Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Ignatius of Antioch, Lion-Ground Wheat

Feast of Ignatius of Antioch - October 17, 2017
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

So committed was Ignatius of Antioch to the Way of Jesus that, as he travelled to Rome under soldiers' guard, he wrote a letter to the Christians in Rome urging them not to interfere with his upcoming martyrdom by wild beasts. Even if he was to be ripped apart by lions, he saw his own execution as an opportunity to demonstrate to other Christians an example of the fulfillment of their proclamation that to follow Christ is to suffer for Christ's sake.

Sometimes we exaggerate when we tell the stories of saints, but this part seems to be real. While travelling to Rome from Syria, Ignatius wrote letters to various Christian communities across the Empire, of which we have seven. In addition to embracing his own death, Ignatius wrote about the importance of the historical Jesus, rejecting the pre-Docetist claims that Jesus was divine only and not truly human. He implore the early Christians to remain united to one another in Eucharistic fellowship, which he described as "the medicine of immortality." Stressing the need for unity, he even coined the phrase "catholic church." It was this understanding of salvation through unity with Christ and with Christ's Body--both in its Eucharistic presence and its incarnation as the church--that gave Ignatius confidence as he approached his death in Rome. For him, salvation meant facing even a grisly death without fear because of the confidence imputed to those who truly belonged to Christ as members of his body. This kind of devotion led to non-historical traditions like Ignatius being one of the children whom Jesus welcomed even though the disciples would have forbidden it. Can't you imagine how someone so transformed by the Body of Christ might have actually been embraced by it as a little child?

What does it mean to have faith like that? What does it mean for salvation to be not only a ticket to heaven but a confidence in the face of great persecution? On the Feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch, we pray, "Almighty God, we praise your Name for your bishop and martyr Ignatius of Antioch, who offered himself as grain to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts that he might present to you the pure bread of sacrifice. Accept, we pray, the willing tribute of our lives and give us a share in the pure and spotless offering of your Son Jesus Christ." Ignatius must have been certifiably crazy to anticipate his martyrdom in the jaws of lions with joy. Countless Christians, who likewise were brutally killed for their faith, must have been absolutely insane to endure such suffering for the sake of Christ. Even today, followers of Jesus who are murdered in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Indonesia must be crazy to think that following Jesus means embracing a death like his. But they do it. And Christians always have. And why? Because the saving work of Jesus Christ has given them the incomprehensible conviction that to die in faith is to live for Christ.

Paul writes, "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." We often read those words at a funeral, when we bring our own grief to God and ask for comfort that dries our tears and warms our hearts. Paul wrote them as one who knew first-hand what it meant for followers of Jesus to be executed for their faith. He knew what it meant to use the power of death to attempt to rip someone off the Way of Jesus and cast them into the despair of hell. But once he discovered the power of God's love in Jesus Christ, he recognized that nothing--not death, not life, not spiritual powers, not physical powers, not past or present or future could ever come between God's love and God's people.

Are we called to suffer like that? I don't know. It feels inadequate to compare our suffering with that of the martyrs. Our suffering may not be of the same order of magnitude, but our faith is exactly the same as theirs. Whether we are to be ground like grains of wheat in the teeth of lions or beheaded by masked Islamist terrorists or die peacefully surrounded by our family, we approach death with the same insane confidence that Ignatius possessed. Whether our house burns to the ground or our child dies in an automobile accident or our charmed life preserves us from any measurable suffering beyond a hangnail or a splinter, we still know that there is nothing that can take God's love away from us.

There is power in Jesus suffering and death, and the power it brings us is not limited to what we will discover on the other side of life. It is a power that fills us even now. When we declare that, through Christ, God has triumphed over death itself, we are not merely stating that there is life beyond the grave. We mean that the confidence that promises to carry us into God's arms dwells within us now. No matter what lies ahead of us, God is with us. No matter who is against us, God is for us. We cannot see that unless we have the faith that allows us to embrace even a terrible death. Or, put another way, only the faith we have enables us to embrace whatever suffering and death lies ahead of us. May we know the saving power of God as a power that brings us hope not only beyond this life but right in the midst of it.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Where Does Value Come From?

This Sunday's gospel lesson comes at the perfect time for clergy who are looking for an excuse to talk about stewardship. It's Jesus' famous exchange with the Pharisees about paying taxes (Matthew 22:15-22), in which Jesus ultimately says, "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's." There are, of course, two problems with that: 1) successful stewardship campaigns are not built in a day and 2) good sermons are not based on a conclusion that comes before the text is studied. If you're surprised to discover that this week's gospel makes for a good stewardship sermon, you'd probably be better off preaching on one of the other lessons. We must sit with this gospel lesson long enough to see what comes from it. Jesus did not have a parish's annual giving appeal in mind when he spoke these words. They may help inform such an appeal, but it will take more than a week's pondering to get there.

Dig deeply into the context of this gospel lesson. Start by reviewing Matthew 21 and 22. Notice that this exchange happens after Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, after the cleansing of the temple, and after three parables about the kingdom of God. This passage isn't about taxes or tithes. It's about authority. Matthew's editorial comments help us get to the heart of the matter: "The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said." Jesus isn't talking about money, and the Pharisees aren't interested in what he has to say. This is a trap. There is no right answer. If Jesus says that faithful people shouldn't pay taxes, the Pharisees will label him as an anti-Roman seditionist and hand him over to the secular authorities for punishment. If Jesus says that everyone must pay taxes, the Pharisees will label him as an anti-Jewish sell-out and use a smear campaign to undermine his popularity with the crowds who are looking for someone to galvanize their anti-Roman sentiments. If we attempt to mine Matthew 22:15-22 for a teaching on the tithe, we're likely to come up empty handed. It just isn't here. To get to that point, we've got to go deeper--beyond the context of this passage while remaining faithful to it.

What is the real issue here? It's all about authority. Whose authority will we respect? The religious elites? The traditions of our people? The government? The Bible? The Constitution? The Pharisees approach this encounter with the assumption that we cannot be faithful both to sacred and secular. In their minds, we must choose. Will we be loyal to God or to the government? But Jesus rejects the premise behind their question. He's not interested in answering their question as they have asked it. He wants them to go deeper. Instead of allowing them to force him to answer an unanswerable question, he forces them to confront the unanswerable premise behind their question: "Whose head is this, and whose title?...Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s." In other words, you decide.

What gives a coin its value? What makes a $20 bill worth $20? Is it the face printed on it? Is it the government behind it? Is it the collective agreement of our society? Is it the fact that you can buy 4 value meals at Wendy's with it? According to the Federal Reserve, it costs around 11 cents to make a $20 bill. Does that mean it's actually worth only 11 cents? A penny costs 1.5 cents to make. Why isn't it worth more than a penny? What happens if the confidence in the government whose name and imprint are backing the bill disintegrates? What is a $20 bill worth then? Perhaps real value comes from somewhere else.

Where does the true value of anything come from? That's the question Jesus forces us to ask ourselves. The Pharisees want him to choose between God and Rome. The choice itself implies that Rome's authority, identity, or value come from somewhere other than God. No, the unholy, ungodly Roman Empire and the semi-divine Emperor whose likeness is on the coin are not aligned with God's kingdom. In fact, it's pretty clear that they are directly opposed to it. But the persistence of the Roman occupation and administration of Palestine does not negate God's authority. Our faith requires us to see God at work beyond the institutions that seem opposed to God's reign. We "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's," but we always remember that everything--even the forbidden coin with the graven image of the enemy of God's people on it--comes from God.

What does that mean for stewardship? Well, it means a lot. But it's not as simple as a first look at the lesson provides. I'm preaching on stewardship this Sunday, but I'm not using this gospel lesson to remind people that they need to give to their church before they pay their taxes to Caesar. That misses the point. I hope the sermon will embrace an even bigger understanding of where all good gifts come from and our faithful response to that generosity. But, as I've written here, that's going to take some work.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

To Whom Is Jesus Speaking?

On Sunday, we encounter the challenging parable of the wedding banquet. In Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus describes the kingdom like a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. When the time for the banquet came, he sent out his slaves to bring in the invited guests, but they declined. So he sent them out a second time, informing the guests that all was ready and urging them to come in, but they all made excuses, even beating or killing some of the king's servants. So, as we've come to expect in Jesus' parables, the king takes the invitation away from the original guests, burning their city, and urges his slaves to bring in anyone and everyone they can find: "The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet."

For three parables in a row, Jesus has been speaking to those who questioned and challenged his authority. "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" the religious leaders ask him after he's come into Jerusalem and cleansed the temple of the money changers. Jesus had directly challenged the principal religious institution of his people, and its representatives wanted to know how he presumed to justify these actions. In response to their inquiry, Jesus tells the parable of the two sons--one who says he'll do the father's will but doesn't and one who refuses to help his father but does. He wants these challengers to see that they are judged by their actions and not their words. Then, without interruption, he tells the parable of the wicked tenants, who had been leased a vineyard but refused to give the owner his share of the produce. The owner then destroyed the wicked tenants, who had killed his own son, and gave the vineyard to new tenants. At this point, Matthew lets us know that the religious authorities perceived that Jesus was speaking about them, and they were angry about it, but they didn't want to disappoint the crowd, so they didn't do anything.

Then Jesus gets to this third parable about the wedding banquet. Again, he seems to be speaking to the authorities. He's letting them know that his ministry as God's son involves stripping ownership of God and God's kingdom from those who had always presumed to have it and bestowing it upon new, faithful servants of God. We see that in all three parables. The presumed insiders find themselves on the outside, and those whom they would have excluded have taken their place.

But then there's a twist. With this third parable, Jesus introduces extends the understanding of presumed inclusion becoming one's exclusion to those who had only recently received the benefits of the kingdom. One of the guests who had been brought in when the king sent his servants to welcome anyone and everyone they could find had come into the banquet without a wedding robe. When the king saw him, he was ordered to be bound and thrown out into the outer darkness. In other words, Jesus warned those who had found their fortunes reversed not to presume their place was secure. What important words for God's people to hear!

God welcomes sinners to his table--both those whom society excludes and those in society who exclude others. God allowed misfits to come into his kingdom--both those who live notorious lives of sin and those who judge sinners for living notorious lives. If you're in the banquet because you've always belonged there, scoot over and make room for those who have never been included. If you're in the banquet for the very first time, don't be surprised that those who have presumed to keep you out are also there. Participation in the kingdom of God means full acceptance of God's grace. You must wear a wedding robe. Even though invited in at the last minute, you must be ready for the fullness of the kingdom. You can't accept grace when it's convenient to you. It's all or nothing.

Followers of Jesus have had 2000 years to hear him speak words of radical welcome on our behalf. We must always remember that his welcome extends always to those we would presume to exclude. Otherwise, we're the ones being thrown into the outer darkness.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Will The Real Misogynist Please Stand Up?

Two weeks ago, Hugh Heffner died. Some took the opportunity to praise him for his commitment to free speech, while others, like Ross Douthat in his op-ed piece in the New York Times, preferred to strip away the red, white, and blue bunting and remind us that, beneath the self-applied patriotic plaudits, Heffner's empire was, in fact, built on the objectification and exploitation of women. Becoming rich while spending all day in one's pajamas may require some artistic and entrepreneurial genius, but, smoking jacket not withstanding, Heffner was little more than a flag-carrying smut peddler.

A week later, Cam Newton expressed comedic surprise when a woman sports reporter asked him a technically sophisticated question during a press conference: "It's funny to hear a female talk about routes like...it's funny." Immediately, Newton was lambasted by the media, who rightly seized on Newton's insensitive remarks to point out gender bias in sports. Although the ongoing National Anthem controversy has helped the Carolina quarterback avoid further scrutiny, Newton's responses to the media pushback have been less than encouraging. At first, he claimed that he was only being sarcastic and trying to compliment Ms. Rodrigue for being such an intelligent reporter...an intelligent female reporter. Apparently, Mr. Newton can't tell that complimenting a woman for doing a "man's job" with surprising proficiency is, in fact, an insult.

Last Sunday, when preaching on the parable of the wicked tenants, I described a number of signs that we, like the tenants, collectively fail to bear fruit for the kingdom and, instead, prefer to keep it for ourselves. Within that list, I mentioned the persistence of sexism: "Instead of living in a world in which the dignity of every human being is equally respected, our children look up to celebrities who treat women as second-class citizens and praise them for their sexuality instead of their full humanity." I had Cam Newton in mind, but I chose the pluralized word "celebrities" on purpose because I know that Cam isn't the only public figure to reveal his disrespect of women. It's a part of the broken world in which we live. It's a part of my life, and I repent of the ways in which I perpetuate the second-class treatment of women as a member of the still-male-dominated clergy community.

This Sunday, we will hear some important words from Paul as he concludes his letter to the Philippians: "I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life." Back when I was in seminary, I was asked to write an essay in response to the question, "Was Paul a misogynist?" For many, Pauline words about wives submitting to their husbands and keeping their heads covered and their mouths shut while in church earn him an indelible label as a woman-hater. Indeed, these words have been used for many centuries to perpetuate discrimination and violence against women both inside and outside the church. I can sort through a range of responses to them--Paul was addressing a specific problem or Paul's culture was so different from our own that we don't really understand what he meant--but I recognize that they aren't completely convincing. It's clear to us that Paul was, indeed, biased against women. But then we read words like these about his co-workers and partners in the work of the gospel and we wonder, "How can Paul the misogynist have described these women like that?"

Paul may have accepted and, in a few instances, perpetuated a culture in which women were thought of as second-class citizens, but he did not deny them their full and equal value in the eyes of God. Paul was the one who looked at the power of Jesus Christ and wrote, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). He may have promoted traditional, patriarchal family roles, but for him ministry was a genderless occupation. These women he mentions were experiencing some sort of conflict. Did Paul appoint a man to straighten them out? No. He urged them to take care of it on their own: "I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord." Did Paul describe them as staffers who worked under him? No. He identified them as "co-workers" who "struggled beside me in the work of the gospel." Beside is an important word. The Greek is "συναθλέω," which means "to compete together with others" as on a team. Another important word is found in the instruction that Paul gives his reader: "help these women." The word translated as "help" is "συλλαμβάνω," which, in this dative-of-a-person construction literally means "to take hold together with one in order to assist." (See Strong.) Paul wants his reader to treat these women in the same way that he has treated them: as full, equal, unified partners.

Those in the twenty-first century who are surprised that a woman can do a "man's job" just as well as her male counterparts could learn a thing or two from Paul. Yes, Paul could learn a thing or two from us as well, but it seems clear to me that misogyny--the strong bias against women--persists not in Paul's understanding of the Christian community but among those who fail to understand how God works in creation and through Jesus. God created us equals and co-workers. Sin has broken that equality, and the perpetuation of inequality is a symptom of sin. Jesus came to reunify us to God and to erase those artificial distinctions. Whether through their jokes or sarcastic compliments or spending habits or hiring practices, those who continue to support a system that praises women not for their humanity but for the ways in which they satisfy or humor men are working against the kingdom of God. And those within the church who have access or control access to the pulpit need to recognize that.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Leader Failure

One year to the day after I began a career as an ordained minister, my boss went on sabbatical. In the three months that followed, I learned a lot about how systems work. My boss had been ordained for twenty-four years. I had been ordained for exactly one. My boss had been the rector of that parish for twelve years. I had been the curate for twelve months. We worked together to set up clear procedures during his absence. I would run staff meeting and vestry meetings and other administrative pieces, and another employee would approve the financial expenditures. But no one decided ahead of time what to do when people started to revolt.

Looking back, it wasn't terrible. It just felt terrible. We had a relatively new children's director who had brought fresh, exciting ideas to the parish. Some of those changes were threatening to some of the parents and other stakeholders, and, about a week after my boss left, my phone started ringing. People wanted to tell me just how terrible things were, how our children's program was falling apart, and how people would start leaving the church if I didn't do something. "What do you think I can do about that?" I asked, unsuccessful in my attempts to quiet things down. Eventually, the rector had to come back from sabbatical and meet with concerned people, including me and the children's director. Perhaps if I had been there longer and had more authority in the system and had more experience in parish dynamics, I could have done a better job of diffusing that anxiety, but, as it was, there was only one person who could convince the parish that everything was going to be ok, and that was my boss.

When Moses went up the mountain to receive the Law from the Lord in Exodus 32, he was gone for a long time. During his absence, Aaron learned a lot about the system he inhabited. "When the people saw that Moses delayed...the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, "Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." I don't know what's less surprising: that the people gave up on God and Moses so quickly or that Aaron agreed to their plan without hesitation. In the verses that follow, we read how Aaron told them to take off their gold rings so that he could melt and cast them into the image of a calf. "These are your gods, O Israel!" the people proclaimed in front of the idol, and Aaron built an altar and established a festival to worship it.

Systems need leaders. They always have them. Usually, they're clear--a rector, a boss, a parent--but sometimes they are chosen by the system in informal ways--a playground captain, a classroom example-setter, a star athlete. When the appointed leader of a system is unavailable, the system shifts until it finds someone else to take over. That change is an anxious, challenging time. Some systems are able to handle such change more easily than others. Some leaders have helped diffuse their authority throughout the system so that not everything falls apart when those leaders are absent for a while. Others, as we know too well, haven't figured out how to help people know that they will be ok even when the leader is absent.

Who is to blame in Exodus 32? As the story is told to us, the people almost immediately demand new leadership--a new Moses and new gods. They cannot handle the uncertainty of Moses' prolonged absence. They are anxious and unwilling to inhabit their anxiety. They're accustomed to complaining to Moses when they are unhappy and Moses fixing all of their problems. They don't know how to solve this problem on their own, so they choose another leader and other gods to take Moses and the Lord's place.

Aaron does no better. He agrees to the people's request immediately. He is fully invested in this new leadership role. Instead of being differentiated from the anxiety and demands of the system, he falls victim to them. As we see later in Exodus 32 when Moses returns, Aaron is quick to throw the blame on the people: "You know the people, that they are set on evil. For they said to me, 'Make us gods who shall go before us…' They gave [their gold] to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf." That's hardly what happened, but it shows us Aaron's flaw.

We could also blame Moses, who has been quick to accept the anxiety of the people onto himself. When they were hungry, he ran to God and got it fixed. When they were thirsty, he ran to God and got it fixed. The system had learned to expect that Moses and only Moses could solve their problems. No one knew how to take care of himself or herself anymore. That contributed to their impatience and anxiety in Moses' prolonged absence.

We can't blame the Lord, but his response to Moses is telling: "The Lord said to Moses, 'Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them.'" Your people. Not my people. God isn't accepting responsibility for this problem. He's willing to call them "my people" when he hears their cry from Egypt, but, as soon as they start to worship the image of a golden calf, they belong to Moses. Again, I don't think we can blame God for this, but the way the story is told to us matters. We're left with a feeling that even God himself isn't functioning in the system as freely as God might.

What does this mean for us? Change is hard. Systems will work fiercely to maintain their equilibrium even if it's an unhealthy one. Parishes that have a long history of underfunctioning clergy will not easily accept a go-getter for a rector. Families that have accepted substance abuse for decades will struggle to accept sobriety. Communities that are comfortable with decision-making power being concentrated in the hands of a few will have a hard time learning how to share that authority throughout the community. A new rector, a new prayer book, a new marriage canon, a new altar guild chair, a new building, a new bishop, a new president--change is always difficult.

Our job as congregational leaders and family leaders and community leaders is to help other people in our system accept their own anxiety and deal directly with their own conflict. Change is difficult, but change is inevitable. How we prepare for that change makes a big difference. Are we constantly putting out fires, holding everyone together in a conflicted system by sheer determination? What happens when we cannot do that anymore? Are we so authoritarian that every decision needs to come through us? What happens when we move on? Not even Moses lasts forever. By the end of Deuteronomy, he's figured out how to transition away from leadership. What about us? Are we stuck in the wilderness, or are we headed for the Promised Land?

Monday, October 9, 2017

Open Invitation With High Demand

It's hard to make it through Matthew 21 and 22 with the same commitment to grace that one had back when Jesus rode first into Jerusalem at the beginning of chapter 21. In our lectionary, this will be the third week in a row with a difficult kingdom parable. First, there was the story of the two sons, one who refused to help his father but later went and the other who promised to help his father but never showed up. Yesterday, we had the parable of the wicked tenants who were leased a vineyard but refused to give the owner his proper share of the produce. This week, we have a wedding feast in which the invited guests are replaced by whomever can be found, yet one improperly attired guest is immediately thrown out "into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." Jesus' summary response? "Many are called, but few are chosen."

I hope it will not surprise you that I am still committed to grace and unconditional love at its absolute extreme. I want to find the love that the father has for both sons. I want to celebrate the gift of the son even to the wicked tenants. I want to focus on the invitation of all people to the wedding banquet. But these three parables, all told shortly before the climax of Jesus' ministry, clearly suggest that, despite God's gracious invitation, there are some people who are ejected from the kingdom because they did not respond to that invitation appropriately. In my experience of the human condition, that seems to place way too much emphasis on us.

I work hard to avoid the supersessionist implications of these parables--that the Gentiles are given the kingdom that the Jews have forsaken. That's bad theology. God has made a promise to his people, and God does not fail to keep his promises. We could, instead, focus on the rejection of the religious elites and the inclusion of the societal outcasts--a distinction of power rather than ethnicity. That makes me a little more comfortable and will certainly work for most of our congregations of powerful, well-connected people who need to be reminded what it means to accept fully the invitation to participate in the kingdom's banquet. But I'm still left with that theologically uncomfortable position that our participation in the kingdom depends on our intention, our reception, our works. I don't believe that. So how do I make it through this parable?

Look again at Sunday's parable. The king provides a banquet and sends his slaves to bring the invited guests in, but they refuse. That's ridiculous: no one would refuse the king's invitation. Then the king sends the servants back a second time to urge them to come because the feast is ready. Again, that's ridiculous. The king would never have to do that, nor would he be willing to. When the servants arrive, the invited guests give a range of ordinary excuses--too busy, business deal, harvest to collect--and others turn violent. Again, this is ridiculous. This is the kind of invitation around which one's life revolves. One makes time for the king's wedding banquet. Then the king sends the army to kill all of those who mistreated his servants and to burn their city. That seems somewhat extreme, but at least now the king is behaving in a way that resembles our expected reaction.

After all of that ridiculousness, the king goes completely off the reservation and brings in everyone who will respond--the good and bad who would answer the invitation. This becomes the criteria by which worthiness is judged. Will you accept the invitation and come? Those who were initially invited were unworthy because they allowed the occupations of life to take priority over the king's banquet. The good and bad who come into the banquet hall are worthy because they respond...except for one. One of the guests was not properly attired. This is the final twist of the story. This is the last unexpected detail. The guest who was worthy because he responded is unworthy because he is not fully participating. Even after responding to the invitation, he is not committed to the banquet, so he is cast out. Even the unexpected guests are expected to participate.

What is the message to us? All of us are invited into the banquet. Those who are privileged enough to receive the initial invitation and a follow-up request, and those for whom the king has recently made space. That's remarkable. Everyone is invited in. For some, life gets in the way, and they are left out. For another, half-hearted participation singles him out, and he is rejected. I suppose we'd better say a committed yes to the kingdom when it comes to us, but what happens when we're not ready?

This parable doesn't deal with that, so it leaves me still wanting. What happens when we're not ready? What happens if we fail to see what is really taking place? What happens if we say yes but change our mind? Over and over, Jesus says we must be fully committed to him--leaving behind families, even hating one's own life--if we are going to follow him into his kingdom. What about those of us who haven't understood the invitation? Is there hope for us? I believe that there is, but I'll admit that this parable and the two before it haven't made a lot of space for it. I'm still looking, though.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Only This Gift Can Break The Cycle

October 8, 2017 – The 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Has anyone ever lent you something for so long that you forgot it wasn’t yours? What happens when the lender calls and asks for it back? Perhaps you’re so surprised that you try to mask your panic and confusion with a little white lie: “Sure, I know where that is. I can’t believe how long it’s been. I should have given that back to you ages ago.” But, in your mind, you’re racing from one corner of the house to another, wondering where in the world it could be. What happens a week later when you still can’t find it? You could come clean, confess that you haven’t seen it in months, and offer to buy your friend a new one…or you could tell another, not-so-white lie. You could tell her that you’re almost certain that you gave it back months ago—that you drove by when she wasn’t home, left it on her front porch, and may have even send her a text. “Did you get my text?” you ask in a most believable tone.

If you take advice from today’s parable, however, it seems that there’s a third option. Instead of offering to replace it or pretending you already have, you could simply threaten the person who lent it to you. You could push her down on the ground and stand over her and say, “You’ll be sorry if you ever ask about that again.” That sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? It’s the kind of thing you see in a nightmare or a mobster movie. When the owner of the vineyard sends his slaves to collect his share of the produce, the tenants in the vineyard beat and kill those servants, attempting to send a message that they’re not going to give the vineyard back. They plan to keep it for themselves. What sort of crazy logic is that? What kind of insane person would do such a thing?

We would. Over and over again. We do it all the time. We may not treat our friends or neighbors like that because of what they might say about us on Facebook, but that’s exactly how we treat the one who has given us everything we have. We horde the things that God has given us, pretend that they were ours to begin with, and keep the fruits of our labors for ourselves. All of our skills, abilities, resources, and opportunities belong to God, yet we begin almost every encounter by asking what’s in it for us. All of the love, affection, loyalty, and trust that we enjoy come from God, yet we would rather hold on to them than give them away. Our greatest gift, the freedom to choose whom we will honor with our lives, is handed to us by God, and we choose to turn inward and seek self-satisfaction instead of devoting ourselves to our creator.

How do we know that this is the case? Just look at the signs all around us. There is more than enough food in the world to feed every hungry person, yet there are children right here in Decatur, Alabama, who go to bed hungry every night. There is more than enough wealth in the world to go around for everyone to have a decent life, but that wealth remains concentrated in the hands of those who use the resources and opportunities with which God has blessed them for themselves instead of others. Instead of living in a world in which the dignity of every human being is equally respected, our children look up to celebrities who treat women as second-class citizens and praise them for their sexuality instead of their full humanity. When a murderous madman guns down fifty-eight people and injures almost five hundred more before taking his own life, we collectively feign outrage but then quickly demonstrate that we care more about politics than putting an end to such violence. We have everything we need to make the world the way that God dreams that it could be—the wealth, the opportunity, and the freedom—but we’ve been borrowing all of those things for so long that we’ve forgotten that they don’t belong to us.

That’s what happens when the owner plants a vineyard, puts a fence around it, digs a winepress, builds a watchtower, and then goes away to a distant country for a long, long, long time. We’re the ones who did all of the work. We’re the ones who have borne the scorching heat all this time. The fruit of the garden is the result of our own efforts, not his. Why should we have to give up what we have worked for? Who cares if prophets and preachers have come to remind us that we owe something to the one who planted the vineyard? He’s been gone so long that in our minds we can no longer distinguish between what belongs to him and what belongs to us. It might sound like insanity to think that when the owner sends his son to come and collect what is due that we can kill him and keep it for ourselves, but that’s exactly what we do because we’ve convinced ourselves that it isn’t really his anymore.

But you know what’s even crazier than that? That, after we repeatedly reject the word of the prophets and claim the vineyard for ourselves, God would send his son to us anyway. Doesn’t God know better than that? Doesn’t our track record speak for itself? Doesn’t God know exactly what we will do to his son when he sends him to us? Of course he does. And, even if it doesn’t make sense to us, that’s exactly why he sent him in the first place—because only the gift of God’s own son can break through our self-centered cycle of greed, violence, and misuse.

By freely giving us his son, God gives us the chance to see just how wildly open God’s gracious hands are to us. We know, of course, that the death of God’s son is not the end of the story. We know that, after we killed him on the cross, God raised his son from the dead on the third day. In the light of the resurrection, we are invited to look upon the illogical gift of God’s son and see how irrational we ourselves have become. The gift of the son lifts the veil from our eyes and shows us that everything is gift. When we recognize that everything we have is given to us by God and not the product of our own anxious toil, we discover the freedom to devote ourselves not to our next pay check, not to our 401(k), not to our political party, not to our own security, but to the one who gives us all of those things in the first place. In the sacrifice of the son, therefore, we discover what it means to trust that God will always provide for us.

Will we come to our senses? Will we look upon the cross of Christ and see that the same God who is willing to give us his own son is also willing to give us our daily bread? Will we look upon his sacrifice and see that everything we have is pure gift? Will that free us up to care less about ourselves and more about God? Will we finally know the peace that comes from bearing fruit for God’s kingdom? Our best hope—our only hope—is not found in ourselves but in the one who gives us all good things. Look upon God’s son, God’s gift to the world, and see that you have nothing to fear. God will always provide. Knowing that, choose to bear fruit for the kingdom because you can see that you don’t have to keep it for yourself.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Recapturing God's Holiness

On Sunday, those of us who use Track 1 from the RCL will hear some very familiar words: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me..." The first reading is the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20. I may not have them written on my heart as clearly as they have been engraved in tablets of stone monuments, but I know them pretty well. It's funny to me, then, when I encounter the NRSV language of Commandment #3, which makes perfect sense but is missing some of what I expect from the KJV in my memory.

When I think of #3, I usually think of, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain," but we will hear, "You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God." That's right, of course. That's what it means to take the Lord's name in vain--to misuse it--but this is one of those biblical specificities that has lost its significance and that most modern retranslation don't fix.

What does it mean to take God's name in vain? Or, more importantly, what is it that God is asking God's people to do or not do? Why is this important? Why is this one of the big ten?

Back when I was newly ordained, I wanted to show a video clip in a Sunday school class I was teaching, but the clip had some profanity in it. I went to my boss and told him about it. I explained that I could bleep out some of the words but wanted to be sure that a missed "shit" or "damn" wouldn't get me (or him) in trouble. "I'll be sure to cut out all the F-words and GDs," I reassured him. "That's a shame," he said, "because goddammit has always been one of my favorites." I laughed nervously.

Does Commandment #3 prohibit us from saying GD? When my child says "Oh my gosh!" instead of "Oh my God!" is she doing the right thing, or does it even make a difference? Is "God" the issue here? Or is it "Yahweh," the supposed "name of the Lord" that we should be worried about. Is there a difference between saying, "Yahweh damn it!" and "Goddammit!?"

In the Orthodox Jewish tradition, saying or writing the name of the Lord is forbidden. That's why the Bible has LORD instead of Lord. When we see the all-caps, we know that's a moment when the actual name of God would have been meant. In the biblical manuscripts, they didn't write out the name for fear of breaking the commandment, so they sometimes used the four-letter abbreviation YHWH. For some, that's still too close for comfort, so other designations like "Adonai" and "Jehovah" and "Elohim" were used. We do similar things in English, of course, using "Lord" and "God" and "Almighty" and "Holy One" to all mean God...whatever God's name is. Now that the English tradition of capitalizing the first letter of God to mean specifically Israel's god is widespread, many Orthodox Jews won't even write that word out and instead us G-d to avoid violating #3. Is that what G-d really wants us to do?

The real point is that God is holy. God is not like us. God is unfathomably other. In the ancient near east, there was power in a name. To give or say a name is, in effect, to own something. To call explicitly upon the name of the Lord is to wield the power and holiness that the Lord possesses. One cannot use that power carelessly.

In some ways, we still have echoes of this in our own culture. Parents give their children names. No one else gets to do that. As an adult, a child might choose his or her own name, but the formative years of one's life are spent being known as whatever your owning parents have chosen to call you. We don't call people of respect by their first name. Our elders are "Mr. Washington" or "Mrs. Atkinson." The President of the United States is "Mr. President" or "President Trump" and not "Donald." (Over the last decade, that politeness has eroded in the media as "Obama" became a sufficient way for journalists and pundits to refer to the President, a tradition that continues with "Trump.") How many people do you think call the Queen of England "Elizabeth" and not "Your Majesty?" For a long time, senior African-Americans were denied the courtesy of being called by their last names as white children were taught to call them "Miss Tammy" or "Mr. Bill," which was a not-a-subtle reinforcement of the class structure.

Maybe it's time for us to recapture the elegance of a name. Maybe I should ask people to call me "Mr. Garner" and not "Evan." Maybe I should drop the casual way I refer to parishioners by their first names and only call them "Mr. Dunn" or "Mrs. Charlton." I wouldn't want to do that to instill a formality between us. I enjoy the intimacy that comes from exchanging first names. But maybe that would remind us something important about who God is. It's important to remember that the Holy One who Inhabits Eternity isn't just "Fred" or "Jenny." God is God. God is holy. God does not lend his name for casual use. God commands our respect and worship and adoration at all times. We may not need to abbreviate every time we use G-d's name, but, by restricting its use to those occasions that befit the fullness of God's holiness, we learn to think of God as holy.

Consider, then, the CEB's version of Commandment #3: "Do not use the Lord your God’s name as if it were of no significance." The remarkable thing about God is that God allows God's people to use God's name. It is given to us. God speaks it. We receive it. We communicate it. But we cannot do it casually. There is power in it. It is significant. Let's recapture not the legalistic observance of "thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain" but the spirit of respect that Commandment #3 inspires. God is holy. We are not. But, with care and reverence, we are invited to call upon the name of the one who saves us--God himself.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Write Off Our Losses in Christ

One night, during a live performance by David Sedaris, Elizabeth elbowed me in the ribs. Sedaris had been describing the experience of having a colonoscopy and had mentioned that the doctor had asked whether he wanted to stay awake to watch. Without hesitating, I leaned over and said to Elizabeth, "I'd want to watch." As soon as the words came out of my mouth, Sedaris remarked that the only kind of people who would want to watch their own colonoscopy are the same people who enjoy doing their own taxes. That's when she elbowed me. Because, in fact, I like doing my taxes.

Clergy taxes are a little complicated, so it helps that I got a leg-up from a CPA whom I paid to do them for a few years. But every year, I seemed to find a few things that he had missed, and, after a while, I wondered why I was paying him to do it. Now, it's a game between me and the IRS to see if I can find all of the little legal bits and pieces that will save me money. I mention that little tax game because Sunday's epistle lesson from Philippians 3 involves a theological claim that makes more sense when you think of it as a write-off.

In the opening line, Paul boasts of his accomplishments: "If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless." But then he writes, "Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ." Those of us who grew up in churches that used the Lutheran, Protestant grace-over-law lens as the primary way of interpreting the gospel are familiar with this passage. Paul wants us to know that his earthly accomplishments--his works--amount to nothing compared with "the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus [his] Lord." But this isn't simply a philosophical claim. Paul is using financial language to make his point.

What is the loss he is talking about? The Greek word is "ζημίαν." It means "damage" or "loss" or "detriment." It indicates the sort of thing that tanks a business venture. It's what the adjuster says when your twelve-year-old car is T-boned by a careless driver. It's the "bad deal" of an unsuccessful business venture produces nothing but a negative. Given that Paul uses the opposite financial term for gain ("κέρδη") in the beginning of the sentence, we see that he has money on his mind. What was on the books as a profit has actually become a loss. This isn't the sort of loss that is recovered. It's a stain on the accounting sheet. Paul has invested lots of time and effort into his identity as a faithful Pharisee, and now he recognizes that all of that effort produced nothing. It was money spent with nothing gained. The only thing he can do is write it off.

This morning, I stumbled upon the CEB translation of this passage, which incorporates that accounting language: "These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ." That's what it means to have banked on one's own efforts only to discover that they are worthless. That's the reversal that Christ represents to Paul. That's the reversal Christ represents to us.

When it comes to your relationship with God, what are you storing up for yourself? In my own preaching and writing, I've come to a place where living out the gospel is particularly important. In a culture defined by conflict and tragedy and poverty and racial strife, I hear Jesus calling me to do something about it. But why am I doing it? Why am I inviting others to do it? Why does any of us do good works in the name of Jesus? If we're trying to build an account for ourselves with God, we'd better take another look at the balance sheet. All of our efforts are total loss when brought into the light of knowing Jesus. We don't do them because we want God to approve of us. God loves us because that's who God is not because of who we are or what we do. We do these things because we know that we are loved irrespective of them.

If you feel a tension with this Sunday's gospel lesson, I'm glad to hear it. I do, too. In Jesus' parable, the vineyard is taken away from the wicked tenants and given to those who will bear fruit for the kingdom. That's the way Jesus describes it. Paul must not have known this parable, or, perhaps, he just didn't like it very much. The classic answer is that our efforts must not be an attempt to earn God's love but a response to it. That feels right, but I'm still having trouble reconciling that with the parable Jesus uses. I'm going to wrestle with it for a few more days and see if something comes out.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Nothing Can Stop True Love

Wednesday in Proper 21
I don't remember the details, but I remember being fascinated when I read about a conductor who decided to defy a longstanding tradition and lead his orchestra in the performance of a piece of music by Wagner while touring in Israel. Wagner, of course, was one of Adolf Hitler's favorite musicians. Like many nineteenth-century Germans, Wagner held widespread anti-Semitic views, and that racially exclusive ideology is manifest in some of his works. Primarily because of his adoration by the Third Reich and not because of the content of his music, Wagner's music was unofficially banned from public performance in Israel. In an interview after the controversial performance, the conductor said that he decided to perform Wagner after hearing an Israeli's cell phone play Wagner as its ring tone. He wanted to push the boundaries and seized on the opportunity. He wanted to question why a musician's talent and gift to the world should be excluded because of its less-than-stellar reputation.
Sometimes individuals and movements become so closely linked with particular symbols or cultural icons that we forget how to think of them separately. In Luke 9, Jesus is on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem. He has fed the 5,000. He has been identified by Peter as the Messiah. He has predicted his death and resurrection. He has gone up the mountain and been transfigured before Peter, James, and John. He has descended back into the world and has set his face to Jerusalem and the fate that awaits him there. But you can't get from Galilee to Judea without passing through Samaria, and Samaria meant trouble.
Or did it? You've heard about the hatred that existed between Samaritans and Jews. The Samaritans were the descendants of the Jews, who had stayed behind after the exile, and whose parents had intermarried with their Babylonian oppressors. The Samaritans didn't have the tradition of the Exile and the biblical, prophetic tradition that came with it. They didn't take part in the centralized worship that happened on the temple mount in Jerusalem. They had their own traditions and customs, and they represented everything that Jewish people hated. They were not merely unfaithful but anti-faithful. Their very existence was a reminder that the world wasn't the way it was supposed to be--the way that Israel's God had declared it should be. But with Jesus times had begun to change.
As Zechariah prophesied, in the last days, when God's Messiah comes, "Men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, 'Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.'" And where will they go? To Jerusalem. "Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem." In other words, peoples from all traditions and tribes will see that the Lord is to be found in Jerusalem, and they will come to meet him there. That's what God's people believe. And now that the disciples are certain that their master is, indeed, the Messiah, they know that this is the time when all people--even the Samaritans--will come with them to Jerusalem to celebrate the fulfillment of all of God's promises. That's why they go into the Samaritan town and seek a place to rest on the journey. Normally, a Jewish person wouldn't dream of stopping in that hostile territory, but this isn't just their dream but God's dream, and they know that, since Jesus is the one on whom the whole world has been waiting, they will be warmly received there.
But they aren't. "Because Jesus' face was set toward Jerusalem," Luke tells us, "they would not let him stay." Some habits are hard to break. When the Samaritans hear that Jesus and his disciples are headed to Jerusalem, they know that he's just another Samaritan-hating, Samaritan-denouncing, Samaritan-oppressing Jew who thinks that Jerusalem is the center of God's universe. They want nothing to do with Jerusalem and a prophet who declares that all peoples must go there to meet God. They have already met God, thank you very much, and they don't need a Jerusalem-loving Jew to help them see him.
What is the disciples' response? "Jesus, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" Surely, if you are the fulfillment of God's promises, then anyone who won't come with us, anyone who won't accept us, is standing in the way of God's kingdom. Do you want us to ask your Father to destroy them? But Jesus rebukes them. And then he heads on his way.
Do you ever feel so excited about something that you can't imagine how anyone else wouldn't share your excitement? Do you ever feel so certain about something that you cannot help but dismiss any naysayers as clearly being on the wrong side? Have you ever hoped for something so fervently that someone or something that stands in the way feels less like an impediment and more like an enemy? That's the thing about love. It does not insist on its own way. It reaches out and trusts that those who reject it will not defeat it. As Wesley the farm boy from The Princess Bride declared, "Death cannot stop true love. It can only delay it for a while." Why? Because true love does not demand anything it return. It is not deterred by the actions or inactions of others. It just loves. It invites. It hopes. And it loves. That is the way of Jesus. Even if the world rejects it, it is still the way of Jesus. It is still the way of love.

Monday, October 2, 2017

We Have The Answers

Yesterday in church, we heard Jesus tell the parable of the two sons, one told his father "no" but went to work anyway and one who told his father "yes" but failed to go. Jesus asked his hearers, "Which one of the two did the will of his father?" And the crowd quickly identified the first son. Our preacher, Warren Swenson, reminded us that the real answer is more complicated than that, but he also pointed out that the crowd didn't really have a choice. At least on the surface, the answer was obvious. This Sunday, Jesus tells a similar parable with a similar result.

In Matthew 21:33-46, Jesus tells the parable of the vineyard. A landowner built a vineyard, invested in its infrastructure, leased it out to tenants, and went away to a distant country. When it was harvest time, he sent his slaves to go and collect his share of the produce, but the tenants beat the slaves, even killing one. So the landowner sent another delegation of slaves, whom the tenants treated in like manner. Finally, the landowner sent his son, the heir, whom the tenants also killed, convincing themselves foolishly that by doing so they could keep the vineyard for themselves. Jesus asks his hearers, "When the owner comes, what will he do?" And they all know the answer. Jesus puts it on their lips. He doesn't need to say a word because they already know how the story ends: "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time."

There's more to it than that, of course. Hopefully, by the time we get to Sunday, I'll be ready to dive with the congregation into the nuances of the story, but, at first glance, the point seems to be that the hearers already know the answer to the question. They know that the wicked tenants will get their due. They know that even foolish landowners who send their own son to confront wicked tenants don't put up with that sort of disobedience forever. The story can only have one ending. Even Jesus' opponents--even those who question his authority--know what the outcome will be.

This morning, the first thing I awoke to was the news that a man had opened fire on a crowd of people at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip, killing at least fifty. That number--fifty--is the tipping point at which this mass shooting becomes the most deadly in modern history as it surpasses the forty-nine who were killed at the Pulse night club in Orlando two summers ago. Fifty. Two scores and ten. Take a minute and think about fifty people. Can you name fifty close friends? It's the number of people on a small flight from a rural airport to the big hub. It's two overcrowded elementary school classrooms worth of students. It's the number of people who worship at our early service on a full Sunday. Fifty people. Fifty men and women. Fifty human lives. Fifty family members. Fifty life stories. Fifty dreams. They are all gone. And the number is expected to rise.

We are in the middle of a horrific parable. First, a school shooting. Then, a terrorist attack at a business. Then, a slaying in a church. Then, a mass murder at a night club. Finally, a slaughter at a concert. You can fill in the gaps with dozens more mass shootings. The story is the same. It is repeated over and over. And what is our response? Political gridlock. Unfunded mental health care. No gun reform. Partisan bickering. Maybe, if we do nothing, peace will just find us. Maybe, if we give everyone a gun, no one will be willing to open fire. Maybe, if we use labels like "religious fanatic" or "mental illness" or "lone wolf" or "radicalized racist," we can pretend that these sorts of things don't happen close to us, that good, God-fearing people like us can insulate ourselves from such violence. What happens next? What will the outcome be? How will this end? We know the answer.

There is evil in this world, and that evil is at work in the hearts and minds and actions of all people. Every one of us is a part of a human system that isn't the way it was created to be. Sin affects all of us. We can't fix it on our own. Ultimately, our only hope lies in God, who is the one who can take all of our struggle, all of our failure, all of our pain, all of our darkness and finally make us and all of creation the way it was created to be. That's the story of Jesus. That's the story that gives us hope. But we cannot sit idle until that day comes. We cannot pretend that the coming of God's kingdom has nothing to do with us. We cannot refuse to take action, refuse to act, refuse to bear fruit and think that there will not be a price to pay.

What will happen when the owner of the vineyard comes? He will destroy those wicked tenants and lease the vineyard out to someone else. We are the tenants We are responsible for keeping it and tending it and helping it bear fruit. The owner is here. He has come to us. Now is the time for us to bear fruit for God's sake. We cannot keep silent and hope that we can get away with it any longer. We must end access to assault-style firearms and ammunition by ordinary citizens. We must drastically increase our funding for mental health care. We must demand that our representatives and senators and president do whatever it takes to end this violence. Ultimately, evil can only be overthrown by God, but, when God comes, will he find that we have borne fruit for the peaceable kingdom or for the violence that stands in opposition to it?

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Paul's Plea for Unity

One of the things I learned in seminary was to hear the words of the "Philippian Hymn" as a breathtaking example of early Christology. What that means is that Sunday's epistle lesson (Philippians 2:1-13) is a statement about who Jesus is that is profound because of its complexity, its provenance, and its claim. Theologians suspect that Paul was using a hymn or creedal statement that was familiar to the early church. If so, that means that somewhere as early as 60 AD, followers of Jesus were already identifying him as the one at whose name "every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth." Forgive me if that doesn't sound remarkable, but remember that Jesus never spoke of himself in those exalted terms. Only one name is due that kind of worship (literally to fall down), and that is the name of the Lord. This hymn, therefore, is an example of how early Christians thought of Jesus as the one who had been given God's own sacred name. It took the church 300 years to decide for sure that Jesus was fully divine. To think that he was accorded this kind of clear exaltation within thirty years of his death is phenomenal. But this Sunday that doesn't feel very important.

As I reread Sunday's epistle lesson something in me allowed the hymn itself to fall into the background, and my focus was drawn to the introduction Paul provides to the hymn. I suspect that other preachers, like me, may have missed it the first time around, and I suspect that congregations may miss it as well.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus...
That's how Paul sets up the Philippians Hymn. Paul isn't merely conveying a familiar theological statement about who Jesus really is. He's using the commonly held understanding of Jesus' identity to remind the Philippians community to remain unified at all costs. "If there is any encouragement in Christ," Paul writes, "...be of the same mind and have the same love." How is that possible? How can a diverse Christian community like the church in Philippi possibly have one mind? It's possible because of humility, and Paul is telling his readers, "If Christ can do it, you can do it, too."

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. Let the one who humbled himself by taking the form of a lowly slave--a form that was not natural to him--become the means by which you follow his example. Those who are baptized into Christ are baptized into that humility. Those who die with Christ know that true exaltation comes not by grasping for power in this life but by emptying oneself and claiming the exaltation that God promises us. Just as the one who endured the shame of the cross was exalted in the resurrection, so, too, are those who endure the humility of this moment raised to new life in Christ.

In other words, individuals don't matter as much as the group. Identity is based not on the parts but on the whole. Christ became human so that we can become divine, but the path that leads to our glorification takes us through emptiness and loss.

Last night, after the Cubs clenched the Central Division, I was flipping through the channels and found one of a dozen "talk shows" that is designed to achieve ratings by embarrassing President Trump. I watched it for a minute or two, but I couldn't stand it for long. It doesn't matter whether my politics are left-leaning or right-leaning. I find animosity and dispute for the sake of inspiring anger and resentment thoroughly unchristian. I remember thinking that talk show hosts who denigrated President Obama were trying to make money by fuelling hatred. The same is true of the anti-Trump sentiment that pervades popular culture. Sunday's epistle lesson is important for us.

I work and worship in a congregation full of Democrats and Republicans. Paul urges us to be of one mind because Jesus himself wants us to be of one mind. We must be one. That unity is not possible without the help of Christ himself. We can disagree about who should be our president and who should be our senator and whether we should repeal the Affordable Care Act or pass tax reform. We can disagree about those things and still have the mind of Christ. But we cannot be of one mind if we are not willing to humble ourselves, give up what matters to us, and commit ourselves to one another at all costs. We can love each other the same way that God loves us even if we disagree about politics.

Unity starts with humility. Humility means giving up one's self. That's only possible if we ask God to help us be emptied for the sake of Christ. Let go of the need to be right. Put away the kind of disagreements that denigrate the other side. Trust that there are more important things than your way, your party, your vote. The political party that put Christ to death wasn't right, but God didn't care. God's triumph is bigger than politics, but we can only see that if we seek the mind of the one who died before he was raised again.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

New Problem, Same Response, Familiar Solution

If you could have witnessed any event in the Bible, which one would you have wanted to see? Sometimes clergy or youth ministers ask that question during the ice breaker known as Four Corners. In the get-to-know-you game, a series of questions is asked, and participants are asked to choose one of four options and move to the corner of the room represented by their choice. At the beginning of the exercise, the questions are frivolous, providing easy and non-threatening answers like one's favorite season or dream vacation spot. Then, as the game progresses, the questions become more substantial and, eventually, allow for some discussion. For example, if you could have witnessed any event in the Bible, which one would you have wanted to see: the creation, the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai, the feeding of the 5,000, or the raising of Lazarus? Once you make up your mind, take five minutes and talk with the other people in your corner about your decision.

It's easy for me to think that by being there and seeing firsthand something like the empty tomb I would erase all the doubts I have ever had about whether Jesus really was raised from the dead. I don't dwell in those doubts. I believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus, but I still have a desire for unassailable certainty--if not for myself then for others. I want to be able to tell people, "I was there! I saw it with my own eyes! Like Mary and Peter and the Beloved Disciple, I saw the empty tomb." It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that seeing is believing, but seeing is never believing. Believing in something is always more substantial than just seeing it, and this Sunday's OT Lesson (Exodus 17:1-7) wants us to remember that.

Last Sunday, we read from Exodus 16, and heard the grumbling of the people of Israel against the Lord and against Moses for leading them out into the wilderness to kill them of hunger: "If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger." It feels particularly disrespectful and faithless to have been set free from slavery and delivered from the Egyptians by the Lord's almighty hand only to wish it were all undone. Nevertheless, instead of punishing them for their faithlessness, God gave them meat in the evening and bread in the morning. Quails covered the ground in the evening, and in the morning the people gathered up the manna, and everyone had enough to eat. Problem solved...until the next chapter.

This time, instead of griping about food, the people are complaining about water: "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?" Different problem but the same response. It did not matter that their stomachs were full of God-sent bread and meat. This time the people were thirsty and could not see any source of water, so they return to their faithless grumbling: "We wish we were back in Egypt." Were they suffering from short-term memory loss? No, faithlessness is a symptom of the human condition.

It's hard to believe that God will take care of us. Instead of providing a new opportunity for faith, each new crisis seems more like an opportunity for panic. Some people, however, seem to cultivate an attitude of faithfulness that transcends today's crisis. Isn't that God's invitation to us? How does it happen? Daily gratitude. Daily trust. Daily prayer.

If this sounds like a stewardship message, it is. Think of all the ways that God has provided for you throughout your lifetime. How can you translate those memories into a foundation of confidence that God will provide for you today and tomorrow and the next day...even when you don't know where your next meal will come from, even when you can't see any sources of water, even when the waves come crashing down upon you? Become a steward of God's blessings. Manage them, use them, devote them, dedicate them in ways that cultivate your faith. How do you do that? Count your blessings. Decide to trust God by living on less. Make a plan for sharing some of what you have with others. Let the act of letting go today teach you to count on tomorrow's blessings. You don't have to fill out a pledge card at your church in order to do that, but you can't do it haphazardly. If you aren't intentional, you can't make the connection between today's blessings and the promise of more blessings tomorrow. The practice--seeing, counting, planning, sharing--is what leads to deeper faith. It's what helps us stop our grumbling over today's crisis and remember the blessings we received yesterday.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Angel Escort

This sermon is for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, which we have transferred from September 29 to today. To read the lessons for this feast, click here. To listen to the sermon, click here.

If Jesus is the way back to heaven, how are you going to get there?

When I was in the fourth or fifth grade, I played the role of Jacob in a community theater production of the play Jacob's Ladder. As far as I remember, it had nothing to do with the Old Testament lesson appointed for today. Instead, the ladder upon which my character found himself represented the divide between my father and my mother, who were going through a divorce. I don't really remember a lot about the play, but I do remember one scene in which the script called for my father to carry me up a short ladder into the loft where I slept. I had fallen asleep on the couch while my parents were arguing, and, as things began to get heated, I was to be carried off stage into my bed.

Unfortunately, I have always been a big kid, and, by that, I don't mean childish. I mean husky. (Is there any more demeaning word for a kid than "husky?") The people who built our set placed the loft at the top of an eight-foot wooden ladder, and, during rehearsals, the man who played my father took one look at me and one look at the ladder and said to the director, "He's going to have to climb up there himself." I did, of course, pretending to be halfway asleep. He carried me to the ladder, pointed me up to bed, and I climbed up there by myself.

When it comes to getting to heaven, we know that Jesus is the link between us and the Father. We know that Jesus is the path, the way, the ladder that connects us back to the place where we need to go. He comes and bridges the divide between our fallen human nature and the divine nature that has the power to restore us to our unfallen state. But how do we get there? How do we make it from here to where we are supposed to be? Jesus is the way, but what carries us across the divide?

Angels. I don't give a lot of thought to angels. They make for good stories, like the one we read in Revelation today. I've heard a few people tell me of moments when angels intervened in their lives, and I do not doubt them. I do believe that there are moments when angels show up and help God's people in dramatic, even life-saving ways. But I have never had a moment like that. Unless you've seen one, angels seem pretty hard to get one's mind around. What are they, really? They aren't human beings, but they aren't God either. Their name "angel" literally means "messenger," but their place in our piety seems more substantial than that. People put statues of them throughout their houses. Sewanee people like to pretend that they have a special guardian angel who follows them around except when they are back at Sewanee, when their angel can take a break. It's stories like that that make me want to turn the page on angels altogether. But I wonder whether I am dismissing too quickly something that I cannot see and do not understand.

Jesus sees Nathaniel coming toward him and remarks, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" Nathaniel is surprised at how this stranger can judge him simply by seeing him, so he asks Jesus how he managed to gain this insight into his character. Jesus remarks that he saw Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree even before his friend Philip called him. If that snap judgment was amazing, even more so is Nathaniel's immediate identification of Jesus as "the Son of God...the King of Israel." Now, both are seeing things that ordinary human beings couldn't see. And, to cap it all off, Jesus invites Nathaniel to remain with him long enough to see "heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." In other words, if Nathaniel will pursue a life spent following Jesus, he will discover within him the link--the path--between heaven and earth and will, like Jacob, see the angels ascending and descending along that spiritual superhighway.

Although I think we overstate the cuteness and availability of angels, I think we underestimate their importance in getting us back to God. In a conversation I had with Warren Swenson, our seminarian from Sewanee, we discussed the role of angels in our faith. He's also preaching on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels and, like me, wanted to make a case for the importance of angels without falling victim to the overly sentimental way in which they are portrayed in our pseudo-Christian culture. In that conversation, I mused that Jesus shows us that the way back to the Father is through himself, but perhaps we've become so accustomed to our own ability to get where we need to go that we've forgotten what it means to depend on God's help to finish the journey. In other words, we've become overly dependent on our own ability to transport ourselves from here to there that, once we've discovered that Jesus is the way back to the Father, we've forgotten that we always need God's help to get there.

Angels show up in ways we can perceive only when we need them most--those critical moments of need in our lives--but, in fact, maybe we should imagine they are with us all the time, escorting us further and further up the ladder that leads back to God. Faith is the means by which we commit ourselves to the path of restoration that is Jesus. We are saved by grace through faith. Faith in Jesus as the one who brings us to the Father is our part in the equation of salvation, but grace is God's part. Jesus is the way. Faith is our recognition of the way--our plugging the destination into a GPS of sorts. But grace is the means by which we get there--a means that isn't up to us but is up to God.

Might that way be angels? Maybe. Maybe not. The Bible doesn't describe the journey to heaven quite like that. But the Bible does make it clear that we can't get to heaven on our own--that we can't choose our way back to God and then get there without God's constant intervention. Early theologians like Origen and Evagrius described angels as the not-so-fallen creatures who intervene on our behalf, pulling us upward in ways that help us overcome the downward pull of demons. I don't know if I believe that. But I do believe that I cannot get to heaven on my own--even if I want to, even if I choose it, even if I believe it. Perhaps angels are a beautiful way of saying that we need God's help in ways we cannot even perceive. Maybe angels are important because they remind us that, even if we know and believe that Jesus is the way to the Father, we need God's help getting there. Those of us who follow Jesus long enough will see that he is the ladder that stretches from earth to heaven, and, if we look with the eyes of faith and not pride, we will see that there are angels carrying us along the way.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Two Sons and the Flag

One might be tempted to use the Epistle lesson appointed for this Sunday (Philippians 2:1-13) to comment on the recent controversy over the decision of several professional athletes not to stand during the national anthem. After all, the text tells us that "at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth." There are many football players who are taking a knee in protest, but I think the better passage from which to base a comment is this Sunday's gospel lesson and the parable of the two sons in Matthew 21:23-32. Both are asked by their father to go to the vineyard and work. One refuses but later changes his mind and goes. The other agrees but never bothers with it. Which one did the work of his father? Even those who question Jesus' authority know the answer: the first. In today's circumstance, however, the answer isn't so clear. Which group does the will of the Founding Fathers? Which group represents the real patriots?

First, let me describe what sort of flag-etiquette-observant American I am. I like to display the American flag at our house, but I don't do so on days when I won't be home before the sun sets because I don't have appropriate lighting and want to be sure that the flag is taken in before it gets dark. If I drive by a business and see that their flags are improperly displayed, I will pull over and walk in just to let them know that, unless the center flag pole is noticeably higher than the others, the country's flag should go on the left as you observe them so that the flag of the United States can fly in the position of prominence (on the flag's own right). If the television is tuned to a sporting event and the national anthem is played, I stop what I am doing and stand up and sing right along with the television as if I were there in person. Those are some of the ways I like to show my love for my country. I have never served in the military, and I never made it past Bear Scout, but I take my flag and the anthem that celebrates it pretty seriously.

I write all of that so you will know that I am deeply committed to honoring our country and its flag before I tell you that I do not have a problem with professional athletes who decide to kneel, sit, raise a clenched fist, or otherwise protest during the singing of the national anthem. Why? Because I choose to think that the same love of country and the flag that represents it is motivating the actions of those who protest and the actions of those who stand, remove their hats, place their hands over their hearts, and sing boisterously while tears forms in their eyes.

Those who signed the Declaration of Independence may not have understood what equality really means, but they believed in the kind of freedom from tyranny that those who are protesting the treatment of black Americans yearn to see. Those who ratified the First Amendment may not have ever imagined a day when burning the American flag would be a symbol of freedom, but the freedom that they enshrined in that text, which cannot be taken away by the state or its representatives, means that those who lead an unpopular demonstration are guaranteed that right. If the NFL or team owners want to force players to stand during the anthem, they can take that up in their next round of collective bargaining. When an individual works for a company, she or he gives up the right to free speech. I'm not a huge professional football fan, but I don't want to see amateur-level competition on Sunday afternoons, and the decision of team owners and coaches to join with players in their demonstrations in response to President Trump's recent comments about the protest suggests that they don't want that either.

One group says that they love their country and refuses to stand for the national anthem. One group says that they love their country and proudly stands for the national anthem. Which one is right? Which one loves their country more? It's complicated. Are those who exercise their right not to stand more committed to freedom than those who refuse to accept their protest? What about people who are critical of people who think that everyone should stand for the anthem? That's a Constitutionally protected right, too. Are those who label the anti-protesters as anti-American actually missing the point more profoundly than those who are critical of the protest itself? What would Jesus say?

There are two sons. One agrees to go and help his father but never gets around to it. The other refuses but ends up going to help out. The former sounds dutiful but fails to follow through. The latter appears faithless but proves himself in his actions. Who is who in this situation? In case you've forgotten--and at this point that's understandable--this protest started because a few high-profile athletes were distraught that unarmed black men were being shot by police. In the Land of the Free, black people are not treated the same as white people. As the months went by and Colin Kaepernick remained unsigned by any NFL team, it became clear that this protest and the reaction to it has its roots in a deeper racial divide. When the President of the United States decided to express his opinion that protesting athletes should be fired and claimed that this wasn't about race, he further proved that that's exactly what this is about.

If the proof of the pudding is in the eating (and not in the looking), we need more than a show of patriotism. We need people who are willing to take risks for the sake of those whose freedoms are not guaranteed. Men and women risked their lives to fight for freedom from the British crown. Men and women risked their lives to fight for a unified country that would be free of slavery. Men and women risked their lives to demonstrate and fight against segregation and legalized oppression. Men and women risked their lives to fight for freedom and human decency in places near and far away. Now, it's time for men and women to take risks in order to be sure that all men and women and children are given the freedoms that patriots have died to protect. You can't do that if you're standing for the national anthem and turning a blind eye to the way black people are treated in this country. You can't do that if you're kneeling in protest and look at everyone who stands and judge them as someone who is opposed to real freedom. It's risky to talk with people of a different race and background about what it means to be an American, but, until we take that risk, we're all just pretending. It doesn't matter how faithful, open-minded, and patriotic we tell people we are. What matters is what we're willing to do about it.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Until Everyone Has Enough

September 24, 2017 – The 16th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
I want to warn you that, if you are a Republican, you probably won’t like this sermon. And, if you’re a Democrat, you probably won’t like it either. In fact, if you’re an American or, for that matter, a human being of any nationality or political affiliation, you probably won’t like what I have to say. That’s because the story that Jesus tells us this morning is infuriating, and it isn’t the preacher’s job to soften the blow. If my words don’t challenge you at least as much as Jesus’ do, then I am not being faithful to the gospel.

Let’s be clear from the start: Jesus was trying to ruffle some feathers. You don’t tell a parable about some laborers working all day in the scorching heat who get paid the same amount as those who only worked an hour and not make people mad. The truth is that grace and unconditional love are maddening. Sure, they’re fine and dandy as long as you’re the one who only worked an hour, but, when you’ve given your whole life to being faithful and have always tried to be a good person and some Johnny-come-lately who always thought of himself and who never once did what God wanted him to do shows up at the last minute and gets the exact same heavenly reward that you do, it’s enough to drive you crazy. And Jesus told this parable to make sure that all of us are perfectly clear that that’s precisely how grace works.

There’s no better way to make us understand the totality of the gospel than to hit us where it counts—in our wallets. There’s something about using a parable that quantifies our labor and our reward in terms of hours worked and dollars paid that makes it clear just how enraging the gospel really is. Human instinct produces no stronger reaction than the one that arises when a person gets shortchanged. When we don’t get credit for our work, when we don’t receive proper recognition, when we don’t get paid what we think we deserve, and when someone else gets what should belong to us, it fills us with the kind of self-righteous indignation that leads to mob violence. As the grumbling laborers in the parable declared, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” You have made them equal to us. Equal, indeed.

Equality is a lovely thing as long as it doesn’t cost me anything, but, in the kingdoms of this world, it always does. Universal access to health care means higher premiums or higher taxes for those who are healthy and wealthy. A living wage means higher prices and lower incomes for the rest of us. Freedom for everyone means sacrifice for the few who protect it on our behalf. As long as we approach the kingdom of heaven in the same way that we approach the politics of this life, Jesus’ call for equality and the grace that it represents will always make us angry. If Jesus’ parable is supposed to be an image of how the world should be, then it is going to cost us something.

But this parable isn’t about the kingdoms of the world. “Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” This is a picture of what heaven is like. This is what it looks like in God’s kingdom. In the kingdoms of this world, a person’s value may be expressed in how hard or long that person works, in how good that person is, or in how much that person is paid, but in the kingdom of heaven an individual’s value is not based on a limited resource like hours or effort or dollars. The economics of God’s kingdom are built upon the principle that all value comes from the love of God and that God’s love has no limit.

In Jesus’ parable, every laborer, from the last to the first, was paid the same amount—a denarius. But how much was a denarius worth? Preachers like me love to take that biblical measurement and convert it into present-day currency and tell congregations that a denarius is about $100. If you hired a laborer to work around your house and paid him around $10 an hour, after a full day’s work, you’d owe him about $100. That’s a day’s wage. That’s what a denarius is worth. But that’s not really what a denarius is. A denarius was a coin—a single, silver coin. When you worked for a day, you were given that coin in exchange for your labor, and that coin was enough to feed your family and pay your bills and keep you going long enough for you to wake up and do it all over again the next day. A denarius, therefore, was enough.

There’s a similar concept in today’s Old Testament lesson, which I took the liberty of lengthening by three verses. Did you hear in those verses what Moses commanded the people of Israel when they went out to pick up the manna that God had sent them? “Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.” And all of Israel did so. Some gathered more, and some gathered less, but, as long as they measured what they gathered by an omer, “those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage.” There was exactly the right amount. I don’t know how much an omer is, but I do know that it is enough. And that’s how God’s kingdom works.

What happens when God gives everyone enough? What happens when the measure of a person’s worth is based not on something that might run out but on something that can never be exhausted? Imagine for a minute that God’s kingdom is like a never-ending all-you-can-eat buffet. Does it matter if the person next to you has more chicken wings or crab legs on his plate than you do? Or maybe the kingdom of heaven is like chili dogs. I don’t know about you, but I’m of the opinion that two chili dogs is enough for any human being. Should I be upset if I go to a fancy dinner party and my host gives me two chili dogs and you four? I might feel slighted, but that’s only true until I finish that second chili dog and realize that I’ve already had enough. God help me if I ask for another one.

God’s love is endless. God’s love has no limits. God’s love and the blessings it bestows can never run out. And in God’s kingdom everyone always gets enough. Not just the good people. Not just the faithful people. Not just the hard-working people. Everyone. No matter how much you think you deserve it, no matter how much you think someone else doesn’t, God gives everyone enough, and there is always enough to go around. If we approach God’s kingdom the same way that we approach the kingdoms of this world and assume that the measure of our value is based on a limited resource, we cannot help but reject the principle of equality. If there was only so much of God’s love to go around, of course I would resent it if you took some of the love that was supposed to go to me. No one can afford being left out of God’s kingdom. But how silly is it for us to compete for God’s love? There is always enough of God’s love to go around. But, if God’s love is truly limitless, then those of us live in that love are not only given the freedom of knowing that everyone has enough but also the freedom to make God’s economy a reality on earth just as it is in heaven.

This might be a parable about heaven, but it has profound earthly implications, too. If your true value comes not from the life you live but from God’s gracious gift, then you are free to leave behind an economy of competition and accept that it doesn’t matter how much or little you or anyone else has because, when it comes to the only thing that matters—God’s love—everyone always has enough. Once we believe that, it becomes possible for us to give up the wealth and status and privilege that we possess in order that the kingdoms of this world might be transformed into mirrors of God’s kingdom, so that all the laborers in the vineyard really do get paid the same amount—enough.

Yes, equality in this life is costly. Yes, equal pay and equal access mean that most of the people who call this congregation home have to give something up. But what do we believe? Is our life measured by the abundance of our possessions or by the magnitude of God’s love for us? And, if we believe that our true value comes from God’s limitless and indiscriminate love, we must ask ourselves whether that truth is reflected in our lives or whether we are propping up a kingdom that rejects it.
No one said that grace would be easy. In fact, Jesus let us know right from the start that it’s going to be really hard. But the transformation that God’s grace promises—in our lives and in the world—is worth more than we can possibly imagine.