grace, but it isn’t the sole source of it. In our baptism, we experience God’s love for us as his beloved children, but God doesn’t wait to recognize that fact until after we are baptized. That’s silly. We don’t believe in adoptionism for Jesus. Why would we believe in it for ourselves?

So why infant baptism? Because God’s love isn’t dependent on us. Baptism is the purest expression of God’s grace-filled love for humanity. We don’t prove ourselves to God before we are baptized. God proves his love for us in our baptism. If we believe in grace, then we believe that salvation doesn’t depend on us. And, if salvation doesn’t depend on us, we must believe that God’s saving grace isn’t contingent upon anything we do or say or think or even believe. Think about that for a second. God loves you whether you know it or not. God loves you whether you believe in him or not. If God’s love is the only thing that can save us, then why have we convinced ourselves that salvation is some transaction between God and those who say the right words or believe the right thing? Yes, belief and confession are integral to our ability to know and respond to God’s love (see Monday’s post), but God loves us first. Everything else is just responding to it.

That’s the beauty of infant baptism. In a little child’s baptism, we are declaring to a baby, to the baby’s parents, to the church, and to the whole world that God loves this child even before this child is old enough to know who God is or what love is or why Jesus Christ is the representation of God’s love for the world. To withhold baptism from infants and to claim that only those who are old enough to make a mature profession of faith is to make salvation a work. They rob the grace right out of the gospel. Or, at the very least, they fail to live fully into the grace of the gospel.

Be radically grace-filled. Let God’s love be the beginning and end of salvation. Think about baptism not as a magic trick that gets a kid into heaven but as a testament to God’s love. Does God love us whether we are baptized or not? Of course he does. Does God love us whether we believe in him or not? Absolutely. When you next find yourself at an infant baptism, take a look at what is really happening—not merely a Christ-mandated tradition or a ontological soul-washing but a visible, tangible, real expression of a love over which we have absolutely no control. God’s love is poured out on all of us just as it is poured out on that infant’s forehead—indiscriminately and richly.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Why Baptism Matters, Part 2

Yesterday I began the series on why baptism matters by using Sunday's New Testament reading (Acts 19:1-7) to explore the difference between the baptism of John and baptism into Jesus Christ, which comes with the gifts of the Spirit. I argued that most Christians I know (often myself, too) think of baptism as a moment in the past rather than an initiation into a Spirit-led life. You can read that post here.

Today, I want to come at baptism from a different angle--a Trinitarian approach. In the rambling introduction to my post yesterday (pretty often I start these things not knowing where they will end up), I touched on the different accounts of Jesus' baptism and noted that Mark, unlike the other gospellers, doesn't go to great lengths to mitigate the confusing nature of the sinless Christ seeking a baptism of repentance (see Sunday's reading of Mark 1:4-11). Bottom line: why would Jesus need to be baptized? We don't believe in adoptionism (a heresy that says Jesus became God's son at a specific moment in time), so the baptism isn't about a fundamental change in Jesus' relationship with God the Father. We know that Jesus was born without the stain of original sin (to use some antiquated language that conveys a relevant theology by using anachronistic terminology), so he didn't need it washed away. So why did Jesus come to the Jordan River to be baptized by John?

I think there are two reasons--one psychological and one theological. First, one can argue that Jesus came to the river to model for us the importance of baptism. Although he didn't necessarily need it, we needed him to show us how it's done. Jesus is the pattern of obedience. His baptism is the initiation of his ministry, and, by undergoing baptism, he shows us that we need to follow his example. That leads to the second point, which is that Jesus' baptism also shows us that it is through baptism that our participation in the divine life of the Trinity becomes possible. (Hang with me for a moment, patient reader. I'll get past the seminary gobbledygook shortly.)

In this moment of Jesus' baptism, we encounter explicitly the three persons of the Holy Trinity--Father, Son, Spirit--for the first time. This is the moment when God's Trinitarian nature is first revealed to his people. The Son is baptized, and the Spirit descends, while the Father's voice speaks. What was implicit in the creation narrative (see Sunday's reading of Genesis 1:1-5), becomes explicit in this encounter. The Trinity means that God is relational. For God to be love, God cannot only be unitary. Yes, God is one, but God is also three (in one). That means that we can know God's love as real and not just analogy. Jesus' baptism shows us that God is Trinity, and, as such, it also invites us to discover our own place in the divine life as we follow Jesus' example.

Baptism matters because it is the way in which we discover that God invites us into relationship with him. By following Jesus' example, we, too, receive the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and we, too, hear the Father say to us, "You are my beloved child." Baptism is the principle means by which we discover that God loves us not because of who we are but because of who God is. That is why we name that we are baptized into Christ's death and resurrection. It is his accomplishment that makes it possible for God to say to us, "You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased."

Tomorrow, I'll take this a step further and argue why infant baptism matters. Then, on Thursday, I'll look at why baptism is and should remain the prerequisite for the reception of Communion. Fun, huh? Bring on General Convention 2015!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Why Baptism Matters, Part 1


Every year, on the first Sunday after January 6, we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. It’s a curious thing, really. Why did Jesus need to be baptized? Why would the sinless one undergo the baptism of repentance at the hands of John the Baptizer? Matthew and Luke (and even John in his own way) invite the reader to see this confusing detail by interposing a conversation between the cousins, during which John initially objects to the thought of baptizing Jesus, but Mark just gives it the way it was. Jesus came to the Jordan. That was the place where people were discovering anew what it meant to be servants of God. Jesus, himself, was to begin his ministry in that place and in that movement before inaugurating a new way of following the Lord.

This Sunday, as we gather at the banks of the Jordan River to watch Jesus be immersed below the stream, we will hear what we already know: the voice of God confirming that Jesus is God’s beloved Son. With the first few verses of Genesis still ringing in our ears, we will encounter the revelation of all three persons of the Trinity in the great Theophany as the Son comes up from the water, sees the Spirit descending, and hears the Father’s voice. We will walk away with our hearts filled with the joy of seeing Jesus “proclaimed” and “anointed” as we pray in the Collect.

Everything about these lessons seems to plunge us again into baptism. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to the lesson from Acts (19:1-7). Of all the readings, it seems most to be about us—about why this yearly remembrance has anything to do with twenty-first-century Christians.

When he came to Ephesus, Paul encountered some disciples. At this point the church was spreading quickly—more quickly than the hierarchy could move. Paul asked if they had received the Holy Spirit, and their reply casts a damning pall upon the evangelistic efforts of the early church: “We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Immediately, Paul turns to baptism and asks, “Into what were you baptized?” and they reply, “Into John’s baptism.” Then, Paul makes the critical distinction that is, for us, the difference between night and day, between life and death: “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” As soon as these disciples were baptized into the name of Jesus and Paul laid his hands on them, they received the Holy Spirit and began speaking in tongues and prophesying.

That’s us. Or at least it’s supposed to be.

Has your baptism filled you with the Holy Spirit? The answer is “yes” even if you didn’t realize it. We’re not going to re-baptize anyone. That’s heresy. But have you claimed the power of the Holy Spirit that was bestowed upon you at baptism? Is your baptism bearing fruit in your life? Or is it merely a moment in the past? Is it merely a “wash this original sin off so that I can get into heaven?” If you’re not living into your baptism every single day, you’re ignoring what it means to be a follower of Christ.

As a damning criticism of the evangelism of the modern church, most of us, I fear, would identify with those disciples in Ephesus. We live as if our baptism were a moment in the past. We live as if it were the baptism of John rather than a baptism into Christ's death and resurrection and, thus, into the power of the Holy Spirit.

On this Sunday, it seems fitting to undertake the Renewal of Baptismal Vows (BCP p. 292), which includes the Baptismal Covenant, instead of saying the Nicene Creed—a switch that is authorized on page 312 of the Book of Common Prayer. I feel a sermon on baptismal theology coming on. The trick this week will be to narrow it down to something less than 30 minutes. I’ve got sacrament and baptism and salvation and regeneration and original sin and spiritual gifts and free will and divine providence and Eucharistic admission and lots of others things floating around in my mind. I like the kinds of weeks when I have too much to say and get to struggle with what to leave it. Those usually end up better than getting through the week wondering if I have anything to say at all.

Joseph: Hero of Faithfulness

January 4, 2015 – 2nd Sunday after Christmas Day, Year B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
 
On Friday afternoon, Frances and I drove to Tuscaloosa to watch the basketball game between Alabama and North Florida. On the way there, we passed some places that have been important in our family’s history. First, we drove by Birmingham-Southern, where both her mother and I went to college. Then, as we continued down the interstate, we passed by Ensley, where Elizabeth’s family’s grocery store, Graffeo Brothers, once stood. Finally, we passed by the U. S. Steel mill in Fairfield, where my father and grandfather used to work. At each point of interest, with a reminiscent tear in my eye (well, maybe half of a tear), I nostalgically described what it was and why it was significant to our family. And Frances’ response was, “What is steel?”

I laughed a little bit at the contrast between her pragmatic musing and my schmaltzy remembrance. I explained that steel was a kind of metal and that a mill was the place where that metal was manufactured. Then, she asked, “Is that why Superman is called ‘the man of steel?’” And I began to explain that steel is a particularly strong and hard metal and that “man of steel” did not mean that Superman was literally made of metal but that he was notably strong and hard. I started to explain that there are different measures for strength and hardness and that alloys like steel succeed by incorporating the strength of metals like tungsten and the hardness of metals like chromium, but she had already moved on. She was more interested in talking about Superman’s other super powers.

We talked about that for a while and about some of our other favorite super-heroes, and that got me thinking: what sort of super hero would I be? I’m not particularly strong, and there’s nothing fast about me—expect maybe my speech. Maybe there’s room in Marvel’s line-up for a super-hero that’s really good with budgets or maybe one who likes to argue esoteric theological points that have little or no bearing on daily life. Who wants to buy a comic about an argumentative clergyperson who dazzles his foes with interlinked spreadsheets? Yeah, no one. No one dreams up super-heroes who are super-normal.

The same is true for the heroes in the bible. Their stories are some of the first ones we learn in church because they amaze us: David and Goliath, Noah and the ark, Ezekiel and the prophets of Baal, Rahab the spy-harboring harlot, Jael the tent-peg-wielding killer. Some of them are known for their feats of strength. Others are known for bravely standing up for God’s people. Some use their brains to trick their adversaries while others use their voice to proclaim God’s message.

And that brings us to my favorite biblical hero of all: Joseph, the Galilean carpenter. What did he do? Well, not much really. In fact, he’s better known for what he didn’t do than for anything he accomplished. Namely, when his fiancée announced that she was pregnant by another source, Joseph, encouraged by the appearance of an angel in his dream, decided not to divorce her. Meek and unassuming, he accepted that his bride would bear the son of another because it was part of God’s plan.

So maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that, when threatened by King Herod’s violent temper, Joseph, a biblical antihero of sorts, took his family and ran away. He did not organize a resistance against Herod’s evil plot. He did not lead a rebellion against the tyrant who slaughtered those innocent children. He did not stand up for the nameless victims whose lives were cut short because Herod’s jealous rage had been provoked by his own stepson’s birth. Instead, he gathered his wife and infant child and escaped to Egypt, where they laid low until it was safe to return.

Does it bother anybody that that’s how God’s plan worked out—that the birth of God’s own son would lead to such violence and tragedy yet God’s instructions to Joseph were to turn tail and run? Couldn’t God have made it happen another way? Couldn’t he have told Joseph to gather his friends and relatives and lead a crusade against Herod? Wouldn’t God have been able to bring victory to even a rag-tag guerrilla force led by Joseph, the direct descendant of King David? Or couldn’t Joseph at least have stood up in the Jerusalem square and proclaimed the injustice of Herod’s tyrannical plot and trusted that God would strike Herod down with a plague or an illness or an otherwise untimely death so that such a horrible event as the murder of every male child two-years-old or younger in the vicinity of Bethlehem would be averted?

Why? Why this way? Why this plan? Why must God’s story of salvation unfold upon the sacrifice of so many innocent lives? Why? Because God’s power is expressed in ways that the world cannot recognize. It does not come with force or violence or victory in the earthly sense. Instead, the power of God’s kingdom is manifested principally in weakness. God power does not overthrow the powers of this world by force; it subverts them through a king whose crown was made of thorns and whose throne was a hard wooden cross. In other words, God’s triumph comes not as an expression of might but as a testament of quiet, patient, faithful love.

Joseph’s justly deserved heroic status is not tied to super-human strength or astounding bravery. He is not known for a military victory or a rousing political success. Joseph exemplifies biblical heroism because of his faithfulness. And that is the only measure by which the heroes of the bible are reckoned. All of them—great and small—are celebrated for their faithfulness. And what does it mean to be faithful but to trust that God will bring his people to that promised place of peace even though the powers of this world seem stacked against them? Faith is not waiting for your day in the sun. We, the people of God, are not waiting for our savior to flex his muscles and defeat our enemies. We are waiting and watching and hoping for peace—nothing more than peace.

No, that isn’t really satisfying in the human sense. We’d rather win and rub our enemies’ noses in it. We’d rather God show up now and make sure that the people who want to do us harm are defeated before they even start. But that isn’t how and where and when God shows up. Instead, we must wait with the patience of Joseph. We must believe that the evil of this world—no matter how great—can have no effect on the power of God’s kingdom and his plan of salvation. And that is why our hope is in the cross…because even when the powers of this world give God their very worst, God brings it to victory. Let that be your hope. Even when all that is wrong in this world seems to have turned against you, believe that there is nothing that can get in the way of God’s plan for your life. Have faith that God is with you in your struggles and that in his perfect time he will guide you into his place of peace.