Thursday, June 29, 2017

It Is a Good Story


I've written before about the opera Abraham on Trial, which I went to see when I lived in Cambridge. The music was modern and incorporated electronic synthesizers, which is to say it wasn't like most of the operas I have been to see. I was not captivated by the singing or the staging, but the story was beyond compelling. It chronicled two parallel lives--one in the twentieth century and one from thousands of years ago. The first was a father who murdered his own daughter because he believed that God was telling him to. The second was the patriarch, whom we believe God tested by commanding him to kill his only son. The opera suggested to us that the only meaningful difference between the two wasn't the result of the murderous attempts--one successful, one not--but the lens through which the contemporary believer judges the actions of the parents. We praise the faithfulness of Abraham, and we condemn the lunacy of his contemporary analogue. Why? Because the Bible says so.

On Sunday in the Track 1 OT reading, we continue our way through the Abraham story with Genesis 22:1-14. We have heard the three divine visitors predict Sarah's conception and birth. We have heard of the conflict between Sarah and Hagar. Now we hear of God's unthinkable command: "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you." And, if the entire congregation doesn't pause for a moment or two in an attempt to let the magnitude of this passage sift through our minds and hearts, we cannot do it justice.

What does it mean to believe in a God who would ask someone to murder his own son? Maybe you don't. Maybe you don't think Genesis 22 really happened. Maybe you think it is one way that the people of God tell the story of faithfulness. But what does that say about us--that our spiritual ancestors would depict the faithfulness of our father Abraham through this command to murder? Either way, it isn't good. For thousands of years, who we believe God to be and how we understand God to work and what we understand our relationship with God to be has been shaped by the story of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice his own son Isaac as a burnt offering to God. At what point do the people of God say on behalf of Abraham, "No, God. That isn't how this works. If you are the kind of god who would test my faith by asking me to kill my own child, I would rather not know you."?

I am preaching on this passage this Sunday, and, despite the skepticism I express here, the sermon seems to embrace the story of Abraham and Isaac as a pattern for our faithfulness. But I think the true teaching we receive from this story is incredibly nuanced, which makes for a tough sermon. Of course God isn't telling us to murder our own child. God would never say that. But, in a contradictory way, I believe that God did say that to Abraham. The point for us isn't the murderous command but the limitless agony and unconquerable uncertainty that such a command presents and that God himself overcomes. This story is about Abraham's faithfulness. That does not ameliorate the horrible nature of the divine command. In fact, at its fullest, Abraham's faithfulness depends on that unthinkable command. But the questions that it presents us are where the lesson is to be found. Why did God do it? Why did Abraham believe it? How did Abraham follow through with it? Where was God in each moment--in the murderous command, in the journey to the mountain, in the binding of the son, in the wielding of the knife, in the provision of the ram, and in the story of Israel that unfolds specifically and inextricably from the base of the mountain where father and son journey together?

Buckle up. This isn't easy. But faith never is.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Patriotism in Church


Two weeks ago, we celebrated Flag Day (June 14), and by "we" I mean Steve Pankey, me, and something like seven other people across the country. I jest, of course, but Flag Day isn't a huge celebration, which is why I like it so much. It is a chance to commemorate the adoption of the flag by the Second Continental Congress in 1777 and, more subtly, to celebrate our love of our country in a peculiarly American way. We, after all, are the only ones in the world who pledge our allegiance first to a flag and then to the republic for which it stands. When Steve posted about Flag Day, I encouraged him to take that opportunity to write a blog post about why the flag of the United States belongs in church. He responded with something like, "I am not THAT stupid." For a multitude of reasons, displaying the flag in a place of worship is controversial, and, although Steve was smart enough to steer clear of that, I'm just stupid enough to take it on.

This Sunday is July 2, which means that, although Monday is not a federal holiday, many of us will already have our July 4 plans lined up. We will come to church (or not) thinking about Independence Day. I doubt that many of us will spend much time really pondering what it means to have declared our independence from a imperialistic European power, and I am certain even fewer of us will have considered what implications that has for the way we worship and exist more broadly as a church, but, call me crazy or old-fashioned, I think it's ok for church and country to intersect every now and again...despite all the challenges that brings with it.

We will sing (gasp!) a patriotic hymn. If we have enough acolytes, we will (double-gasp!) process the flags of both the United States and the Episcopal Church in the procession and display them in the chancel throughout the service. We will (apoplectic fit!) pray the prayer "For Our Country" as part of the Prayers of the People. And I believe that we can do all of those things without confusing love of country with love of God. There's a reason that patriotic hymns are included in Hymnal 1982, and I don't think singing one of them will lead the congregation to believe that we have replaced the "kingdom of God" with a kingdom of this world.

We will not contact the bishop and ask for permission to use the propers for Independence Day because it should not take precedence over the propers for a Sunday. Instead, we'll wait until July 4 to observe that major feast in our usual Tuesday midday service. We will not replace the cross and torches with the flag, nor will we process them into church in front of the cross, and we will only carry them if there are enough acolytes to do all of that (doubtful on a holiday weekend). The patriotic hymn we sing will not be a hymn of praise in substitute for the Gloria. Instead, (contrary to the rubrics, yes I know) we will sing National Hymn ("Faith of our fathers") as we process out of church into the world, beseeching God "thy true religion in our hearts increase." In other words, our principal allegiance is to God, and our principal duty is to submit our lives to the further establishment of God's reign as disciples of Jesus. But our godly allegiance and godly work are not isolated from our participation in our civic, national life. Instead, we must work within this nation--as citizens, as voters, as advocates, as demonstrators, as protesters, as patriots--to use its vast resources for God's work. Freedom, after all, is not an American invention.

No, our national identity is not always aligned with God's kingdom. In fact, quite often it is not. We pray every Sunday that our national leaders may be led in ways of righteousness and peace, and there's a reason we keep praying that every week. This Sunday isn't a time to lock our national identity out of the church. It is a chance to gently remind ourselves that being a patriot--being zealous for or strongly attached to one's homeland--does not mean, "America: like it or leave it." It means recognizing that this nation has an opportunity and a duty to serve the welfare of all people. It means acknowledging that the American Dream of universal opportunity is not a reality for many and that the freedom won in the American Revolution is still not guaranteed for all. We do not celebrate our country in church because we like it just the way it is. Like all of creation, we celebrate it for what it can be with God's help.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

How Would You Welcome Jesus?


Have you seen or heard the old fable, "The Rabbi's Gift?" It's a cheesy but effective presentation of Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 10:40-42). If you haven't seen it, you can watch the six-minute video below, or you can keep reading and I'll tell you what happens.


Spoiler alert! The story is about a old, declining monastic community that seems to be on a path that leads to its eventual closure. The abbot of that community shares his concerns with a colleague, a thoughtful and friendly rabbi, and the rabbi tells him that the messiah is among the monks in the monastery. When the abbot shares that news with the rest of the monks, everything begins to change. As the monks begin to imagine that one of their brethren could actually be Jesus, they start caring for one another in a new way. Their prayers and worship and service intensify, and, soon, the monastery is receiving visitors and, then, new novices. In the end, of course, the monastic community is thriving and all because the rabbi helped them see what was true all along--that the messiah was among them not as an individual but as a spiritual presence that gave them their true direction.

On Sunday, Jesus will tell us that anyone who welcomes a disciple of his welcomes Jesus himself, and I'm curious how a deep commitment to those words might change the way we do church this Sunday.

When the bishop comes, everyone kicks into high gear. The organist and choir are at their best. The flowers are especially beautiful. The reception in the parish hall after the service is topnotch. Everyone sings a little more joyfully. Everyone smiles a little more sincerely. And why--because the bishop came? Spoiler alert: bishops are great, but they're not that special. If we put on our best show for the bishop, what might we do if we thought Jesus was coming to church this week?

Welcoming someone into church is not the same thing as saying hello and handing her a bulletin as she walks through the door. Welcoming someone in the Lord's name is not the same thing as smiling and shaking his hand at the Peace. Providing a true welcome just as we would welcome Jesus himself is far more than being friendly. It means honoring whoever walks through the door with the same reverence, devotion, and love that we would show Jesus himself if he came into church. If you are a part of a church that wants to grow, think about welcoming everyone--from the life-long parishioner to the first-time visitor--with the same care that you would give to Jesus. Isn't that how we show ourselves to be the Body of Christ?

This week, by the time we get to the sermon, it may be too late to rewind and welcome everyone just as we would welcome Jesus. So don't wait until the sermon. Start thinking about it now. And start thinking about next week, too. What does it mean to be a church that welcomes everyone just as we would welcome Jesus? The message of this gospel lesson is that by welcoming them we are welcoming Jesus--not as an analogy but in literal truth. We welcome Jesus as we welcome everyone else. When you welcome them, you are welcoming Jesus. Don't lose sight of Jesus when he walks through the door.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Transformative Hospitality


This Sunday, we'll hear the third and final installment of Jesus' instructions to his disciples in Matthew 10. First, we heard about him sending them out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Then, yesterday, we heard about the need to proclaim boldly the message that he gave them despite the conflict it may cause. This week, in Matthew 10:40-42, we'll hear Jesus speak of the other side of that rejection and describe the reward that those who welcome the disciples and their message will receive.

Like any preacher, Jesus runs the risk of obscuring his message with a vivid image, and this is one of those cases when I find myself in danger of focusing more on the thing that Jesus uses to convey his message than the message itself: "...whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple-- truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward."

That cup of cold water--I can see it; I can feel it on my lips; I can see it in my hand as I offer it to a thirsty prophet. Many times, I have thought of this passage as I have offered a cup of water to someone who walks into our office seeking financial assistance. I don't say that as a credit to myself. On the contrary, I say it as a gentle condemnation that to equate Matthew 10:42 with giving a thirsty person a drink of water is to miss the point of the passage entirely. As sinfully satisfied as it makes me feel, giving someone some water isn't what Jesus is asking me to do. He's asking me to welcome the prophet and provide for him or her. A cup of water is nice, but, if I'm only trying to satisfy the letter of this verse and move the supplicant along quickly so that I can get back to work, I haven't really done anything.

Notice again the rest of the passage.
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.
Don't lose sight of the rest of it because you're still thinking about that cup of water. What does it mean to welcome someone in Jesus' name--to the extent that we are not only welcoming the person but also Jesus and, along with him, the Father who sent him? What does it mean to welcome a prophet like that? What does it mean to welcome a righteous person like that? Isn't it more than a cup of water?

Jesus' words about the cup of cold water are a reminder that even small gestures are significant, but he isn't asking us to make the small gesture the focus. That's getting the instruction backwards. Instead of saying to ourselves, "I offered a cup of water; I've done what Jesus asked," we should think, "How can I welcome this person as I would welcome Jesus, knowing that even if a cup of water is all I can offer I will have done something?"

The promise Jesus gives to those who welcome the prophet, the righteous person, the little one, is that they will receive their reward. This gesture of hospitality is transformative. By it, we are blessed by Jesus. I think the real power of this passage is found when we stop expecting Jesus to reach down from heaven and sprinkle some magic blessing on us when we give someone a cup of cold water and instead consider the encounter itself as the source of the blessing. How might the act of being hospitable to a prophet bestow upon us that reward? How might that realization change our hospitality? If we expect to leave that encounter blessed and transformed, would we give more than a cup of water? Would we give more than five minutes? Would we give more than a passing thought?

The good news, Jesus tells us, is that all gestures of hospitality receive a reward. Even a cup of cold water is appreciated. But could it be more?

Thursday, June 22, 2017

What Do They Call Us?


Jesus says, "If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!" Well, what are they calling us now?

Sunday's gospel lesson is Matthew 10:24-39. I've written a few times this week about how easy it is to get caught up in the dramatic (note that I don't think he's being hyperbolic) words of Jesus about a son rising up against his father and a daughter rising up against her mother. I do think that's what Jesus meant, but I think that kind of internal family strife isn't the nature of God's kingdom but the nature of the response of earthly institutions to that kingdom. This isn't a passage about conflict. It's a passage about the proclamation of the kingdom that will inevitably result in conflict. When we proclaim from the housetops what Jesus whispered to his disciples, we're going to ruffle some feathers...or at least we should expect it to ruffle some feathers.

Sometimes Jesus was provocative for the sake of being provocative, but here I don't think he's telling us that the key to the kingdom of heaven is to cause trouble. Still, I think it's a safe measure of our proclamation of the gospel. If people aren't whispering about us behind our backs... If people aren't ignoring our phone calls... If people haven't permanently hidden our posts on Facebook... If people haven't stopped inviting us to dinner parties... If the members of our extended family don't steer clear of religion and politics when we're around...then we're not proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

I'm in the middle of a three-week stretch at the School of Theology in Sewanee, Tennessee, where I'm taking classes in the STM program. Every day, I take two classes in the same room, and, whenever I walk out of the door to that classroom, I am greeted by a bright yellow poster that is hung on the office door across the hall. On that poster in big purple letters is a quotation from Hélder Câmara, the late Roman Catholic archbishop of Olinda and Recife in Brazil. For years, I've been noticing that poster, and I still can't help but see it fresh each day. That poster looks like this.

 
If they call the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household? The most faithful, most religious people of Jesus' day heard his message and called him a zealot, a liberal, a rabble-rouser, a traitor, a sinner. What would we expect them to call us?
 
What are the labels that we're afraid of having affixed to us by friends, family, parishioners, colleagues, coworkers, members of other churches, members of our own church? If we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, what will we risk being called? A liberal? A goody-goody? A religious nut? A communist? Intolerant? Idealistic? Foolish? These aren't our words that we proclaim. They are Christ's. They belong to the Word of God. When we shout them from the rooftops, will they say that we are against the church? Will they say that we are working against God? Even the most faithful among them said it of Jesus himself. What will they say about us? And are we truly proclaiming the gospel if they're saying nothing at all?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Love Has No Priorities


Boiling down Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 10:24-39) to one or two problematic verses not only makes for a bad sermon but also a bad reading of the text. The "man against his father and a daughter against her mother" part of the story is Jesus' way of saying that following him--that proclaiming from the rooftops what Jesus has told his disciples in secret--is going to cause some strain in the relationships we hold most dear. Jesus isn't interested in making the Christian community into a Jerry Springer episode. Jesus knows that the message of God's kingdom will split families in two. So to say that the bit about "whoever loves father or mother more than me...whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" is Jesus' way of saying that you must give up all familial relationships in order to be a disciple isn't really the point. That's one reading of this text, and it's one that sends us out into the desert to be an anchorite and spend the rest of our lives in solitude, but it isn't how I hear this passage.

What does it mean to "love father or mother more than [Jesus]?" What does it mean to love anyone more than anyone else? Let's think about love. What is love? When we're reading about Jesus and get to a passage about love, it's easy to think that we're talking about agape love--the kind of selfless, self-giving, sacrificial love that God has for the world, that Jesus has for his disciples, and that we are called to have for one another. Surely that kind of love is not a comparative thing. Just as something cannot be "more unique" or "more original" or "more orange," there is no such thing as "more agape." Either you love someone in that completely self-emptying sort of way or you don't. Just as you can't sort of be married, you can't sort of have agape. It's all or nothing. But that isn't the kind of love Jesus is talking about here.

Jesus uses the word φιλῶν, which is a verb form of the love known as phileo. Now, that word does mean "love," but it isn't the same verb that conveys agape love. This is brotherly love, love of affection, love of friendship. It's not the romantic eros love, nor is it the sympathetic pathos love. It is relational. It is mutual. But it is not limitless, unconditional, sacrificial love. So when Jesus asks us to love him more than we love our mother or father, he's not telling us to stop loving our children with the kind of approximate unconditional love that burns in our hearts. He's telling us to be closer to him than to the people in our family. That's starting to make sense, but there's more.

The word Jesus uses to make that comparison is the common Greek preposition ὑπέρ. In Greek, it most commonly means "over," which is a little different than the word most often used in the translation of this particular verse--"more." It can also mean "beyond" or ""in place of" or "on behalf of." To render this word in English, the best words we can use are "more" or "over," but we should also hang on to some of the other connotations. This doesn't mean "more" in the sense of "bigger" or "containing a larger quantity." This means "more" as in "I've made a choice, and I'm choosing Jesus in my #1 speed-dial spot over you, Mommy."

By the time we pull it all together, this sounds a little different than we may have first heard it. "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." Jesus isn't telling his disciples to love him to the exclusion of their families. And is isn't asking them to love him with a greater love than mother or father or son or daughter. He's telling them that they cannot afford to love family members to the exclusion of him. As followers of Jesus, our affiliation with our family members cannot take the place of our affiliation with Jesus. As his disciples, our connection with our parents or children cannot squeeze out our connection with Jesus. Perhaps ironically, the particularly loose translation The Message may convey this better than almost any other English translation: "If you prefer father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you prefer son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me."

That helps remind us that the "love" Jesus is talking about here is the relational love that forms between friends or family members. That kind of "relationship affection" has priorities. I'm allowed (and expected) to have a closer connection with my son than with my second cousin. The challenging teaching here is that I'm supposed to have a closer connection with Jesus than I am with my parents or my children. That isn't easy. But I'm not called to agape-love them less than I agape-love Jesus. That kind of love doesn't have degrees.

Luke's version of this passage, in which Jesus tells his disciples to hate their mothers, fathers, and children? Well, that's another post and another sermon for another year.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Cheering for the Underdog


Do you ever read something in the Bible and think, "Hey, that's not right! God shouldn't have let it happen that way!" To some, those thoughts may feel sacrilegious, but I think a careful reading of Sunday's lesson from Genesis 21 reminds us that we aren't the only people who feel that way. Sometimes even pillars of faith like Abraham aren't sure God is doing the right thing.

Before we get to Sunday's lesson, here's a quick recap of the Abraham story. God appeared to Abraham and told him to leave his homeland and set out for a new territory. God promised to make Abraham the father of many nations and to give him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore. Over and over, God reminded Abraham of his promise even though Abraham and his wife Sarah were getting older and older. When it seemed certain that Sarah was too old to have a child, Sarah suggested that Abraham have intercourse with her maidservant Hagar the Egyptian. He did, and Hagar had a child, who was named Ishmael. But that wasn't what God intended. Eventually, despite all the odds, Sarah conceived and gave birth to a son who was named Isaac, and God made it clear to Abraham that Isaac was to be the child through which God's promise would be fulfilled.

But blended families can be complicated. Even before Ishmael was born, Sarah began to regret her decision to encourage her husband to sleep with her servant Hagar. She complained to Abraham that Hagar was becoming obstreperous, and Abraham told her to treat the servant however she wanted. So Sarah chased the pregnant woman out into the desert. But an angel appeared to Hagar and told her to go back and submit to the harsh treatment because God had a different plan and a different promise in mind for the fruit of her womb. That's more or less where Genesis 21 picks up.

Sarah still burns hot with jealousy. Her servant's son is a constant living reminder of the intercourse that servant had with her husband. On the day of celebration when her own son Isaac was to be weaned, Sarah saw Ishmael playing with her son, and her rage became uncontainable. She said to her husband, "Cast out this slave woman and her son; for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac." And there it is. Unwilling to share, unable to make room, Sarah will not allow another woman and her son to remain. But this is Abraham's son. He may not belong to Sarah, and we may know that Isaac is the one through whom God's promise is to be fulfilled, but Ishmael is still his son--his own flesh and blood. He is Abraham's first-born child. He has known him for a decade or so. He has held him in his arms. He has played with him in the woods. He has taught him how to hunt and how to tend the sheep. And now he is being asked to send his own son and that son's mother out into the wilderness to die?

In Abraham's moment of need, God intervenes. And what does God say? "Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring." In other words, don't worry about it. I'll take care of it. Send them out. They will have their own story, their own people, their own nation.

Why doesn't God speak to Sarah instead? Why doesn't God make it possible for Abraham to keep both sons? Is this God's way of punishing Abraham for seeking a child by another means? Is this God's way of showing preference for the light-skinned people of the Fertile Crescent, where Sarah was from, over the darker-skinned people of Egypt, where Hagar was from? We can ask these questions, but they don't have answers beyond speculation. The comfort I receive is in seeing Abraham's struggle. "This matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son." These were real people with real feelings. They might not have had the same sort of father-son relationships that we enjoy, but the bond between a man and his offspring was real back then. It wasn't easy for Abraham to say goodbye to his own family. He wasn't sure about this. This didn't seem right to him. But God told him not to worry, and God stepped in to provide for Ishmael and his mother.

I like to cheer for the underdog. I was a Cubs fan long before the Cubs threatened to make the playoffs much less win the World Series. I like it when Fred Couples or Tom Watson makes a run at a major championship long after they should have stopped being competitive. I like the longshot. I like the David-versus-Goliath match up. For the most part, the story of Israel is a story of an underdog, but not yet. At this point, in the Bible, Abraham and Isaac are the winners. They get to stay. But the story isn't over for Ishmael.

I like the Islamic tradition that retells the story of Ishmael and Isaac. In that tradition, the promise is not made through Isaac but through Ishmael. In that tradition, it isn't Isaac who is taken by his father to be sacrificed when God tests him; it is Ishmael. In that tradition, when Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness, the angel Gabriel appears and revealed to Sarah, who had been searching for water, that her son had found a spring. That spring became Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. Also in the Islamic tradition, Abraham doesn't bid farewell to his older son for good. Throughout his life, he visited Mecca several times to check on his son and offer his fatherly advice. Those details aren't part of the Jewish or Christian traditions, but we do embrace God's promise to Hagar--that her son Ishmael will become the father of his own nation. Those might not be our stories, but they are a part of the story of the people of God.

Abraham teaches us that it is ok for us to feel anguish over the path that we are on. Abraham teaches us that faith in God does not always mean that we will understand how God works. Instead, he teaches us to have faith that God is with us and those we love even when we do not understand it. The outcome may be painful. The road ahead may be hard. As Jesus reminds us, we may even have to give up family and friends. But God is bigger than we are. God's purposes are wider than we can see. God's love and provision are greater than we can imagine. Struggle and uncertainty are not signs of lacking faith. They show us what it means to have faith beyond our own understanding. They show us what it means to have faith in God.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Gospel Requires Action


Do you remember that scene from The Princess Bride after the rushed-through wedding ("Mahwidge...") when the king and queen escort Princess Buttercup to the honeymoon suite while Prince Humperdinck goes to investigate the growing clamor of Wesley's assault on the castle? As the older couple and the beautiful bride walk down a corridor, the Princess Bride leans over and kisses the king. Stunned, he says to her, "What was that for?" And she replies, "Because you’ve always been so kind to me, and I’ll never see you again because I’m killing myself as soon as we reach the bridal suite." And what is the king's response? "Won't that be nice?" and, turning to his wife, "She kissed me!"

I like to imagine that Jesus takes his hand and smacks his forehead when he sees and hears people who boldly identify themselves as Christians going through life as if the gospel only matters for an hour or so each week. Calling yourself a Christian does not make you one. Being a Christian means giving your life to God, following Jesus as Lord, and believing that the future that he gives you is the only true future for your life. You can call yourself a Christian and live whatever kind of life you want, but you cannot be a Christian and hear the good news of Jesus Christ and carry on with your life as if it had no effect.

In Matthew 10:24-39, Jesus lays out a hard truth for his disciples: "I did not come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword." Wait a minute! Did you mean that, Jesus? Before we take that literally, let's give Jesus a chance to back off of that hyperbolic statement. What comes next? "For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household." Hmmm. Does it get any easier if we keep reading? "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." Well shucks!

Alright, it seems that Jesus wants to stir up trouble. In that speech, he makes an allusion to Micah 7, where the unusual family behavior is not an indication of a prophet's work but, instead, the need for a prophet. Those sons treating their fathers with contempt and daughters rising up against their mothers is the prophet's condemnation of the people's godlessness. Jesus, however, seems to suggest that his work is a sort of quickening agent--an activity that exposes such godless relationships.

I think the key to understanding what Jesus has in mind is to go back and read the beginning of Sunday's gospel lesson:
A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master...If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
Jesus is on a path that is marked by conflict. It will lead to his ultimate rejection by his people and the world. If you're going to follow me, he seems to say to his disciples, then you will be the recipient of the same sort of conflict and rejection. But don't be afraid! In them, you have nothing to fear. All they can do is destroy the body. Fear only the one who can destroy your body and your soul. You are more valuable to God than many sparrows, and not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from God. So what I tell you here and now in secret, you must proclaim boldly from the housetops--even if it will get your arrested, even if it will get you shunned by family and friends, even if it causes conflict. Because I came to cause that conflict. That is my work. I came to the earth to bring a sword.

It's not a lot of fun to eat Thanksgiving dinner alone. It's not my dream to spend Christmas Eve in jail. I don't want to lose my job or the support of my family. I can't stand the thought of alienating my wife and children. But, if I allow the gospel of Christ to pass me by without stirring up in me an uncontainable desire to proclaim that threatening, transformative news to the world, Jesus is going to do more than smack his head with his palm. "Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven."

In twenty-first-century America, I don't think proclaiming the gospel of Christ necessarily involves alienating everyone you hold dear, but I do think that it requires us to make those people and the relationships we enjoy a little uncomfortable. The good news, however, is that the transformation envisioned by God in Jesus Christ is one that brings hope and life and renewal to all people, all things, all of creation. We are all a part of what God is doing in the world. It is and will be disruptive. We don't have to embrace it, but it will embrace us. You can sit back and watch it unfold, but you can't do that if you are a follower of Jesus. That transformation is exactly where Jesus is leading us. We can't follow him by sitting still and keeping quiet.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Harvest Without Laborers


A little over five years ago, our church planted a community garden. Our vision was for a garden in which parishioners, organizations, and neighbors would pick a bed to plant, cultivate, and grow whatever they wanted. There was a complicated schedule for stakeholders to be responsible for watering everyone's bed, and, before the first growing season was over, we realized that we had missed the mark. The joy of a community garden is measured not only in the produce but also in the community that gathers, and our schedule had effectively removed most of the interaction.

In the second season, we began to shift the ownership from specific beds with specific caretakers to the entire garden being cared for by the entire community. We met to coordinate what we would plant, who would water and weed, and where the produce would be distributed. The various organizations, parishioners, and neighbors would all share all of the work and all of the produce. Our neighborhood school decided that they wanted to plant most of the ingredients for salsa, which they would pick and use in a math-based cooking class, which we hosted. So we had beds for tomatoes, cilantro, onions, and jalapeno peppers. The Community Free Clinic liked handing out vegetables to its patients, so we planted more tomatoes as well as some eggplant, bell peppers, and squash. This time the problem was too much produce that ended up left to rot on the plants. We had so many tomatoes and peppers and squash that we couldn't pick it all or eat it all. Partly that was because the ownership was too decentralized. Who was entitled to today's tomatoes? What about tomorrow's? The harvest was plentiful, but the laborers were few. We needed more people to know that they had a place in our shared work.

On Sunday, in Matthew 9, Jesus will say to his disciples and to us, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." That the harvest is plentiful is a given. It's a fact. There is fruit to be gathered in for God's kingdom. There is more fruit than you and I and everyone else who is already in engaged in this kingdom gathering work can gather. We need help. We need more people to realize that there is work to be done and that the work belongs to them. There is fruit rotting on the vine. There is wheat spoiling in the field. There are people who don't know the liberating, life-giving love of God in Jesus Christ, and we need more people to see themselves as evangelists and missionaries.

I'm not talking about saving souls from the yawning gates of hell. Maybe that's what happens when people (fruit) are left unharvested. But I'm less motivated by the threat of damnation than I am by the opportunity for peace. Notice how Jesus introduces this invitation. "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." This is his motivation. This is why he said to the disciples, "Pray that the Lord of the harvest will send out more laborers into his harvest." People need hope. People need a direction that takes them out of the fruitless rat race of a life built only on our own efforts. People need to hear that they are loved with the unconditional love that enables them to blossom in the way they were created to be. They don't have that. But they could. They could be a part of God's grace-filled, grace-founded kingdom...if only there were people to tell them about it.

Earlier this week, my friend Steve Pankey noted that the people on his Instagram feed who sell makeup and other online products are much better at sharing their product's good news than most clergy are. He's right. I see lots of Facebook posts by colleagues about what their churches are doing, what trouble their kids are getting into, and what their latest political gripe is. I, too, post a lot about those things (except maybe the last one). But I don't often post things like, "Jesus loves you just the way you are." I write about them in this blog, but, if you're one of the 50-100 people who read this post, you're almost certainly already a part of the work of the harvest. People don't read 1000 words unless they're already committed. How might we do a better job of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ? What role will social media play in that work?

For this week, I'd like to invite us to focus less on the how the harvest will be gathered and more on the laborers that the harvest needs. If every clergyperson understood that her or his job is to invite and encourage evangelists, the plentiful harvest would have plenty of laborers. Everyone who knows the love of God in Jesus Christ has good news to share. Every single person who follows Jesus as the Lord of her or his life has a story of transformation to pass along. It may not be finished--in face it almost certainly isn't--but that story-in-progress is an opportunity for evangelism. It's an opportunity to be a part of the work that is bringing people into the love of God. Those of us who preach in pulpits and who write in blogs have an opportunity to encourage people to become evangelists--laborers for the harvest. There are too many creative people out there for the few of us who have been to seminary to decide how to share the good news. I trust that, when everyone who calls herself or himself a Christian is actively involved in sharing the love of Jesus, we'll discover some amazing ways to spread that love across the world. For now, though, let's follow Jesus' instruction and pray for more laborers.

There's more fruit out there than we know what to do with. Until everyone who follows Jesus understands that part of following Jesus is to share in the work of spreading the good news, we'll never have enough laborers to harvest that fruit. The work belongs to you--to each one of us. Pray that God will send out laborers into his harvest. Pray that God will inspire the leaders of the universal church to raise up more evangelists to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

He Died for Sinners


Because attendance typically dips during the summer months, we suspend our full Sunday school offerings and, instead, offer one class for youth and adults and one class for children. The adult class is the "Articles Class," in which one of the clergy presents a few articles from the week's news for us to read together and discuss. Last Sunday, one of my articles was a NPR piece on Senator Bernie Sanders' interrogation of Russell Vought, whom President Trump has nominated to serve as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. The reason I chose that article was because Senator Sanders took issue with Mr. Vought's evangelical Christian belief that non-Christians go to hell. The senator felt that disqualified Mr. Vought from serving in that capacity, and I wanted to discuss with the class 1) what is our belief in hell, 2) what does it mean to hold religious beliefs that are exclusionary, 3) do such beliefs disqualify someone from public service, and 4) how do we personally navigate that line between believing something and letting it affect the way we treat others. Today, however, I want to highlight another problem from the article itself.

In the article, the NPR staff interviewed a number of people with different religious perspectives. One of them was Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He indicated that Mr. Vought's view of hell is not atypical of evangelical Christians, that it is found directly in the New Testament, and that it is not necessarily "hostile." But the way NPR edited one of his quotations grabbed my attention: "'In Christian theology, no one is righteous before God,' he said. '[Evangelical] Christians don't believe that good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. Christians believe that all of humanity is fallen.'" (I've left the emphasis and brackets exactly as they appear in the published article.) Do you see that presumed insertion of the word "Evangelical?" The author may have been substituting "evangelical" for something like "this type of," so I may need to point a finger at Mr. Moore instead of Camila Domonske, the author, or her editors, but to imply that only evangelical Christians believe that good people don't go to heaven on their own merits is profoundly to misunderstand all of Christianity.

We don't believe that good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. And by "we" I mean all Christians. That isn't unique to evangelicals. If you believe in Jesus, you must believe in grace, and grace leaves absolutely zero room for getting to heaven because we are good people.

This Sunday, we will hear a familiar phrase from Romans 5: "Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." Don't let your familiarity with those words rob them of their power: while we were sinners Christ died for us. This is fundamental to the Christian faith. God loves us enough to do something about it when we didn't deserve it. And that "something" is to send his Son into the world to live and die and be raised from the dead so that we might be set free from sin and the consequence of sin, which is death. If Jesus came to save us from our sins, he cannot have come as a response to our sinlessness. In Jesus, God did not reward humanity for its efforts. On the contrary, God stepped in because of our sin and saved us anyway. This is the bedrock of Christianity. It is the bedrock of our hope. It sets us free from the false belief--the inescapable trap--that we have to be good enough to get to heaven. This is the best news in the history of humanity. This is the whole reason Christianity is a religion in the first place.

But I don't blame Ms. Domonske, her editors, or anyone else in the media for thinking that only firebrand evangelicals believe that heaven isn't a reward for good works. That's what every other religion will tell you, and, unfortunately, it's what many, many Christian preachers (evangelicals, too) will mistakenly preach as the Gospel. Our human instinct to expect reward for good behavior and punishment for bad behavior is so strong that it causes us to rewrite the Gospel of Christ. We turn the unconditional love of God into something that depends on going to church, saying your prayers, reading the Bible, giving intellectual assent to a statement of faith, raising your children the "right" way, being nice to strangers, listening to the "right" radio stations, wearing the "right" clothes, eating the "right" food. That's ridiculous! But we do it. All of us. Me, too. We want to place conditions on God's unconditional love because it's easier to understand that way, because it's easier to justify our condemnation of the people we think deserve our condemnation, because it's easier to believe in rewards than unmerited favor. But that's all wrong.

If we cannot believe that while we were still sinners Christ died for us, we are truly lost. That's the first step to seeing salvation. Salvation must begin with our need for salvation. Our participation in grace depends upon our willingness to accept grace as grace--not as a reward for good works but as unearned, undeserved love. Without it, Jesus is just another guy who says, "Maybe the world will be a better place if we love each other," and whose words we cast aside as another optimist's dream. That love is only possible through grace. We can only love each other like that if we see that we are loved like that. The world can only be the place that Jesus sees it can be if it is built upon grace. Otherwise, we're all damned...and I mean that literally.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Three-Year Experiment


A while back, I counted all the Sundays in the three-year church calendar that I have never preached. I keep all of my sermons on my computer, so I can look at them and see pretty quickly which ones are missing. I wasn't surprised to see that propers like the 9th Sunday after Epiphany were missing because that's one of those sets of lessons that we only hear when the first Sunday after the Epiphany early (like January 7) and Easter falls really late (like April 23). But there were a few right in the middle of things that in my decade or more of ordained ministry I had never preached. I've been crossing them off every so often, and my list is shrinking.

Throughout that whole time, however, I have never served in a "Track 1" parish. During the season after Pentecost, the RCL gives us two different tracks for the Old Testament readings. Track 2 follows the old BCP lectionary pretty closely, choosing passages that are thematically related to the Gospel lesson. Track 1 offers a "semi-continuous" approach to the Old Testament, starting in a book of the bible like Genesis or Ezekiel and more or less working its way through it, hitting the highlights that we might otherwise never get in the Sunday lectionary. I've always chosen Track 2 because, even when I am only preaching on the Gospel text, I like for us to hear resonances in the Hebrew tradition. Well, after all these years, I've decided to make a change. Beginning this Sunday, we'll use Track 1 for the next three years, giving the congregation and the preachers a chance to hear something a little different. But the funny thing is that the "semi-continuous" reading from Genesis 18 has as much to do with the Gospel lesson as the so-called "Gospel-related" reading from Exodus 19.

One day, the Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre. My friend and colleague Bill Murray, who creates an icon every year, is working on the "Hospitality of Abraham," that image made famous by Andrei Rublev. When I hear these words of Abraham welcoming the Lord in the form of three angel-persons (the bible makes it hard to tell), I cannot help but see this image, and I look forward to seeing his when he is finished.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
 
For most of human history, the opportunity to provide hospitality to a stranger has been an important social and religious expectation. Travelers in the wilderness may not find enough water or food to survive if they were turned away. Impromptu hosts never knew whether they were welcoming a rich benefactor or a temperamental warlord, and the nature of their hospitality might radically alter their future. Welcoming someone was an opportunity not only to provide for the one in need but receive the joy of human companionship in a desolate land.
 
When Abraham welcomed these three visitors, he hurried to provide the best that he had for them. He urged his wife to make cakes from choice flour. He took a tender, young calf and slaughtered it--evidence of genuine sacrifice for the strangers' benefit. He made a table for them and let them eat while he stood off at a distance, ready to serve them further. And, in the space he made for them, God showed up and offered Abraham and Sarah a blessing. One of the visitors said, "I will surely return in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son."
 
In the reading from Matthew 9, we hear of Jesus' sending out of the disciples. He sends them "as sheep in the midst of wolves," with no bag or money or extra supplies for the journey. He is sending them out as vulnerable as the desert traveler who knows not whether an oasis spring lies within walking distance. He invites them to trust that they will be met by people sympathetic to their journey, and he tells them to look for the opportunity to allow God's blessing to descend upon those who make space for them: "If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it."
 
In some ways, these lessons are about serving as a disciple--one who travels light, bringing little more than the good news of Jesus with her or him. In other ways, they are about serving as a host--one who recognizing the opportunity that knocks on the door and makes space for God to come in. Not long ago, our bishop mentioned in his sermon that older homes had big front porches on them, where residents could sit and see one another and visit as they walked down the block. Nowadays, houses have back decks that are surrounded by privacy fences. We are as reluctant to knock on a stranger's door as we are to open it when a stranger knocks.
 
Maybe there are non-literal ways for us to visit and welcome one another in the name of the Lord, but I think these lessons are, in part, an encouragement to do some old-fashioned visiting. Perhaps we should stop short of knocking on a stranger's door and asking to spend the night, but maybe we could knock and say hello, ask how we might pray for that person, see if there is anything they need. Can you imagine how shocking it would be if someone knocked on your door and asked if you needed prayer? Bob Leopold and the Abbey in Chattanooga used to make pickles and deliver them to strangers as a way to get people to open up about their stories. I don't know what will happen when a stranger knocks on my door or when I knock on a stranger's door, but I trust that God will be with us in the space that opens up. Will it be a foot-wide crack in the door or a wide-open living room?


Monday, June 12, 2017

Needed Encouragement


A year ago, as we were preparing for the early service on Sunday morning, June 12, news was breaking that there had been a shooting at a nightclub in Orlando. I can't remember whether there was time to add that tragedy to the printed-out form of the Prayers of the People before the service started, but I do remember that it wasn't until the following Sunday that the names of the victims were known and included in the prayers. On the morning when the news broke, I remember feeing a mixture of sympathy, surprise, and frustration at another mass shooting, but it wasn't until several days or even weeks later that I began to appreciate the magnitude of what had happened at the Pulse nightclub--a magnitude measured in ways that transcend a body count.

Not long after the shooting in Orlando--maybe even the Sunday after--I went to church at All Saints' Chapel in Sewanee, where I was taking some classes in a continuing education program. The preacher was the Rev. Dr. James F. Turrell, a member of the faculty at the School of Theology. He offered a powerful, disturbing, inspiring sermon in response to the overall increase in gun violence that we have experienced in recent years, the Pulse nightclub shooting in particular, and the need for the gospel and its ministers to confront the powers of evil that are at work in our world. In the sermon, he mentioned the absolute requirement that preachers steer clear of advocating for a particular candidate or ballot measure, but he pressed us hard toward the absolute necessity that preachers engage politics in the sense in which that word means "the ordering of our public life." It is our duty to do so. I left with a new sense not only of possibility but also demand. I am a preacher. Like it or not, I am a prophet. I have something to give.

Because yesterday, June 11, was a Sunday, the feast of St. Barnabas is transferred to today. Perhaps I'm making too much of that happy accident, but I can't help but read the biblical story of Barnabas without feeling again the encouragement I need to lend my voice and effort and ministry to the reordering of the structures of power in this world until God's reign is established fully. In the Daily Office reading from Acts 4, we learn that Barnabas was a native of Cyprus who sold his field and brought the money to the apostles, laying it at their feet. Later in Acts 11 and again in Acts 13, we read of Barnabas, so-named Son of Encouragement, gathering together those early Christians who were scattered because of the first persecution and exhorting them to remain faithful in the face of those who would try to kill them and later of Barnabas' co-commission with Saul/Paul to take that good news to the Gentiles. The story of Barnabas is of a disciple of Jesus who gave all that he had for the building up of God's kingdom in the face of considerable adversity. Wouldn't he encourage us to do the same?

Every shooting death is a tragedy. The Pulse nightclub shooting is the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Forty-nine victims were killed, and another fifty-eight were wounded, and the assailant, Omar Mateen, was also killed by police. It is no accident that the deadliest mass shooting was perpetrated at a gay nightclub. This was an attack on freedom, on our values, on our nation, and also specifically on those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered. This was an attack on the vulnerable among us--those whose identity is still a source of exclusion in our society. It was an act of hatred and violence perpetrated in a place of love and acceptance. Over the last 60 years...20 years...2 years, we have come a long way in accepting LGBTQ people in our common life, but the violence of the Pulse shooting reminds us that the world is still not the place God dreams it could be.

What are we doing about it? Today, we will remember the victims--those who died and those who still carry these wounds with them--in prayer. But will that prayer lead to action? Will we stand up for the peaceable reign of God? Will we call for a ban on assault rifles and high-volume magazines? Will we march and write letters and call our representatives in an effort to help change our nation's culture from one in which guns are a sacred right to one in which guns are a regulated privilege? Will those of us who serve in a church that still struggles with the full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals change the way we are the church until those barriers fall away? Will we preach sermons that not only articulate the kingdom of God but that also exhort our congregations to be a part of that kingdom's coming?

In the past twelve months, my sermons have changed. I find myself a little less worried about making people in the pews uncomfortable and a little more worried about neglecting my duty as a preacher of the gospel and a prophet for God's kingdom. Don't get me wrong: my self-interested survival instinct is still very strong, but my heart is open in a new way. I have not done enough. I need this encouragement to keep working. I ask God to help me bring more of myself to the apostles' feet. We all have something to give--something to share with the cause of God's reign. God doesn't need us for anything, but we need God, and we need leaders in the Christian community who help us see God when we need God most. And we need God most right now.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A Love Bigger Than Doubt


June 11, 2017 – The 1st Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
 
A few years ago, I was in charge of a wedding, and I only met the father of the bride at the rehearsal. Usually, it’s the bride’s family that I know better, but this couple had decided to get married at the groom’s church. Because of that role reversal, I wanted to go out of my way to make the parents of the bride feel at home, so I sought them out to introduce myself and see if they had any questions about weddings in our church. I sensed right away that he was sizing me up, and before long that was confirmed when he asked, “So…how many of these weddings have you done before?” I smiled at him and said, “You know what? This is my very first one. But I took a class on weddings in seminary, so I think everything will be ok.”

There are some moments in life when you don’t want to encounter doubt. When they’re wheeling you into the operating room, you don’t want to hear your surgeon say, “I’m not too sure about this.” When you’re about to jump out of an airplane, you don’t want your skydiving instructor to say, “I can’t remember whether I checked your chute before we took off.” No one wants his investment manager to say, “I don’t know if this is going to pay off, but let’s try it.” No one wants to stand at the altar at her wedding and hear her husband-to-be say, “I’m having second thoughts.” And, for many of us, one of the most threatening doubts we can hear is the one that comes from our minister, when, in our moment of crisis, he or she admits, “I don’t know.”

So I must admit that I find it more than a little strange to read the end of Matthew’s gospel account and see that, as the disciples prepared to bid farewell to the risen Lord, some of them doubted. Did you notice that detail in this short gospel lesson? “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” You know, Matthew didn’t have to include those words in his story. They don’t seem integral to the overall message. If you were trying to convince your readers that Jesus of Nazareth, who had been crucified by the Roman Empire, was, indeed, God’s Son—the one whom God had sent into the world to rescue God’s people from all that oppressed them—you might decide to leave out that bit about his followers doubting him. But Matthew wants us to know the whole story—not just the part that makes for a convincing account but the whole thing, doubts and all.

As I wrote this week in my blog, the word that Matthew uses for doubt is a funny word that only appears one other time in the New Testament (see Matthew 14:31). Elsewhere in the New Testament, the word translated as “doubt” is a word that implies a waffling of sorts—the kind of back-and-forth judging that an uncertain person might have. In this passage and in that one other place, however, the word means “two-stanced” or, perhaps, “doubleminded.”[1] The disciples, therefore, saw the risen Jesus and worshiped him, but some felt pulled in another direction—as if they weren’t quite clear on how to make sense of what was happening. Now, I don’t know about you, and you may find it threatening to hear your preacher say it, but that lack of clarity sounds like something I feel a lot of the time.

The world isn’t as comfortable with uncertainty as it used to be. Most of us carry the power of Google in our pockets, and we expect every question to have an answer that’s only a click away. And that has an effect on religion, too. In this age of science and archeology and reason and textual criticism, what does it mean to believe in Jesus? Now that we have access to tools that can test the veracity of the claims of Jesus’ followers, what does it mean to be a Christian in the twenty-first century? Sometimes it feels like Christianity is under attack from all the skeptics and secularists who would like nothing more than to unravel completely the faith that we have inherited from our ancestors. It’s as if anyone who would call herself a Christian has to be ready to prove that faith beyond a doubt at any moment. Sometimes it feels like there’s no room for good old-fashioned faith in a world that demands that proof. How do we hold onto faith in a culture like this?

Do we cast doubt aside? Do we dig in our heels and cling fast to the traditions of our ancestors and expel anyone who questions the things that we have always taught our children about God, about the Bible, and about the Christian faith? Do we double-down on certainty and bury our heads in the sand lest someone out there try to convince us or, worse, our children that what we’ve always believed isn’t true? Maybe that will work…for a while, for a day, for a moment in this over-connected, instantaneous culture we inhabit. And then what? What happens when, despite all our efforts, doubt creeps in? What happens when it’s our turn to lie awake at night and wrestle with the sorts of questions and inconsistencies that just don’t have answers?

In the Christian faith, there are two ways to deal with doubts. Some people sweep them under the rug, chase them out the door, banish them from their midst, or otherwise label them as thoroughly unchristian. And the rest of us sit with them and wrestle with them and linger in them and work through them for as long as it takes until light begins to shine in the darkness. We don’t have to have all the answers in order to follow Jesus. Jesus is the one who shows us that it’s ok to feel pulled in different directions—for part of us to recognize him as the risen Lord and for another part of us to be unsure whether he is the one we should fall down and worship. And why is that ok? Because the resurrection of Jesus shows us that God isn’t ever going to let our doubts stand in the way of his coming to us and saving us.

God isn’t waiting for us to put all of the pieces together and see the whole picture in perfect clarity before he is willing to reach down and rescue us from all that ails us. The risen Lord stands before his disciples and commissions them just as they are—doubts and all—and sends them forth to share the good news of God’s undefeatable love with the world. That love doesn’t depend upon our understanding. It meets us right where we are—confident or not, certain or not—and works its way into our hearts—sometimes slowly and other times all at once—until we know that love in ways that surpass our understanding.

Believing in Jesus doesn’t mean understanding him, nor does it mean having unquestioned certainty in the words of the Creed or the doctrines of the church. Believing in Jesus means trusting in him. It means putting your faith and giving your life to something that none of us can ever fully understand. It means looking at the risen Lord and recognizing that God’s love will always be bigger than you can comprehend and knowing that God’s faithfulness will always exceed even your strongest doubts.



[1] The Greek words in question are διακρίνω and διστάζω.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Worship and Doubt


I'm having a hard time figuring out what to preach on Trinity Sunday, so I am hesitant to say too much here because I worry I won't have anything else to say from the pulpit. Maybe that's a good example of the sort of worship and doubt that the disciples had in Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 28:16-20) when they said farewell to Jesus.

The disciples went to Galilee to the mountain to which Jesus had told them to go. There, they saw Jesus, and they worshiped him. But, as Matthew goes out of his way to say, some doubted. Why? Although I'm always interested to know why some of the disciples had their doubts, I'm more interested to know why Matthew bothered to add that little detail. Why would he say that? That's like standing at the altar on your wedding day and saying to your almost-spouse, "I'm having my doubts." In that moment, as you prepare to exchange vows, you may very well have your doubts, but that's not the time to say it out loud! Of course you have your doubts. We all have our doubts. The disciples had their doubts. But why did Matthew bother to mention it right as the disciples were getting their final instructions from Jesus? Why not let that little detail go by unmentioned so that the readers of your gospel account aren't left scratching their heads at a less-than-perfect ending?

I plan to say more about the integrity of doubt (uncertainty, wavering) in the midst of worship (awe-ascription, divinity-identification) in Sunday's sermon, but for now I'd like to celebrate the other moment in Matthew's gospel account when worship and doubt intersect. But first a little Greek.

The word Matthew uses for "some doubted" is ἐδίστασαν, which is a form of the Greek verb διστάζω. That verb is only used one other time in the New Testament. It turns out that the far more common word used by New Testament authors (19 times, in fact) for doubt is διακρίνω, which means "I judge" but carries the connotation of needing to decide between something. Part of the root is the Greek word δια, which means "through" or "back and forth." If you combine that with κρίνω, which means "I judge," you get someone who is in the process of judging back and forth or weighing two different options. In other words, διακρίνω implies that someone is at variance with himself. That's the sort of doubt that means non-wholehearted conviction. It's an act of discernment, not a position of double-mindedness. (For more on this word, see Strong's Concordance on biblehub.com here.)

But the word Matthew uses in Sunday's gospel lesson, a form of διστάζω, combines the Greek root δισ, which means "two," and the Greek root στασισ, which means "stance." This word means someone has a double-stance, a two-mindedness, an unresolved conflict of internal opinion. In a casual way they mean the same thing--doubt--but in Matthew's use there seems to be a considerable difference between the back-and-forth consideration of διακρίνω and the two-stance position of διστάζω. And I think the only other time the latter is used in the New Testament points us to that. (For more on this word, see Strong's Concordance on biblehub.com here.)

In Matthew 14:22-33, Jesus sends his disciples across the sea ahead of him. After some quiet time for prayer, Jesus notices that the disciples' boat is struggling against a storm. So he walks out to his disciples across the water. When they saw him, they were terrified because they thought it was a ghost, but Jesus reassured them, saying, "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid." Peter seizes upon this opportunity and says, "If it really is you, tell me to come out on the water to you." As Peter walks out upon the water to him, he notices the strong wind and becomes frightened and begins to sink. At once, Jesus reaches out his hand and pulls Peter up and says, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When he says it, he uses the two-stance word for doubt. And after they climb into the boat, the disciples all worship Jesus, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."

I don't think it's an accident that there are only two times when this particular word for doubt is used, and I don't think it's an accident that both come in Matthew's gospel account, and I don't think it's an accident that both come adjacent to a moment of worship. The disciples are of two minds. They have a double-stance. They straddle the fence of recognizing who Jesus is and failing to comprehend what that really means. This Sunday, I hope to explore that mindset of living in two places and seeking God's help to reconcile it.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

What Is Your Hope?

 
Wednesday in Proper 4 - June 7, 2017

In Mark 12, Jesus is tested a couple of times. First, the Pharisees and Herodians come and ask him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, and Jesus gave the clever response, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's." Now, in today's passage, he is approached by the Sadducees, who present him a complicated hypothetical situation about marriage and death and resurrection. Basically, if a woman in succession marries seven brothers, each of whom dies, whose wife will she be in heaven? The Sadducees, of course, were that branch of Judaism that did not believe in any sort of resurrection, so we know that they were not really interested in an answer to their question. They just wanted to show Jesus how smart they were or, perhaps, show others how dumb Jesus and others who believed in that silly, life-after-death thing were. We don't have that problem. Whether we're devoutly Christian or just nominally faithful, I think we all expect something good to be waiting for us on the other side of this life. The problem, however, is that we approach heaven with the same sort of hypocritical, short-sightedness as the Sadducees.

How much time have you spent thinking about the phrase in the wedding vows, "until we are parted by death?" I've been to a fair number of weddings. I've led bride and groom through the exchange of vows more times than I can remember. I've preached several wedding sermons on what it means to love one another "for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health." I've got a pretty good grasp of the theology of unconditional love and how marriage is an image for us of the unconditional love that God has for the world in Jesus Christ. But I've never spent time with a couple or in a wedding sermon discussing the "until death do us part" part. It's what we believe. It's in the vows for a reason. Jesus makes that part pretty clear in today's gospel lesson: "For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage." I know that we are not married to our spouse when we get to heaven, but I don't like to think about it because I love my wife so much. And that's where I become a Sadducee.

What are we hoping for in heaven? What do we think God has prepared for us? What do we believe that God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to live as one of us, die on the cross, and rise again to secure for us in heaven? More of this life but just a little bit better? Or something completely different?

It's not really a fair question since none of us can know. We can only use our earth-bound imagination to dream up what heaven is like, which is like asking someone who has never been to or seen a picture of the ocean to describe what it feels like to stand on the shore. Think of the biblical descriptions of heaven. Sometimes it is described as a great wedding feast with food and wine that never cease. Sometimes it is described as a great, shining light that all nations can see and to which they are drawn. Sometimes it is described as a city with streets paved with gold and foundations of precious stones and a gate made out of one giant pearl. But aren't all of those just human beings' attempts to say that heaven is greater than anything we can imagine? I don't know what heaven is like, but I'm pretty sure that what God has in store for us isn't simply more of this life but better.

What did Jesus come to accomplish? Are we so egotistical to think that God sent his Son into the world so that each of us can inherit our own everlasting life? We hear Jesus' words about no marriage in heaven and we imagine, therefore, that there will be some other heavenly way for us to know and love the ones we know and love without needing to be married to them. But is that really what Jesus died for? Maybe it's bigger than that. Maybe heaven isn't just about us--about the people we marry and the children we have and the friends we want to spend eternity with. Maybe heaven is about all of God's people--all of them--being united in a love that brings them closer together than even husband and wife and son and daughter. Maybe it's about a unifying love that is so powerful that who we loved in this life is irrelevant because we will all love God together without any separation.

I don't know what heaven will be like. But I do know that I have a tendency to limit the magnitude of the resurrection by restricting it to the hopes that I find most comforting. I may not approach Jesus with the same sort of hypothetical trap that the Sadducees presented, but my view of heaven isn't much different from theirs. What God has prepared for us is always greater, always bigger, always better than we can imagine. We need to ask God to help us let go of our limitations, set aside our egocentricity, and trust that heaven is something more important than us. We need to ask God to give us a hope that transcends even our greatest imagination.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Ordinary Time


This post is also featured in our parish newsletter. To learn more about what the people of St. John's, Decatur, are doing and to read the rest of the newsletter, click here.
 
 
Today at the midday healing Eucharist, I will wear a green stole for the first time since February. Easter was fifty days of white that concluded with Sunday’s blazing red for Pentecost. Before that was forty days of Lenten purple. So much has happened in our liturgical cycle during that time that I can hardly remember seeing the altar bedecked in green.

We call the seasons after Epiphany and after Pentecost “ordinary time” because they are not attached to a particular feast of the church. We celebrate Advent, Lent, and Easter for a block of time, and each Sunday in them is described as being “of” or “in” that season. With the exception of a few special celebrations that are observed on a Sunday, however, the rest of the year is reckoned by what has come and gone as Sundays “after” Epiphany or Pentecost. By the time we get to Advent, we will have endured almost six full months of ordinary time, when even the most enthusiastic preacher can get weighed down by the doldrums of summer. Although that time is quickly approaching, today, as we stand at the very beginning of this long stretch of liturgical green, I find the return to the ordinary surprisingly refreshing.

Apart from the seasons of the church, people have a hard time enduring special occasions that stretch on and on. After a lengthy trip to a foreign land with its exotic menus, many of us are thankful to be home where we can eat a simple grilled cheese and tomato soup. Black-tie occasions are fun, but they lose their appeal after six or seven nights out in a row. Weddings are great celebrations for family and friends, but guests are exhausted by festivities that start on Wednesday morning and stretch through Sunday afternoon. How much rich food, fine wine, and late-night partying can a person handle? Although it may not be exciting, returning to normal can be the most important life-giving opportunity we have had in a while.

In Matthew 6, Jesus invites us to consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air as signs of God’s never-failing provision. He does not ask us to remember the manna in the wilderness or the jar of meal that sustained Elijah and the widow of Zarephath and her son as signs that God has the power to intervene in headline-grabbing ways to sustain us. Instead, he calls us back to the ordinary. There is great power in remembering God’s presence in the ordinary blessings of life. In Matthew 5, Jesus encourages us to pray to our Father and ask only for our daily bread—just enough of the simply nutritional staple to sustain us for another day. We may prefer a banquet fit for a king, but recognizing that God’s ordinary abundance has already provided us with enough is where faith begins.

The vibrancy of our relationship with God may be awakened on a mountain top, but it is sustained through daily prayer. This week, as we bid farewell to the Easter season, the Daily Office has given up the exceptional “Christ Our Passover,” which we have used every morning during Easter in place of the invitatory psalm, and has returned to the “Venite” and the “Jubilate,” which are far more familiar. Saying the same words every morning for six months can feel monotonous, but there is also great comfort in returning to the word we know so well. Perhaps we should note that there is a reason we pray the Lord’s Prayer every day and that no one seems to complain that those simple yet majestic words are too ordinary.
 
Where are you in your walk with God? If you are still basking in the radiant light of the empty tomb or the transfiguration or the pillar of fire or whatever transcendent encounter you have had with God, I encourage you to stay there and embrace it. If, however, that light has dimmed and you no longer feel its exceptional warmth, consider the beauty of a single, ordinary candle. Don’t ignore the simple and plain things in life. God meets us at the top of the mountain and then journeys with us back into ordinary life. If we only look for God in the spectacular moments of life, we will miss him when we need him most. Commit yourself to a daily walk with God, and discover God’s abiding presence in even the most ordinary times.

Everything Is God's


Tuesday in Proper 4 - June 6, 2017
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

You remember the joke about the clergy from different denominations and how they handle the money collected in the offering plate. The Baptist minister has a piece of tape drawn across the floor in the middle of his office. Each Sunday he stands over that line and takes all of the money collected in the offering plate and throws it up in the air, and the part that lands on one side belongs to him and the part that lands on the other side belongs to God. The Methodist minister has a hat that he places on the floor of his office, and when he throws the money up into the air, the part that lands in the hat belongs to God and all the rest belongs to him. The Episcopal clergyperson takes all of the money in the plate and throws it up into the air and yells, "Ok, God! Keep whatever you want!"

How do we know what belongs to God and what belongs to us? How do we decide how much God wants us to use for ourselves and how much God wants us to give back to his work in the world?

Occasionally, I am asked to serve as a stewardship consultant for other parishes. When I go and visit them, I do and say the same things I do and say in our parish. I talk about sacrificial, proportional, first-fruits giving as a way to deepen our faith by strengthening our relationship with God. I talk about the tithe (10%) as the biblical and canonical standard for Christian giving. Whenever I do, someone always asks me the same question: "Is that before taxes or after taxes?" They usually have a smile on their face when they ask it, and I always smile in return when I say, "It's up to you, but I trust that, if you can work toward the tithe as an after-tax reality, God will grab ahold of your heart and bring you the rest of the way."

Sometimes people point to today's gospel lesson (Mark 12:13-17) and Jesus' reply to a question about paying taxes as a teaching for today, suggesting that "rendering unto Caesar" means that we only tithe our after-tax income. And maybe that's true. Maybe that's what Jesus meant. Surely it was a clever answer to the trap that the Pharisees and Herodians had set for him. There was a political and religious controversy underlying their question. The emperor, of course, was a self-proclaimed semi-divine leader who taxed the residents of Palestine as his subjects. That entire system was a direct rejection of their faith, and supporting the empire with their taxes was a way of submitting to that unholy arrangement. More than that, the coin itself contained an image of the emperor--a graven image--that itself was a direct violation of the third commandment. So this was in effect a double-trap. Would Jesus, a rabbi who was popular among the Roman-hating populous, advocate supporting the unholy Roman Empire by using an unholy currency?

Typically, I think of his answer--"Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's"--as a careful, fence-straddling, practical response to their trap. In effect, he separates the two worlds--political and religious--and imagines two different allegiances, two different currencies, and two different responsibilities for the faithful Palestinian Jew. But I'm not so sure their amazement was because of his crafty answer. I'm starting to wonder whether they were dumbfounded by the sharpness of his teaching.

What belongs to Caesar? What belongs to us? Doesn't everything belong to God--absolutely everything? Those who heard him would have known that. In 1 Chronicles 29, King David declares the praiseworthiness of God, saying,
Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our ancestor Israel, forever and ever. Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all. And now, our God, we give thanks to you and praise your glorious name. But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to make this freewill offering? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. (1 Chron. 29:10-14)
Even that unholy coin with its graven image of the pretend-divine emperor whose very image was a mocking of God and God's laws belonged to God. When Jesus held up the coin and said, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's," wasn't he calling into question the presumption that anything really belonged to the emperor? John makes this point clear in his gospel account when Jesus, later in his life, stands condemned before Pilate and says, "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above." I wonder when Jesus says that famous line, "Render to Caesar," whether he is challenging his hearers to wrestle with the truth and recognize that, despite all appearances, even the Roman currency isn't really Rome's. If so, one might think that Jesus is rejecting the tax system altogether, but I think it's even more difficult than that. I think he's calling us to recognize that absolutely everything--even paying our taxes--must become an expression of our faith--faith that God is the true source of all things.

Everything belongs to God. Absolutely everything. That itself is a statement of faith. Can you see it? Can you believe it? Can you see and know that every blade of grass, every sunrise, every drop of rain, every harvest, every penny, every investment, every account all belongs to God? That's where we must begin. We must see Jesus holding up the coin and recognize that no matter whose head and title are upon it, no matter whose name is on the paycheck, no matter whose name is on the account, it all belongs to God. That changes everything. It changes how we approach our work. It changes how we pay our bills. It changes how we save for our kids college education. It changes how we plan for retirement. All of it becomes an expression of God's bounty, and we then feel the call to use it all for God's glory--not just 10%, not just our after-tax income, not just what we have left over, but all of it. It already belongs to God. You're just borrowing it. How are you using it to honor the one who has given you all things?

Monday, June 5, 2017

Why Trinity?


Yesterday was the last day of the Easter season, and we celebrated the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Also, at St. John's in Decatur, Alabama, it was our bishop's visitation, and Pentecost seemed like a perfect time to celebrate baptisms and confirmations with him. Little did I know, however, how theologically Spirit-focused and Trinitarian our time together would become.

If you know Bishop Kee Sloan, you know him to be a thoughtful, funny, lovable man who tells excellent stories. He can preach for half and hour and no one seems to mind because he is such a gifted story teller. Despite all of the rich gospel-centered theology that comes through in his stories, Kee Sloan is not a theologian in the classical sense. Sure, he understands incarnational theology and the Chalcedonian definition and theories on atonement, but he doesn't ever talk about them as such. He'd rather tell a story that involves a camper from a special session who taught him what it means to have the divine spark within a human being. So when Kee Sloan, in the middle of a parish-wide forum, began to explain the filioque clause of the Nicene Creed, you could have knocked me over with a feather.

To make a long story (and an even longer speech by the bishop) a little bit shorter, suffice it to say that Bishop Sloan asked the audience for questions and one person asked about the possibility of a new prayer book and Bishop Sloan took that opportunity to say that one item up for discussion was the filioque. He then proceeded to get his ecumenical councils a little mixed up. (I was impressed that he remembered that the first one was in 325.) But eventually he got us to see that the filioque was symbolic of something that had separated East and West for a long time. In that strange and surprising digression, he made what I thought was a rather profound statement: "It turns out that whether the Holy Spirit proceeds just from the Father or from the Father and the Son is a pretty big deal." Considering that his sermon had nothing to do with the origin of the Spirit, I thought it was pretty impressive that he chose that liturgically well-timed topic.

It does matter but not because we should care which version of the Creed is included in the next prayer book. What is the relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit? Arius, the archheretic of the third and fourth centuries, argued that there must be a "when" when the Father was but the Son was not. Because of his ardent monotheism (a very good thing, indeed), Arius refused to accept that the Son was of the same substance as the Father. Even if the Son existed before all of creation, the Son was still a creation of the Father, he argued. Otherwise, we end up with two gods, and we cannot have two gods. The Spirit wasn't all that important to Arius or anyone for the next several decades, but one could ask the same question of the Spirit. How do we make sense of the three-in-one? Even if we give up our attempt to make sense of it, how do we even approach, worship, acknowledge the three-in-one?

It matters. That we worship a God that is three persons in perfect unity makes a difference. It changes everything. It transforms our understand not only of who God is but also of how God is. God is relational. If God is relational it is who and how God has been from before time and forever. Otherwise, we are forever doomed as beings with no real, substantial relationship with God. God cannot be affected by the created order, but God can and does have a meaningful relationship with us because God is always relational. God is love. That love must have an object, and it must have had an object--a direction and a flow--even before time itself was created. That God is love necessitates a multi-personal conception of God, and, if God is love, God is not only two persons but three in that that love must be returned with perfectly equal, perfectly unitary love. We call it "Father, Son, and Spirit," but, since God is love, God is not only the two objects united in perfect love but also the love that is between them.

Without the Trinity, we lose access to the divine life. It becomes only a myth to be beheld forever at a distance. The Trinity invites us into the love of God. With that approach, we cannot say that the Spirit proceeded from the Father without also saying the Spirit proceeded from the Son--not in a hierarchical statement that subordinates the Spirit to the Son as well as the Father but in a way that reflects the genuinely Trinitarian nature of the Trinity. No, I don't think that the Roman Church should have changed the creed without calling a genuinely ecumenical council, but I don't think the filioque as a theological text in and of itself is all that big a deal.

This Sunday is, of course, Trinity Sunday. This is the week when preachers are given biblical passages that hint at the existence of the Trinity without ever stating it. Why? Because the Trinity wasn't a concept until after the entire Christian Bible was written. How are we to use the creation account of Genesis 1 to preach a non-Jewish concept? How can we take Paul's sign-off words to the Corinthians as evidence of a doctrine he never professed? How can we take Jesus' command that his followers baptize converts to his way in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit and preach a true theology of Trinity even though Jesus never declared himself and probably never thought of himself as fully God? How do we preach the Trinity without violating the integrity of those passages and authors? We let our understanding of who God is and how God is shape the way we hear those passages. Although none of them necessitates a fifth-century or later understanding of the Trinity, that understanding shapes the way we think of our createdness, our relationship with God, and our commission to bring others into the way of Jesus. That's the task (challenge? joy?) of the preacher this week--to proclaim the centrality of the Trinity without changing the readings we are given. I just have to figure out how to do that in a sermon that lasts less than half an hour because I suspect it won't be the wonderful storytelling that our preacher offered us this week.