Monday, April 24, 2017

Three Weeks, Same Day


This coming Sunday is the Third Sunday of Easter. In case you've forgotten, there are eight Sundays in the Easter season, including Pentecost, which is the 50th day of this 50-day celebration of the resurrection. Since this is the third Sunday, we're almost half-way through this annual escapade, but you might notice that we haven't gotten very far. On Easter Day, we read the story of the discovery of the empty tomb. Yesterday, we began our gospel lesson on the evening of that same day, when Jesus appeared to all of the disciples except Thomas, who had his own encounter with the risen Lord a week later. If you thought we'd be moving on by this point, you'd be wrong because this Sunday's gospel lesson starts in the same place--the evening of the Day of Resurrection. Good news for organists: even though "Welcome happy morning!" is out, we can still sing "Hail thee festival day" one more time. Bad news for preachers: we're still stuck on Day One.

The good news for those crafting a sermon this week, however, is that the Road to Emmaus allows the kind of deep textual and liturgical engagement that makes preaching fun. Two disciples are walking away from Jerusalem on  Easter evening, when they are met by the risen Jesus, whom they are kept from recognizing. He opens the scriptures to them, explaining why the death and resurrection of God's anointed one was necessary, yet they still do not see who it is with whom they are walking. When they sit down at the table, Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives the bread to them, and their eyes are opened. Immediately, Jesus vanishes from their sight, and the disciples get up and walk the seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples, who have their own resurrection stories to tell.

What will the preacher say? A sermon on the fact that sometimes scriptural exposition isn't enough to apprehend Jesus--sometimes we need table fellowship, too? Another sermon on the reality of the resurrection sinking in only when the disciples meet the resurrected Jesus--the way we, too, meet him in his body and blood, which are given for us? A sermon on the transformation of death to life that happens within each of us when we encounter the resurrection for ourselves--only after we've walked the road of uncertainty where Jesus himself meets us? But all of that seems familiar to me. If there's a challenge this week, it's preaching a sermon that feels as fresh to the preacher and, thus, to the congregation as the encounter with Jesus felt to Cleopas and the other disciple.

There's a reason we're still stuck on "that same day," and it's not because the lectionary authors ran out of material for Easter. Like the disciples, we need time to encounter the resurrection of Jesus. The discovery of the empty tomb may have happened at one particular moment in time, but the ramifications of that filter through several encounters that first day and in the weeks that followed. We need time to know that the tomb isn't merely empty but also to see that he is risen. We need time to consider why that matters and what it means. This doesn't feel as fresh and exciting as the moment when Mary Magdalene found the stone rolled away. I don't run through this gospel lesson the way Peter and the Beloved Disciple raced toward the empty tomb. But I'm not supposed to. This is a walk--a long, seven-mile walk. This is consideration. This is the church's way of lingering in the story. We've expanded that first day for three weeks. Don't expect to rush through it. Easter is a season, not a day, and this Sunday's gospel lesson gives us the chance to dwell in it together.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Unless...I Will Not Believe


There's a reason we read about "Doubting Thomas" each year on the Second Sunday of Easter, and it isn't because Thomas is special. Thomas plays an important role in John's account of the resurrection. In fact, it's a role he plays throughout John's gospel account. Thomas isn't the curmudgeonly hold-out who is the last one to accept the newfangled way of thinking. He's the guy who needs to encounter Jesus before he can believe in the resurrection. In other words, he's you and me.

Yesterday, Steve Pankey wrote beautifully about the compassion Jesus had for Thomas, urging us to hear his words not as a taunting rebuke of the faithless disciple but as an offer of his body as physical proof of the resurrection. I strongly urge you to read his post. I want to build on what he said, using the Greek text to show that, as Steve concludes, Thomas' "unbelief" is not only not recalcitrance but the same honest, genuine skepticism that we bring to the story of the resurrection.

When Thomas heard from his companion disciples that they had seen the risen Jesus, he responded, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." As I often ask people in bible studies, if you were the film director designing this scene, how would you set it? My instinct is to show Thomas with his arms crossed, shaking his head, denying actively what his friends were saying to him. When I hear him say, "...I will not believe," it sounds like an expression of his will. It's as if he were saying to them, "I am withholding my belief until I get the proof I want. I have made up my mind not to give in until my terms are met."

Does this sound familiar? "Would you like them in a house? Would you like them with a mouse?" Sam-I-Am asks. "I do not like them in a house. I do not like them with a mouse. I do not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere," the unnamed character responds. That's Thomas. That's the Thomas of my imagination--stubborn, cynical, pouty, and uncompromising. And all of it is because of the way his response to the disciples' testimony is conveyed. But I don't think that's a fair translation of what Thomas says.


The verb that Thomas uses to tell the disciples that he will not believe is "πιστεύσω." As you might expect, it is the future indicative active first-person singular verb for "to believe." It is, of course, rightly translated, "I will [not] believe," but that doesn't necessarily mean the stubborn refusal that is sounds like in English. For starters, consider how someone might say, "Unless I get pregnant, I will not buy a car seat." That's not stubborn. It's just sensible. Unless the context is a high-pressured sales pitch, during which the salesperson badgers a woman into buying a car seat she doesn't need, to which the response would rightly be a stubborn, insistent, defiant rejection, the statement "I will not" isn't necessarily defiant. It's just naming the condition necessary for the purchase to ensue. As Steve suggests in his post, maybe Thomas is simply saying, "This is what I have to have--not because I want it to be that way but because that's what I need in order for the faith to be real to me."

Taking the Greek a little further, it may be worth noting that in New Testament Greek there is no difference in the form of a future indicative active first-person singular verb and the form of a aorist subjunctive active first-person singular verb. In other words, the same word πιστεύσω, that is usually translated, "I will [not] believe," may also mean "I shall [not] have believed." Before my Greek teachers line up to take my passing grades away from me, let me acknowledge that the context makes that unlikely, but the fact that the forms are identical suggests etymologically that there is similarity in the meanings--a similarity that comes out in the awkward translation I provide. The point I'm making is that the volition behind the English "I will not believe" is not necessarily present in what Thomas says to his colleagues.

If I were directing this scene in a movie, I would give Thomas a pleading posture and an urgent tone. When he says, "Unless...I will not believe," I would invite the actor to portray that with a desperation that yearns for the truth. "I want to believe, but I will not, cannot, until I can touch it for myself." Isn't that what we say? Isn't that John's point?

"Have you believed because you have seen me?" Jesus says. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." That's John's way of letting us know that our own doubts are reasonable. No one would have believed in the resurrection unless Jesus had appeared to them in the flesh. The other eleven disciples had that opportunity, and Thomas' doubt is our doubt. His question of Jesus back in John 14--"We do not know where you are going. How will we know the way?"--is our question as well. He's the reasonable one. He's the rational one. He's the real one--the one who, like us, doesn't find true belief because someone tells us we should. He needs to see and know and feel the risen Jesus. We don't have that opportunity, but the realism of Thomas' request helps us overcome our doubts. Our faith is found as Thomas' is found, and Jesus' response to us is the same: Here I am. Come and touch me. Feel me. Do not doubt but believe.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Be Known to Us


There is a fraction anthem in the front of the hymnal that we don't sing very often (ever) in our church that captures the moment when Cleopas and the other disciple realized that it was Jesus who was sitting with them at the table in Emmaus: "Be known to us, Lord Jesus, in the breaking of the bread." I have sung those words in other churches, but I have never identified them explicitly with this moment--this episode in Luke when Jesus was revealed to these two followers. I wonder, however, whether it is fair to say that "Jesus was revealed" to them and whether we should instead say that "the disciples apprehended him."

Consider for a moment all of the resurrection encounters you can remember from the New Testament. When has the one to whom Jesus was revealed understood immediately what was standing in front of them? Mary Magdalene weeps outside the tomb and mistakes Jesus as the gardener. The two disciples see that the grave cloths are in the tomb but go back to their homes still unable to understand. Thomas refuses to accept that Jesus has been raised until he can feel with his own fingers and hands the flesh of the risen Jesus. Even though they had already met the risen Lord, the disciples gather behind locked doors out of fear. Standing on the beach, the risen Jesus calls to the disciples in the boat, inviting them to cast their net on the other side, and only when the net is filled with fish do they understand who it is who is speaking to them. And then there's today's story from Luke 24, in which two disciples walk down the road to Emmaus, unable to see who it is that has come among them.

All of that suggests that none of us is ready to meet the risen Lord. Even after we have heard stories of the resurrected Jesus appearing to some of his disciples, we are not prepared to perceive who it is that comes among us. No exposition of scripture, no matter how careful and thorough, can move us from belief to recognition. It's one thing to put the pieces together, but it's quite another to sit down at a table with Jesus. Like the first followers of Jesus, we participate in the body of the faithful--in the body of Christ--not only with our minds but also with our whole selves. We know Jesus as we have been known--fully, intimately, physically, personally.

It's hard for me to imagine how it is that two disciples could walk and talk with the same Jesus whom they knew so well and not see him. It's hard for me to imagine how they could sit down at a table with him and begin a meal together without knowing who it was with whom they were sharing table fellowship. But it's not hard for me to imagine how the act of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving the bread to them was the act that united them to one another. And, as strange as it sounds, it's not at all hard for me to imagine Jesus disappearing from their sight as soon as they understood who he was.

Caravaggio captured this moment of recognition in his painting of this scene. In it, we see Jesus' hand extended over the bread in the dominical gesture of blessing. We see the arms of the older disciple outstretched in a gesture of surprise and welcome. We see the other in the act of jumping to his feet, leaning forward with hands gripping the sides of his chair as he prepares to leap up to embrace the risen Lord. We see the quizzical look of the man who is serving the meal and who wonders what it is that is going on in front of him. There is movement in this painting. There is intimacy. We are drawn into the circle at the table in the open corner placed right in front of us. The basket of fruit seems like it will fall into our lap at any moment. We want to reach out and slide it a little more fully onto the table. Caravaggio is begging us to find our place there. There is room for us to reach into the canvas toward Jesus. We see where it is that we, too, will meet our risen Lord.

Be known to us, Lord Jesus, in the breaking of the bread. With those words, we not only express our belief that Jesus meets us when we gather for Communion. We acknowledge that this meal--this ceremonial act of table fellowship in his name--is the way that we know him. It is here that we not only hear the story of Jesus' self-offering. It is here that we partake of it, participate in it, and are united to it. We are not here to see Jesus unveiled. We are here to know him. In the bread which we break and share, Jesus is not only revealed to us. In it, we know him. Be known to us, Lord Jesus, in the breaking of the bread.


Caravaggio's The Supper at Emmaus (1601) in the National Gallery in London
The image is in the public domain.



Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Light Shines in the Darkness


Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

There's a line in the movie Rounders that I seem to come back to over and over. That's the poker movie from the late 1990s that stars Matt Damon and Edward Norton. In the film, in order to forestall the violent beating of his friend, Damon's character vouches for Norton's character, agreeing to accept the gambling debt of the latter as if it were his own. The two men work together, cheating at poker, in order to raise the money. Just when it looks like they are close to having enough, their dishonesty is discovered, and they lose everything. Damon's character must appeal to other friends and acquaintances, seeking a loan to prevent his own violent demise, and one of those would-be lenders begins to lecture Damon on where he went wrong. Damon's reply still bears truth in my own life: "This is the one time I don't need you to tell me how I [screwed] up. I know I [screwed] up. What I need from you is money."


I have always been uncomfortable with Good Friday sermons that identify the sins of the congregation as the nails that held Jesus to the cross. I don't disagree with the theology behind those sermons--just the timing. Sure, Jesus died on the cross to free us from our sin once and for all, but, when I'm staring at the cross itself, my mind and heart are not fertile ground for such seeds. I know I screwed up. I don't need the preacher to tell me I screwed up. I need a way out. I need hope. I need Jesus and the limitless love that he brings to the world.

The light of Easter seems a much better time for me to confront my role in the cross. Repentance is always easier when I have something to turn toward and not just something from which to turn away. Today is Tuesday in Easter Week. We're just three days into the resurrection, and what is the appointed reading from Acts? "Peter said to the multitude, 'Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified'" (Acts 2:36). We've just finished forty days of penitence. We've done the self-examination. We're ready to move on. But Peter isn't finished with the cross yet. He can't be. From the defeat of the cross springs new hope and new life and new possibility.

Notice how Peter says it: "God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified." He doesn't start with the failure. He begins with the victory. God has made him victorious over death despite your worst efforts. Easter shines forth into, over, and above the darkness you created. There is possibility here, and Peter starts with the possibility, but, at the same time, he doesn't want us to miss the circumstances that gave rise to that new possibility.

Pay attention to how the crowd responds: "Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, 'Brothers, what should we do?'" The hope is not detached from the circumstance; it is articulated in opposition to it. God raised the one you crucified. Presented with this reality, the response is a seeking: "What should we do?" An exposition of darkness cannot draw out such a response. If Peter had merely beaten the people over the head with their misdeeds, they would have turned away from him and his message. But Peter offered hope in the context of reality, and the product was faith.

What should we do? Repent, Peter says. "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." Repentance, after all, isn't only an act by which we leave behind our misdeeds, our old life, our wrong-headedness. It is the act by which we turn around to embrace something new. It is the beginning of a new life. Peter's invitation, therefore, is to accept that God's path is revealed in the resurrection (and ascension, but that's later in the calendar,) of Jesus. The path that the people had been on was the path that led to the cross. "Which path would you rather be on?" Peter seems to be saying, the one that you were one--the one that led to the cross--or the one that God is one--the one that leads to life? Repentance is an opportunity to change course, and it's always easier to change course when we have the light to show us where we've been going and where we might now go.

Don't let the light of the resurrection come and go without allowing it to illuminate both the Easter path that you're on and the Good Friday path that you've come from. Your sins nailed Jesus Christ to the cross. All of ours did. But that's not the end of the story. Our sin is what led us to the cross. God's victory over that sin is what leads us away from the cross, through the empty tomb, and out into the world in the light of Easter. May our walk with Jesus Christ be a continual repentance from the old and an embrace of the new.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Resurrection Is For The Living

April 16, 2017 – Easter Day
© 2017 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here.
 
Happy Easter to you! We’ve been waiting forty days to say that, and it feels good. I am glad that you are here this morning to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Many of you are wearing new Easter dresses or suits or ties. Some of you have dusted off your seersucker jackets and linen trousers and white shoes. Either way, you all look great. After church, I hope that you have a glorious afternoon waiting on you—one filled with family and food. This morning, however, I want to talk about what comes after that. What comes next—when the brightness of Easter begins to fade?

For Seth and me and lots of other clergy, tomorrow will be a day of rest and recovery. I’ll squeeze in a nap and try to catch up on all the yard work I haven’t been doing lately. What about you? It’s a school day. Many of you will go back to work. If you have had family in town, your house might seem pretty quiet. You might be glad for the rest, but you might miss the company as well. For some of us, the brightness of today is just a momentary reprieve, and the challenges of ordinary life, which we have set aside for this Easter feast, will come rushing back with renewed vengeance. Others of us will carry the joy of the resurrection with us for the fifty days of the Easter season and maybe even beyond that, but then what? Will this Easter—this discovery of the empty tomb—make a lasting difference in our life, or will it come and go just like a tray of mama’s deviled eggs?

Have you ever known someone who was in such a funk that he or she just couldn’t shake it off even when everyone and everything all around them was doing great? Have you ever felt like that? A loved one dies, and we spend months and months stuck in an impenetrable fog of grief. We get burned in a relationship, and we build a wall around our heart so high and so thick that even when love comes knocking we fail to recognize it. An unexpected election result causes us to question the character of the American electorate to the point where we can no longer see the good in one another. Do you ever feel, as I heard in a recent sermon, that “we are dwelling not in an era of blossoming life, but rather [subsisting] within an age of death?”[1] In other words, do you ever feel like we need more than a baked ham and Cadbury Creme Eggs and plastic grass and chocolate bunnies? Do you ever feel like we need more than Easter? Do you ever feel like we need a resurrection moment that can make a lasting difference in our lives? To me, it seems like we need the resurrection now more than ever, but how will we find that resurrection moment?

The resurrection story that we read today in John’s gospel account speaks words of lasting hope that have the power to shatter even our deepest despair, and they come not with the discovery of an empty tomb but in an encounter with the risen Jesus. Some may find the story of the resurrection hard to believe, but I think that the disbelief that runs through today’s gospel lesson is far more unbelievable than the walking, talking, breathing, risen Jesus.

On the first day of the week, while it was still dark, one of Jesus’ closest followers, Mary Magdalene, came to the tomb, and, when she saw that the stone had been rolled away, what did she run to tell the disciples? “They have taken the Lord of out the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Not, “Our Lord has risen just as he promised!” Nor, “The stone is rolled away from his tomb. Could he be raised just as he told us?” But, “They have taken his lifeless body and put it somewhere else.” For months, Jesus had been telling his followers that on the third day he would rise again, but, when Mary Magdalene saw the stone rolled away, she panicked and feared the worst.

Maybe it’s because she didn’t look inside, we might think to ourselves, but, when Peter and the other disciple got there and looked in and saw the linen wrappings lying there but no body with them, their conclusion was no clearer. John tells us that the other disciple believed, but what did he believe? Not that Jesus had been raised, for, in the very next sentence, John tells us that they did not yet understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead. It seems most likely that these disciples believed what Mary had told them—that Jesus was gone. So they left and went back to their homes, carrying with them their grief and loss, which had now been compounded by their master’s missing body.

After the disciples left, Mary stood weeping by the tomb. This time it was her turn to look in, and when she stooped down to peer into the tomb, she saw two angels, clothed in white, sitting where Jesus’ body had been laid. “Woman, why are you weeping?” they asked her. And, if you thought that two angels surely would trigger in her mind that something supernatural was going on, you’d be wrong because she answered, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Talk about blinding grief! Then, when she turned around, she saw Jesus, standing in front of her. Jesus himself spoke to Mary and said the same thing: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” But she was still not able to see the miracle even though it was standing right before her eyes. Supposing him to be the gardener, she replied to him in utter agony, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away and give him another burial.” Something had to give. Finally, unwilling to let this fog of despair linger any longer, Jesus cut right through it and said, “Mary!” And, in that instant, everything changed.

“Rabbouni!” she said to him, seeing for the first time that he had indeed been raised from the dead. With that one word—her name—spoken by the one who knew her best, the only one who could call her out of her grief, the risen Jesus brought her from the shadows of despair into the light of the resurrection. And she would never be the same again. “Go to my brothers,” Jesus told her, “and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your father, to my God and your God.’” And Mary Magdalene raced away from the tomb as fast as she could to find the disciples and say to them, “I have seen the Lord!”

What does it take for us to live in the light of the resurrection? What does it take for us to leave the darkness of doubt and grief and woundedness and despair behind and experience the transformation that the resurrection brings? The terrible thing about despair is that it creeps in slowly, and, before we know it, it takes over our life and changes everything we know from light to dark, from hope to fear, from life to death. It gives us not a set of “alternative facts” but, worse, an alternative truth so that, even when signs of new possibility are all around us, we are unable to see them for what they are. Our despondency rewrites those signs of hope, changing them into another defeat waiting to happen. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The resurrection is not something we experience when we die. It is a gift to the living—to those who have met the risen Jesus and believe in him and follow him as the one who has the power to bring light and life to even the darkest places. In him, the defeat of the cross becomes God’s greatest victory. Those who witness the miracle of Easter, in whose hearts the light of the resurrection lives on, know that there is nothing that could ever take God’s saving, redeeming love away from them. But how do we find that victory? How do we meet the risen Lord? It’s not by putting together all of the pieces of the Christian faith until you come up with a believable whole. We discover the resurrection when we hear Jesus call our name. Today, this miracle is for you. This morning, it is your name that Jesus is calling. Can you hear him speaking your name?

Live in the light of the resurrection. Hear Jesus speaking to you. See him show you that God has the power to take even your darkest troubles and open up within them the possibility for new life. Do not dwell in the shadow of despair any longer. Do not leave the empty tomb this morning without encountering the risen Jesus. He is the one who has the power to give you life. He is here with us, and he is calling your name. See him. Believe in him. And carry the unbreakable light of the resurrection with you in your heart every day for the rest of your life.



[1] J. Seth Olson, “Good Friday,” 14 April 2017.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Hope Without Hope


April 15, 2015 – Holy Saturday
© 2017 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

It’s hard to know which one was heavier—the hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes that Nicodemus brought to the tomb or the lifeless body of Jesus that Joseph carried to its resting place. I have carried a fifty-pound sack of seed corn over my shoulder, and I may have attempted to carry two at once back when I was younger and more foolish, but I don’t know whether I could manage it now. I suppose a hundred pounds might be brought in a wheelbarrow or a another sort of cart, but the devotion that these two men had for their Lord, which John goes out of his way to mention, seems more fully expressed if the men could feel the full weight of the load as they approached the tomb.

The day was nearly over by then, and the crowd had left since the spectacle of the three bandits’ gruesome deaths was finished. The people had gone back to their homes to light the Shabbat candles and say the appropriate blessing before the sun set and the sabbath began. Except, perhaps, for a few faithful onlookers who watched from the shadows, hardly anyone noticed Joseph stumbling awkwardly beneath his imbalanced load. The Torah described as cursed anyone who died while hanging on a tree, but it also commanded that the dead body be taken down and given a proper burial before sunset. Perhaps that dignity didn’t seem important to the religious leaders who had called for the radical rabbi’s execution, but it was important to Joseph, a secret disciple. Although his request may have raised some eyebrows among them, the scriptural mandate gave him an excuse to take his master’s body down and place it in a tomb.

Nicodemus, too, had kept his devotion to Jesus a secret. At first, he had gone to Jesus at night, seeking an answer to his heart’s deepest longing. Later on, he had spoken up in defense of the controversial teacher, reminding his fellow leaders of the importance of giving the accused a fair hearing. His colleagues scoffed, saying, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” But Nicodemus wasn’t sure. Maybe the scriptures didn’t foretell a Galilean prophet, but in Jesus he had found what he had been missing. Still, it wasn’t enough to convince him to speak out when the time came. Instead, he had stood silently while the accused was condemned to death, and, only now, as night approached, when the coast was clear, did he come and show true devotion to this son of a Galilean carpenter.

I like to imagine that the two men did their work quickly but reverently, only speaking when necessary. There were ritual acts to perform and prayers to recite, but they needed to finish before the sabbath began and before anyone really noticed what was going on. The sun slipping below the horizon as they rolled the stone in place, the two secret disciples completed their act of reverence and then slipped into the night. Like their ancestors, who had waited through the night to see whether salvation would find them, Nicodemus and Joseph retired to their homes to wait and wonder.

We, too, must begin in the dark. Before the light of a new day can reach us, we must dwell in the shadows of night. Our true devotion is not revealed in the brightness of hope but in the darkness of despair. Our discipleship takes shape when we have forgotten what hope is. Our character as followers of Jesus is fashioned only when we have nothing else to lose. Then, when the silent darkness that seems to have no end comes upon us, will we wait even though we do not know what tomorrow will bring? Will we keep watch even when we cannot see whether dawn will find us? In those shadows, God’s abiding presence is revealed, and true hope is found.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Disorientation Day


I had a text message exchange this morning with my friend and colleague, Jack Alvey, about the challenge of Good Friday. What do we preach on this day? Do we act as if we do not know what Easter will bring? Do we ask our congregation to forget that they know how the story will end? Or do we preach the full message of the cross, which only comes clear in the light of Easter? I think Good Friday is the easiest and hardest day on which to preach--easiest because the cross almost speaks for itself and needs very little exposition and the hardest because we must walk that fine line between sending the congregation away in utter despair and robbing Good Friday of its identity by naming the cross as a place of hope.

There is no hope on Good Friday without Easter. Like a superhero drama unfolding before our eyes, we wait for Jesus to break free of his bonds, to snatch the whip from his tormentors, to come down from the cross and save himself, to triumph over the Roman authorities who have hung him there. We know a good drama, so we wait in agonizing anticipation as each scene follows the last. "Will this be the moment when he escapes?" we ask ourselves. We know the story cannot end this way. Because we have been to Easter, we know it does not end this way. But, when Jesus gives up his spirit, when the soldiers see that he is really dead, when his body is taken down from the cross and handed over to Joseph, when Nicodemus and Joseph place his spice-slathered corpse into the tomb and roll the stone in place, the part of us that is trapped anachronistically in that moment as the first disciples were wants to stand up and wave our arms and scream, "This is not right. It's not supposed to end this way. Jesus is our savior, our king. The hero doesn't die in the end. What kind of story is that?"

Good Friday is a day of total disorientation. Everything we thought we knew about God and Jesus and justice and righteousness and innocence and sin and death and victory and promise falls apart. This isn't how it's supposed to happen. If we take Good Friday seriously, we are supposed to leave the cross in utter bewilderment. We are supposed to leave church feeling lost and confused and angry and despondent. When Jesus dies on the cross, all our hopes die with him--those hopes that had taken shape in our pre-Easter logic. Our hope that the good guy would win. Our expectation that God would never let his chosen one die. Our belief that goodness is rewarded. Our confidence that the making the right choices leads to the right outcome. Our understanding that we are in control of our destiny. To encounter the cross in the darkness of the first Good Friday, to dwell in the real shadow of this day, is to experience complete and total deconstruction. In this act, we are dismembered, taken apart piece by piece.

Because we know that the third day will come, we can accept this disorientation without complete despair. We know that eventually God will (and, in fact, already has) put the pieces back together. We know that this disorientation is followed by reorientation. But we cannot be put back together by God unless we allow him to take us apart completely. We must start over. Our self-made hopes must die completely before new hopes--God's hopes--can be put in our hearts. If we do not encounter the real despair of Good Friday without even a ray of light from what is ahead, we cannot know the fullness of Easter.

This day accept defeat. Yield your spirit over to God. Die completely. Let your logic be put to death. Become completely disoriented. Dwell in that confusion--that lostness without a compass--and wait there until God finds you, reorients you, and puts you back together.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

We Do It For Love's Sake

April 13, 2015 – Maundy Thursday
© 2017 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Before listening, you may want to know that I cried throughout the sermon, which may make the recording difficult to hear.

One night, as a young adolescent, I tried to slip into bed without performing the nightly routine prescribed by my parents. My mother caught me and asked whether I had brushed my teeth. Not wanting to get out from under the covers, I asked in that whiny voice that teenage boys often use when trying to get something from their mothers, “Will you brush them for me?” I didn’t think that she would say yes, but, when she said no, her answer was so firm, so unequivocal, that it startled me. “Why not?” I asked, halfway continuing my whiny request and halfway wanting to know why she had answered so quickly. “Because that reminds me of when I had to brush my mother’s teeth before she died,” she said, walking out of the room. Without another word, I got out of the bed, walked quickly and quietly to the bathroom, certain I would never ask for that again.

There are some jobs, some chores, that only a parent or spouse or child who has cared for a dying or disabled loved-one can appreciate. When feeding our youngest child or changing her dirty diapers, I joke with my older children about how they will have to do that for me one day. It’s a joke, but behind it is more truth than either they or I can comprehend. What happens when our mother is unable to feed herself? What happens when our father cannot make it to the commode? Now that he or she cannot stand up, who bathes the one who bathed us when we were infants? Like you, I find it uncomfortable to wash another person’s feet or let someone wash my feet, but what words can express the discomfort of looking into the eyes of a parent as you change her soiled undergarments or looking at a son or daughter as that child helps you with the most private of human functions?

Sometimes we accept that responsibility willingly. Other times we have no choice because there is no long-term care insurance or because there isn’t enough money to pay someone else to do it. Whether by choice or by necessity, the care that we offer our incapacitated loved-one is an act of duty, love, and devotion. It is certainly difficult. It is often overwhelming. Sometimes we literally, physically and emotionally, cannot do it anymore. But when we can, we accept that role because of the love that we have for that other person. That love might be tested as fully as any love ever has, but it is only love that makes such devotion possible. If it were not for love, who would do those things for another person—for an acquaintance or a stranger?

On the night before he died, Jesus was at table with his disciples. Knowing that his time on earth was nearing its end, he got up from the table and tied a towel around his waist and went around the room, washing each of his disciples’ feet. We know that act principally through this gospel lesson and through our reenactment of it each year on Maundy Thursday, but, because of that, I find it difficult to understand what it really meant for Jesus to wash his disciples’ feet. I think that the image and the lesson that Jesus was trying to teach us are partially locked in the past—in an era when washing someone’s feet was not a ceremonial act but a commonplace chore reserved for the most menial household servant. Only the lowliest slave would have been given that responsibility.

Who are the foot-washers of today? What are the least desired jobs in twenty-first century America? When I was growing up, being a garbage man or a janitor seemed to be the epitome of a dirty, thankless job. Since then, Mike Rowe’s series on the Discovery Channel Dirty Jobs has shown us that there are plenty of occupations much worse than those. Nowadays, as I spend a lot more time in hospitals and nursing homes and at the bedsides of dying parishioners, I have a different understanding of what it means to do the job that no one else wants to do. What is the first job that we would rather pass off to someone else? Whatever it is, that is the foot-washing of our day. Of all the chores one might ever have to complete, the one that is reserved for the lowliest of the low is the very thing that Jesus tells us to do.

When Jesus came to wash Peter’s feet, the brash disciple rejected Jesus’ offer not because, like us, Peter didn’t want someone else touching his feet but because he couldn’t stand for his teacher and master and Lord to stoop down and perform such a lowly task. “You will never wash my feet,” Peter declared, certain that he would have no part in this role-reversal. The teacher cannot kneel before the disciple. The master cannot serve the servant. But Jesus said to him, “Unless I wash you, you have no share in me.” Peter heard those words as if Jesus had been speaking of some sort of ritual cleansing, which is why he replied, “Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!” But Jesus wasn’t talking about getting clean. He was talking about getting dirty.

“Do you know what I have done?” Jesus asked his disciples when he had finished. “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Jesus wasn’t only talking about the act of washing one another’s feet. You might be relieved to know that we haven’t decided to do this foot-washing more than once a year, but don’t think that you’re out of the woods just yet. Jesus isn’t telling us to wash one another’s feet. It’s more than that—much more. Jesus is commanding us to love one another just as he has loved us—with the same kind of love that strips away all position and status and ego, the kind of love that stoops down to do the unthinkable.

As followers of Jesus, we must do the very thing that we would never want to do, and we must do it out of love. But, unlike the duty we perform for a parent, spouse, or child, we accept this task not for love of family or friend but for love of Jesus. We wash one another’s feet because Jesus first loved us and because we love him back. If we love him, we will love one another with the same indiscriminate, overwhelming love that he has shown the world. We love them and care for them not because they are our family or close friends, not because they go to church with us, not because they think like us, not because they vote the way we vote, not because they can pay us back, but simply because we were loved like that by Jesus.

We belong to God because we have been loved by him, and we are followers of Jesus to the extent that we participate in that love. We come to the altar rail to receive his body and blood, which were given to us in love, but, unless we commit ourselves to the love that that sacrifice represents, unless we allow him to be our servant and follow his example by giving ourselves completely to others in his name, we can have no share with him. We must take the love that he has for us—the kind of love we first feel toward those closest to us—and make it our love for everyone else. We must love the whole world just as he has loved us. We must wash one another’s feet. If we will follow Jesus, we must humble ourselves and give ourselves to one another as perfect gift. And we must do it purely for love’s sake.

Let's Change the Lectionary


I've written a sermon for Maundy Thursday, which I will post later tonight. For now, I want to dive into some church geekery (you've been warned) and ask whether we are doing our people a disservice by presenting non-continuous lessons during Holy Week. In short, I think we need to swap the Easter Vigil and Easter Day gospel lessons, and here's why.

In the church geek circles where I love to reside, I have heard significant discussion on the gospel reading for Palm Sunday. "This is the Sunday of Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem," it is argued. "Why would we skip to the end of the week and read the passion?" Good point. In churches where the Liturgy of the Palms is observed, we read the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey/colt while the people scatter their cloaks and tree branches along the road, but, during the Eucharist itself, the gospel is always the passion. I've heard many people argue that we should leave Palm Sunday as the Sunday of the entry and save the passion for Good Friday, where it belongs. Some have suggested that this passion-forward arrangement is a concession to those who cannot (or will not) make it to church during the week. Behind that argument seems to be a desire to recapture the way we used to do things and to quit giving people another excuse not to come to church on Good Friday by allowing them to experience the passion five days early. But how newfangled is that tradition?

The 1928 Prayer Book calls the Fifth Sunday in Lent "Passion Sunday" and uses it to inaugurate "Passiontide." Likewise, the gospel lesson appointed for Palm Sunday is Matthew 27--not the triumphant entry but the passion. There is no reading for the entry into Jerusalem. Guess what? That's been the lesson for Palm Sunday since at least 1662, when the BCP published that year also prescribed Matthew 27 as the gospel lesson (though there is provision for Matthew 21 and the triumphal entry if there is "more than one celebration," which presumes an additional service like our Liturgy of the Palms). So let's get rid of the "concession" argument. This isn't about yielding to overburdened schedules. This is about celebrating the Passion of our Lord on a Sunday--putting the principle sacrifice of Jesus on the principle day of worship.

But how do we follow that up? How do we connect what happens on Palm Sunday with what happens on Easter Day?

The gospel reading for Palm Sunday is always the passion narrative of whichever gospel account is featured during the year of the lectionary. In Year A (this year), it's Matthew; Year B is Mark; Year C is Luke. The people who come to church on Palm Sunday and hear the passion story, hear the synoptic version. But when they come back to church on Easter Day, they hear John's account of the resurrection. Granted, the synoptic account is a permitted secondary option, but the primary reading done in most churches on Easter Day is from John.

What about the triduum? What about the people who do come to church on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday? What about the people who celebrate the resurrection with the Easter Vigil? Again, there's a discontinuity. The first part of the three-day journey is from John. Maundy Thursday is the Last Supper in John 13. Good Friday presents the passion account in John 18 & 19. Holy Saturday disrupts that slightly with Matthew 27 as the primary option but does provide John 19 as a secondary choice. And the Easter Vigil? After journeying through John, John, and (optionally) John, we're back in the synoptic account: Matthew in Year A, Mark in Year B, and Luke in Year C. But ask yourself who is more likely to attend the Vigil--those who only heard the passion on Palm Sunday or those who made the trip to church on Good Friday?

We are missing an opportunity for continuity. The resurrection story in John's account is not an option at the Vigil, and it should be. I don't mind having the synoptic option, but, for congregations that have made the intentional trek through John's telling of the story, to burst forth with an earthquake and guards guarding the tomb when we didn't hear any evidence of that in the passion story on Friday misses the chance to see the journey as a contiguous whole.

I'm sure there are good reasons for leaving it the way it is, but I can't think of them. If we're going to read the synoptic passion account on Palm Sunday, let's read the synoptic resurrection account on Easter Day. To the faithful who have journeyed through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday with John's telling of the story, let's allow them to hear the conclusion of the journey the way they started it--in John.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Consequences of Obedience


Holy Week reminds us that being faithful isn't hard some of the time; it's hard all of the time. If we are going to be faithful to God and the establishment of God's reign, we will be subjected to hardship. That is as true in first-century Palestine, when Roman and Jewish authorities rejected the reign of Jesus, as it is in twenty-first-century Bible-Belt America, where the powers that be cling to that power in the face of the ever-encroaching reversal that God's kingdom represents. Jesus was the center of that, and we, to the extent that we are faithful to his call to be his disciples, are caught in the middle with him.

On Wednesday in Holy Week, the lectionary presents us with another of Isaiah's Servant Songs, the poetic accounts of the anointed call and divine mission of God's servant. In Isaiah 50, we read,

The Lord God has opened my ear,
    and I was not rebellious,
    I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
    and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
    from insult and spitting.
The Lord God helps me;
    therefore I have not been disgraced.
 
As we recall the passion of Jesus--the scourging at the pillar, the crowning with thorns, the spitting, the mocking, the crucifixion and death--we read these words about God's servant and quickly make the connection with our Lord. He is the one who endured great suffering on our behalf. But do we forget why that suffering occurred? Yes, it was for our sake that he was stricken, but why was that suffering brought upon him?
 
"The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious." In other words, God himself spoke to his servant and convinced that servant that inaction was not acceptable. As I wrote on Monday, the servant is called to establish God's justice in all nations--the ultimate leveling of the playing field for all people. The mighty are to be brought down from their seats of power, and the lowly are to be raised up to positions of prominence. The servant recalls that he was faithful to that call--not rebellious to God, unwilling to turn backward in the face of opposition. And what was the result? He submitted to those who persecuted him, offering his body to physical torture for the sake of God's call.
 
Jesus, as one whose life and ministry and death provide a fulfillment of Isaiah's servant's identity, came to establish God's reign on earth most fully. His ministry to the ritually and socially ostracized, welcoming sinners to God's table, is the work of one who brings justice to all nations. As we heard yesterday in Isaiah's song about it being "too light a thing" for the servant to bring back the children of Jacob and God's call that the servant would be a "light to the nations," we see that Jesus' suffering and death are the means by which that reign of weakness, self-sacrifice, and submission are established. Jesus' kingdom work got him killed, but that work now belongs to those who follow in his name.
 
"Thy kingdom come," he taught us to pray, and, if we are going to take those words seriously and become agents for the reign of God in today's world, we will face similar pushback. Just because the religious powers of the day self-identify as Christian does not mean that they actually represent God's will for the world. The concentration of wealth in the hands of the elites isn't merely un-Christian; it is anti-Christian. The denial of the dignity of any person of any race, ethnicity, class, orientation, or condition isn't merely un-Christian; it is anti-Christian. The refusal of those in control of the church or the state to acknowledge their failures and repent of their self-interest is not only un-Christian; it is anti-Christian. And those who would stand up to that--those who would advocate for the least of these--will always, always, always, be met with strong opposition. How far are we willing to go? Humble and obedient, Jesus chose steadfastness to God's will in the face of torture and death. Will we allow our obedience to bring us into a place of discomfort--perhaps even open conflict--or will we slink back into the crowd? Whether we're yelling the loudest or simply standing alongside the mob, the words "Crucify him!" belong to anyone who is not standing up with Jesus.
 
 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Wide Embrace


Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Over time, images can lose their significance or, in some cases, can attract new meaning. Christmas trees and wreaths were originally pagan symbols that were used to celebrate the winter solstice, but, when most of Europe was converted to the Christian faith, they lost their identity as trees worthy of worship and became a reminder of the everlasting life that Christ brought to the world. But that's not the whole story. Many of us have forgotten that, after the Reformation, evergreen trees were displayed in the homes of upper-class Protestants as a refutation of the Catholic tradition of erecting a crèche in one's home. (Thanks, Wikipedia.) I doubt that you, when you decorate your tree, are intending to thumb your nose at the Catholics across the street.

The cross of Christ, which we commemorate in the collect and epistle lesson for Tuesday in Holy Week, is its own complex image with a long history of meaning. As the collect states, the cross was originally "an instrument of shameful death," yet, through the story of Jesus, God has made it "be for us the means of life." Paul gives us a glimpse at that transformation, writing, "We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles." Paul couldn't help but think of Deuteronomy 21:22-23, which proclaims that anyone who dies while hanging on a tree is cursed by God. Remember that the bible's preferred method of capital punishment in stoning. Hanging was reserved for notorious criminals of whom the leaders of Israel wanted to make an example. Deuteronomy, however, limits the punitive nature of a hanging, demanding that the body be taken down and buried before sunset.

Jesus was killed in much the same way for mostly the same reason. The cross was a Roman institution--a way to kill slaves who rebelled against their masters or notorious political rebels who attempted to usurp Roman control of their territory. The sign above Jesus read, "King of the Jews," which was Rome's way of saying, "Look what we will do to anyone who tries to lead your people into freedom! Where is your king now?" Traditionally, bodies were left on the cross until the vultures had picked the skeletons clean--a lingering warning to any who would follow in their footsteps. Jesus was spare that fate, of course, as the Jewish leaders asked if they could keep their custom and bury him before sunset.

Paul's mission was to spread the good news of Jesus Christ to Gentiles, and he needed a way to overcome the stigma associated with a leader who was killed on a cross. The Jews who opposed the Way of Jesus would point to Deuteronomy as proof that God's messiah could not have been killed on a tree. Greeks would have sympathized with that argument, knowing that only the most shameful criminals would have been executed by Rome. As Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian put it, the concept of a killed and resurrected leader is pretty far-fetched, but the redemption of one who was crucified is beyond thinkable. Coming back from death is one thing, but no religious or political leader can come back from the cross.

Paul, however, had seen the crucified and resurrection one. Jesus had met him on the Road to Damascus, completely overthrowing everything that Paul thought he knew about how God works. His strategy in overcome the cross wasn't to avoid it but to embrace it. "The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." For the entire history of God's relationship with God's people, God has been in the business of using small, rejected things to accomplish God's great and powerful plan. God chose Abraham and Sarah, an elderly couple long past the time of fertility, to inaugurate a great nation as numerous as the sand on the seashore. The people of Israel, a rogue band of travelling herdsmen, make their long and winding way to Egypt after Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. They planned it for evil, but God planned it for good. Not only were the children of Jacob saved during a famine, but Joseph's position in Pharaoh's government enabled the salvation of the whole world--enough grain to go around. The cross was the ultimate expression of failure, rejection, and shame, which, as Paul wrote, is the exact reason that it was the perfect instrument by which God would reach out to all peoples with God's saving love.

During the Passover festival immediately before Jesus' death, some Greeks approached Philip and asked to see Jesus. When word of their inquiry reached Jesus, what was his response? "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." This is how God works. "Now is the judgment of this world," Jesus said. "Now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." The only way for God's upside-down way of salvation to reach beyond the covenant God had made with Israel was for the reign of this world to be supplanted by the reign of Christ. The powers that be must be replaced by the power of God--a power not expressed in triumphant victory but in triumphant death. "It is too light a thing," the prophet wrote in Isaiah 49, "that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."

Regrettably, we do not say Morning Prayer very often anymore, but, in the 1979 Prayer Book, the rubrics require that," unless the Eucharist or a form of general intercession is to follow," one of three prayers for mission will be said. The third begins with a beautiful statement of the far reach of God's salvation as embodied on the cross: "Lord Jesus Christ, who didst stretch out thine arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of thy saving embrace..." (BCP pp. 57-58). Those arms, bloodied by the whip and exhausted from carrying the wooden beam, were forcibly stretched out and nailed in place by those for whom that act was the ultimate repudiation of the victim's agenda. Those nails were confirmation of Rome's victory over the crucified one and his followers. Yet that same image, with which we now adorn our churches and the jewelry we wear around our necks, has become for us the ultimate sign of God's victory--God's salvation for all people. Were it not for the traditional, historical, theological rejection that the cross represented to both Jews and Greeks, the cross of Christ could not have become the very means of the salvation to Jews and Gentiles alike. It is the very transformation of that image that is the transformation of our future. Through it, we, too, are brought from a verdict of guilt and rejection into a state of justification and acceptance by God. It is those very arms, spread wide upon the cross, that come down to embrace each of us as one who belongs to God.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Who Is This?


Yesterday, in a wonderfully written, wonderfully short Palm Sunday sermon, Seth Olson gave to us the same question the whole city of Jerusalem was asking when Jesus entered the city to much fanfare: "Who is this?" The crowds answered, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee," but, as Seth pointed out, the disciples' betrayal, denial, sleepiness, and violent impulse suggested that even those closest to Jesus were not able to answer that question fully. We, too, are asked that question--a question that can only receive its fullest answer in the light of Easter Day--but we are asked to suspend our knowledge of what lies ahead and wrestle with the question as we make our way through Holy Week. Today, as I encounter some of the poetry of Isaiah that is routinely applied to Jesus, I wonder again whether we really know who Jesus is.

In the first part of Isaiah 42:1-9, the prophet recalls the commissioning of Yahweh's servant: "Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him." Let everyone see and know that this is the one whom God himself has selected, called, named, and equipped to accomplish his work. And what is that work? "He will bring forth justice to the nations." That's it? Justice to the nations? Not anymore than that? Well, the rest of this lesson as well as the other poems about this servant of Yahweh show us that there's more to say about that justice and how that justice will be accomplished, but the fundamental mission of Isaiah's servant is to bring about justice to the nations.

How will this servant bring about this justice? "He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice." Unlike so many of God's prophets, who walk through the streets crying out for repentance or promising a violent end to those who disobey, this servant will not raise his voice. He will be so gentle and careful that even a flickering candle will not go out under his watch. In other words, even those whose future seems dire, whom God presumably has forgotten already, will not be abandoned by this servant.

As the second half of this lesson confirms, in the accomplishment of this work, the servant will point everyone back to Yahweh:

"Thus says God, the Lord,
    who created the heavens and stretched them out...
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
    a light to the nations,
    to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
    from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
    my glory I give to no other,
    nor my praise to idols."

This work will be a light that illuminates the Lord as the creator of all things. This bringing-forth of justice will reveal the true glory of Yahweh to all nations. When the prisoners are released from the dungeon, everyone will see and know that the Lord is the only one worthy of worship and praise. It is the justice on the meek that will point everyone to God's true identity.

For two thousand years, Christians have been reading Isaiah 42:1-9 and applying those words to Jesus. After all of that inherited biblical interpretation, have we forgotten what this is all about? Sure, Jesus is more than the servant of Deutero-Isaiah's poetic identification, but if we are so intentional about making the link that we would read this passage as the first lesson on the Monday of Holy Week--if this is the beginning of our answer to the question, "Who is this Jesus?"--we'd do well to pay attention to what the prophet actually says.

Who is this Jesus? He is the one who brings justice to the nations. He is the one whose care for those whom God has seemed to have forgotten reminds us who God really is. Justice is the right-ness of all things. God's justice is the great leveling out of the world. Those who have climbed to power on the backs of the oppressed are pulled down, while those who have been trampled are raised up. That's true economically, politically, and socially. Jesus is the one who points all the nations back to God by insisting quietly, gently, yet resolutely that God's justice be the way of the world. That gentle insistence is what got Jesus in trouble in the first place. Have we forgotten that that's the Jesus we follow?

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Incompatable Union


On Sunday as we hear the long, gruesome drama of the passion narrative, it is difficult to keep enough space in our minds for the other lessons, but the Philippians Hymn (2:5-11) is not only a beautiful, theologically rich passage of scripture, but it takes on its fullest meaning in the context of Jesus' passion. Although it may be hard to preach on something other than the Christ's triumphal entry or the crowd's rejection of their king, this may be the best time to preach on Paul's poetic confession we ever get. In fact, the lectionary seems to be suggesting this to us as it is the epistle lesson for Palm Sunday in all three years and only comes up at other times on the Feast of the Holy Name in Year A and on Holy Cross Day.

Likely quoting a familiar early confession, Paul wrote of Christ Jesus, "And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross." That obedience, of which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews makes a big deal, is the consequence of faithfulness. Jesus was faithful to the point of being rejected by the powers of the world. It was his obedience to God that got him in trouble. His steadfastness in the face of temptation--temptation made real because of his full humanity--was the reason for his torture. That "becoming obedient" does not suggest that Jesus needed to learn what it meant to be faithful to his Father. It means he learned what the consequences of that faithfulness are when subjected to the powers of unfaithful human beings.

Some would argue that Jesus was obedience to his Father's plan in that the Father's plan always envisioned crucifixion. In other words, God sent his Son into the world because God desired a perfect sacrifice for sin. Others would argue that the cross was humanity's rejection of God's plan and not the center of it. I would ask what the difference is. In the person of Jesus, we see a union of incompatible natures. Like a lump of potassium thrown into a beaker of water, the divine cannot cohabit with the human and not erupt violently. Something must change. The potential for reaction is too great not to occur. The chemical analogy breaks down, however, because the divine substance is immutable. All the change must happen on the human side. No, Jesus wasn't split internally, but the incarnation--the divine coming into the human plane of existence--required a change in all humanity. It required the cross. Obedience like that--the resolute, uncompromising establishment of the reign of God--can only result in the confrontation with and overthrow of human power. Because of Jesus' obedience to God, the cross was inevitable. Because of Jesus' obedience to God, the resurrection was, too.

"Therefore," Paul wrote, "God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend..." Christ's obedience even to the point of death is the reason God has exalted him through resurrection and ascension back to his preeminent heavenly plane of existence. Only perfect obedience could result in perfect human rejection and perfect divine exaltation. Thus, our transformation is not complete with the cross but with the empty tomb and ascension of Jesus. No, we can't get to Easter before we finish Holy Week, but the seeds of that are sown in the incarnation and watered by the blood that was shed on the cross. We cannot help but glimpse the rest of the story.

This Sunday, whether you're preaching on it or listening to it, don't fail to give at least a moment's thought to the Philippians Hymn. The only time it takes on its full meaning is when it is paired with the passion of Jesus. This is incarnational atonement theology. Without it, the passion is merely a bloodbath. With it, the passion retains its redemptive nature.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Civil Disobedience


Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

The story of the fiery furnace and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who are thrown into the flames yet come out unsinged, is pretty remarkable. It's one of those "Sunday school stories" that we teach to our children because it tells us something amazing about God and about faith. "Those three men believed in God with such faith that, even though they were thrown into the fire, they were not harmed," we tell them. And there is no doubt that it is an amazing story of faith and God's deliverance. But I think that the real power of this story comes not in the fiery furnace but in the conversation before it, and, if we only judge the power of God and the faith of these three men by the outcome, we've missed the point.

Along with Daniel, for whom this book of the bible is named, these three were exiles in Babylon. They had lived in Jerusalem when the city fell to the Babylonian siege, and they were carted off to a far away land where they became slaves of Nebuchadnezzar. The Book of Daniel was written to chronicle the lives of these exiles and portray for God's people what it means to be faithful under extreme circumstances. How will they stay true to their Jewish faith despite living away from home? How will they worship without the Jerusalem temple? How will they keep kosher? How will they carry on as faithful children of Yahweh when Yahweh is presumed to be back in the holy land? Nebuchadnezzar is a narcissistic megalomaniac who has assumed semi-divine status and who demands absolute obedience and loyalty. Anyone who crosses him--anyone who questions his power or rivals his control--is likely to be killed.

This story is about their struggle, and their faith has gotten them into trouble. Nebuchadnezzar had set up an image of gold and had commanded that, whenever the appointed music began to play, everyone was to stop what he or she was doing and fall down to worship the image of opulent wealth and projected power. Of course, a faithful Jew cannot do so. To worship--literally to bow down, to prostrate oneself as a sign of obedience, reverence, and allegiance--anyone but God alone is forbidden. And so these three stood upright, refusing to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar's image. They knew the punishment--to be thrown immediately into the fiery furnace--but they stood up anyway.

Nebuchadnezzar was furious. "Is it true," he asked them, "that you do not serve my gods and you do not worship the golden statue that I have set up?" He gave them a choice. "I'll give you another chance. If you are ready to fall down and worship whenever the music begins to play, you will be spared. But if not, you will be thrown into the furnace, and who will save you then? What god can rescue you from the heat of my anger?" And then the three men offered the most profound statement of faith in reply: "If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up."

Actually, the NRSV seems to do their response injustice by linking the "if" of the conditional statement with God's ability to save them: "If God is able to deliver us..." Most other translations (e.g. CEV, ESV, NIV, KJV, RSV) render it as "If this be so, God is able to deliver us..." Their unwavering faith suggests that they have no doubt that their God has the power to deliver them. Whether he will or not seems to be the real question. And the remarkable part of their faith is their willingness to accept a tortuous death and still not doubt God. "We believe that God is able to save us," they say. "But, even if he doesn't, know this: we will never serve your gods or bow down to the golden image you have set up." Their faith in God does not depend on whether God shows up in dramatic fashion to rescue them. Even if they die at the hand of this evil, godless tyrant, they still believe in the God of their people.

Might these words have been written for us as well? The Book of Daniel is not only a chronicle of the lives of the exiles who lived in Babylon. It was written as a source of encouragement and instruction for those who find their faith in God challenged by the secular authorities of the world. Sometimes the rulers of the earth are aligned against God and God's ways. Sometimes the faithful find the precepts of their faith in conflict with the laws of the land. What should they do? How do they remain faithful? To which authority will they give their allegiance? To which god will they fall down and worship?

We have the luxury of living in a country that has enshrined the free exercise of religion in its laws. Rarely is the conflict between our faith and our government as serious as the conflict that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego faced, but that does not mean that our faith is not challenged or threatened by those in positions of authority. In the face of earthly power, how do we stand up for the kingdom that God has inaugurated with the humble, self-sacrificing, reign of Christ? How do we challenge those who attack the way of peace and love? How do we stand up for those whose voices have been silenced by a tyranny of irrational fear?

We respond in faith--faith like that of these three exiles. Their faith does not depend on God answering their prayer in a particular way. It is not defined by God's willingness to show up in the way that they demand or even in the way that they need. Their faith is not proven in the fiery furnace. It is proven in their willingness to offer themselves--their whole lives--to the uncompromising belief that God is God and that God's ways are the true source of life and hope. Will that be our stand? Will we let our faith be our strength even in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity? Will we trust that God will use our faithfulness to help establish God's kingdom more fully in this world even if it costs us everything? Will we believe in God and God's ways so completely that we will stand up for justice and peace until it comes or until it costs us our lives?

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Triduum Sacrum


This post also appeared in The View, the parish newsletter for St. John's in Decatur, Alabama. To learn more about St. John's and to read the rest of the newsletter, click here.


As Holy Week approaches, preparations for the Triduum Sacrum are underway in churches all over the world. Although the Latin term for the three-day celebration of the Paschal mystery does not appear in our prayer book, it has become a fairly common way for Episcopalians to refer to the period that begins with the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday and ends with the conclusion of Easter Day. Like every congregation, we have our own way of celebrating the Triduum, but many of our traditions also unite us with all Christians who observe this three-day journey.
 
In Latin, the word triduum is a singular noun that means “three days.” In English, which cannot help but pluralize those words, we struggle to convey in language the unitary nature of that celebration, but, in not-so-subtle ways, the liturgy itself helps convey how those different services are united as one. As Leonel Mitchell, who in turn cites Ormonde Plater, notes in his Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and the Great Fifty Days, “the omission of the dismissal at the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday liturgies also serves to tie the liturgies of the Triduum together. In one sense it is a single liturgical act.”[1] Whether we feel it or not, therefore, the worship held during the Triduum is a single offering made to the Lord by the church that is punctuated only by prolonged periods of silent prayer.
 
The commemoration of the Last Supper on Thursday evening becomes the stripping of the altar as the church is laid bare in preparation for Good Friday. The next day, we gather in silence and begin our worship without the usual opening acclimation and, again, end the Good Friday liturgy without the customary dismissal. Similarly, the service for Holy Saturday takes place in a quiet, dark church without any particular words to delineate when the watch begins or when it concludes as the faithful gather at the Lord’s tomb. Sometime after sunset that night and before sunrise the next morning, the people reassemble to continue their uninterrupted watch during the Easter Vigil. Only after the lights have been turned on and the bells have begun to ring do we see how the mystery has unfolded all around us, and the celebration of the resurrection continues throughout the day, ending with the disciples’ journey down the Emmaus Road.
 
To see it all, however, you must begin on Thursday and continue your pilgrimage through the three days without deviating from the path that begins in the upper room and leads first to the garden, then to the high priest’s courtyard, then to Pilate’s headquarters, then up the street and out of the city to Golgotha, then to the nearby tomb, and then to the shadows of grief, where the we wait with the disciples until the first light of the miracle will reach us. Once the Triduum begins, it cannot be stopped. If you miss any part of it, however, the story is left unfinished. Like a symphony from which a movement has been cut, our carefully coordinated worship may reach its conclusion, but, if a piece of the Triduum is omitted, the celebration is incomplete.
 
One three-days-long service requires a considerable commitment from the whole parish. All of us—clergy, parish staff, flower guild, altar guild, bread guild, musicians, ushers, LEMs, lectors, acolytes, nursery workers, cleaning crew, and congregation—must offer ourselves to God in this exhausting act of worship. When we emerge from this sacred pilgrimage, we are supposed to feel that satisfying mixture of elation and fatigue that comes from an arduous journey. It is difficult, but I promise you that it is worth it. No one who completes the entire Truduum Sacrum is disappointed. Might you join us this year for the entire trip?
 
How might you prepare yourself for what lies ahead? Like any pilgrim embarking on a difficult trip, you must plan carefully for these three days, preparing yourself physically, mentally, and spiritually. Begin making space and time each day for extended periods of quiet—5 minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes of sitting undistractedly in the presence of God. Lighten your load by deciding which appointments and decisions need to be handled now and which ones can wait until after the journey. Study ahead for the trip you will be taking by reading the daily scripture lessons and accompanying meditations that our parishioners have written as well as the proper lessons for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, the Easter Vigil, Easter Day, and Easter Evening. Make a budget of how you will spend your time and how much you will eat during the trip. Will you need to rearrange your calendar to be present for all of the services? Will the experience be more meaningful if you eat more simply or even fast in anticipation of the journey? Consider with whom you might enjoy spending this time, and ask that person to join you for the pilgrimage or, perhaps, to celebrate with you when it is over.
 
There are moments in life when nothing else matters and all of the clutter falls away. Every year, the Triduum is one of those moments if we will let it take hold in our lives. It has the power to draw us into the presence of God, but it requires us to put everything else aside. Will we make this journey together? Prepare yourself for the road ahead. Prepare yourself to journey with our Lord.


[1] Lionel L Mitchell, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and the Great Fifty Days: A Ceremonial Guide (Boston, MA: Cowley Publications, 1996), 35.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Christ the King Sunday


Each year, on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, we hear the story of Jesus' crucifixion and celebrate the real kingship of God's Son. Instead of a golden crown, he wears a crown of thorns. Instead of reigning from a throne, he reigns in death on a cross. The confusion of images is a powerful and intentional way of reminding the world of its true king and the nature of God's reign. God reigns not in power but in weakness, not in pomp but in humility. Although there's never a bad time to hear that message, I'd argue that the right time to emphasize the kingship of Christ isn't in the fall but in the spring, when we shout "Hosanna!" to the one who rides into Jerusalem before changing our minds to shout "Crucify him!" to the one who stands before Pilate.

This Sunday, the Sunday of the Passion, we not only admire the ironic, upside-down, majesty-in-humiliation kingship of Christ from the safety of our pews, we feel it; we participate in it; we enact it with our words. More than any other gospel account, Matthew makes clear the connections between the events in Jesus' final days and the prophecies of the Old Testament. As we hear this version, we cannot help but notice how certain we are that the one who comes to us "humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey" is the long-awaited king. This is truly David's son. The vassal of Rome and pretend-king who occupies the throne, Herod Antipater, makes a mockery of God's anointed kingship. As Jesus enters the holy city, the crowd's enthusiasm gets the best of it. They allows themselves to hope that the arrival of a prophet and miracle worker like Jesus of Nazareth, rumored to be a descendent of David, could mean that a real king has come to Zion. They know that two kings cannot coexist, and they anticipate a showdown between the representatives of Rome, the new Babylon, and this rebellious rabbi.

But expectations and reality do not always line up, and, when it is time for Jesus to fight Herod and Pilate and secure the freedom of God's people, Jesus tells his disciple to put his sword in its sheath. "Friend, do what you are here to do," he says to Judas, willingly offering himself to those who have come to arrest him. His journey to a kingship of humiliation is voluntary, and the people abandon his cause. Crowds like a underdog, but they turn against a loser with remarkable rapidity. We would rather have Barabbas, a rebel who fought against Rome and lost, than a leader who will lie down without a fight. "Crucify him!" we shout when asked what we would have Rome do with Jesus. He has let us down. He is not our king. Yet this is what he came for--to establish God's reign on earth. And that reign is established in a king who is crucified and laid lifelessly in a tomb.

There's so much to say, so much to do, so much to feel on Palm Sunday. The preacher cannot capture it all in a sermon, but the good news is that she doesn't have to. Let the drama of the day speak for itself, but don't let the familiarity of an annual reenactment hide the magnitude of what that drama says to us again this year. We want God's king to champion our cause, but that is only possible if our cause is God's cause, and God's cause is the magnification of the helpless, the rescue of the destitute, and the elevation of the lowly. Let the totality of our rejection of God's reign be manifest in our words, "Crucify him!" Then, let God pick up the pieces and show us another way.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Our True Hope: Victory Over Death


April 2, 2017 – The 5th Sunday in Lent
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
 
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha and Mary both say those words to Jesus, and I hear them in my mind as the sorrowful cry of sisters whose beloved brother didn’t have to die. If only Jesus had just gotten there a little sooner. If only he hadn’t dawdled when he got word that his friend Lazarus was sick. If only he had reacted with a sense of urgency when the message from Lazarus’ sisters had reached him. It didn’t have to be this way. The sisters’ grief was that particularly sharp and agonizing combination of anger and frustration and powerlessness and loss, and I can’t help but hear the pain of that complex emotion in their words.

Grief like that makes us uncomfortable. That’s true of any situation over which we are powerless. We don’t like it when someone we love sobs uncontrollably. We become uneasy when there is nothing we can do to comfort someone close to us—when there are no words we can say that will make that person feel better. I think that’s why these words make me so uneasy. The middle of this lesson—the part where Martha tells Jesus that her brother would not have died if he had gotten there sooner—is one of the five gospel lessons appointed for funerals, and I always cringe a little bit when a family picks this one for their loved-one’s burial. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” Martha says to Jesus, and it raises for me (and I worry for the grieving family) unanswerable questions like, “Why did my brother or my father or my wife or my daughter have to die?” and “If God has the power to heal people, why didn’t he heal the person who matters to me?” and “Why does God answer some prayers and not others? Why does God give miracles in some cases but not in others?” Martha and Mary’s question reminds us that it didn’t have to be this way, but it is, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

The sisters’ words are simultaneously a confession and a condemnation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They recognize in Jesus the power to save their sick brother. It’s a remarkable thing and, I suppose, quite a burden to have that kind of reputation, and Jesus has come by it honestly. Throughout John’s gospel account, he has cast out various demons and cured many diseases. He had even given mobility to a man who had been lame for thirty-eight years and, as we heard last Sunday, had granted sight to a man who had been born blind. “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind,” the man reminded us. Even the crowd wondered aloud why this opportunity for healing had been missed: “Couldn’t the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Everyone knew that Jesus had that kind of awesome power. There was no sickness, no condition, no circumstance so serious that Jesus could not reverse it. But not if he didn’t get there in time.

Dead is dead, or at least that’s what everyone thought. Although they didn’t have CPR back then, resuscitations weren’t unheard of, but four-days dead is another story. You might as well wheel a corpse into an oncologist’s office and ask whether the cancer that killed him can be cured. No one can heal a dead man. The only one who has the power to give life is the same one who has the power to take it—God himself. Jesus might be the most powerful healer on the planet, but he doesn’t have that kind of power, does he? He isn’t God, right?

Unlike her meditative sister, Martha follows up her words with an instinctive invitation to more: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask him.” It was truly unfathomable, so Martha didn’t even know how to ask Jesus to bring her brother back from the dead, but her faith in him left open the possibility that even death might not be the end of the story. When Jesus announced that Martha’s brother would rise again, Martha assumed that he meant on the last day, but Jesus had something else in mind. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he said to her. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” he asked her. “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

But, other than a vague, non-specific hope, what did that mean for her? What good would that do in this particular moment? As John retells this story, he wants us to see that Jesus was in control from the very beginning. It was no accident that he was delayed. He waited long enough for his friend to die because he wanted Martha and Mary and his disciples and us to see what he could do even in the face of death. “Roll away the stone,” he told them. “But, Lord!” Martha said to him, “He has been dead for four days. Already there is a stench!” And Jesus replied, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” After the stone was removed, Jesus looked up into heaven, said a quiet prayer to his Father, and then cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And then it happened: the dead man walked right out of the tomb, his body and face still wrapped with the linen burial cloths.

And then what? Then what happened? Naturally, Lazarus and his sisters threw a party. God had turned their sorrow into joy. Their weeping had become dancing. So they called together their friends and extended family to celebrate this miracle. The festivities lasted for days, and the story was told with enthusiasm and conviction long after that. For years, people in the village would come up and slap Lazarus on the back, begging him to tell them his miraculous story once again. Sightseers travelled from all over to get a glimpse at the empty tomb and the family home, and, maybe if they were lucky, they would bump into one of the three siblings or another person who was there that day and saw firsthand the dead man come walking out of the tomb. For the three of them, each day felt like a gift. Lazarus had another chance at life. But eventually his age caught up with him. Like the rest of us, he, too, got old, and his sisters got old as well. And, then, one day, his tomb wasn’t empty any more. Four days went past and then four more. This time, the stone stayed right where it was supposed to stay, and over time Lazarus’ body decomposed—ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

You see, even if the miracle does happen, even if the prayers do work, even if the cure is found, eventually the result is exactly same. Death comes for us all. Even Jesus’ closest friend, the one at whose grave the Son of God wept, is not immune to death. And that is where the true miracle of this story is to be found. That is the point of this gospel lesson—not merely that Jesus has the power to bring someone back to life but that Lazarus’ revivification is a sign to us that Jesus has the power to defeat death itself. Lazarus is just a foretaste of the victory to come. He is merely a signpost on the road that leads to Jerusalem and the cross and tomb that wait for Jesus.

That is our true hope—not that our surgeon might get it all, not that the margins will be clean, not that the tumor will respond to radiation or chemo, not that we will beat the odds and live longer than the doctors predicted, but that even death itself is not the end of our story. In Jesus Christ, God has won for us the ultimate victory. Jesus and Lazarus and Martha and Mary show us what it means to believe in “the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” We see that death no longer has power over those who believe in him. In Jesus, we believe not in the one who has the power to forestall death but in the one who has the power to defeat it once and for all. Don’t look to God for a way to cheat death. Instead, embrace it as one who believes in Jesus and believes that death is not the end.