Thursday, August 17, 2017

Grandma's Racism Isn't Ok


I'm not scheduled to preach on Sunday. If I were, I think I might open my sermon by saying something like, "That blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus sure does know how to put a filthy Canaanite woman in her place." Sunday's gospel lesson is from Matthew 15 and includes the encounter between Jesus and the Gentile woman who begs him to heal her demon-possessed daughter. After first ignoring her and then resolutely refusing to help, Jesus says to the persistent mother, "It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs." Of course, the woman takes Jesus' words and uses them to demonstrate that faith belongs not only to the children of Israel but potentially to all peoples, but let's not celebrate her faith without also questioning Jesus' motives.

I've heard plenty of people use a number of explanations to excuse Jesus' harsh words. Maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he didn't mean it the way we hear it. Maybe he knew what sort of response the woman would have, so he treated her harshly just to provoke that reaction from her and, through it, make a point to his disciples. Maybe, like a parent who, when asked by his children why he gave one child a bigger piece of cake, responds, "Because I love your sister more than you," Jesus actually meant the exact opposite of what he said. If it makes the preacher and the congregation feel better, we can hide behind any one of those excuses, but, if so, we will not have done the gospel lesson justice nor will we have been faithful to our call to participate in the transformational, unconditional love that God has for the world in Jesus Christ.

We use excuses like that to let our racist grandmother off the hook. She grew up in another era when no one understood what equality was. She only uses that term because she doesn't know the proper, politically correct way to speak about persons of color. She says things like that because no one ever taught her anything else. It's not like she goes to rallies or actively discriminates against anyone; she's just an old, southern lady who is stuck in her ways, and there's not much we can do about that. We say those things to ourselves and to other people because we don't like the alternative. We don't like thinking of our dear, sweet grandmother, who always doted on us and showered us with affection, as a prejudiced, bigoted, racist like the kind we see making Nazi salutes and wearing white hoods and shouting hate-filled things in Charlottesville. But what's the difference between David Duke and Grandma and Jesus?

For starters, let's admit that there is actually a difference. There's a difference between an individual who espouses racist views and a person who passively participates in a racist system. Jesus isn't lining up at the alt-right demonstration, and neither is your grandmother. The transformation that God is enacting in the world isn't facilitated by labeling everyone who has ever failed to call out a friend for telling a racist joke as the same kind of racist as the neo-Nazi skinhead who advocates the murder of minorities. But we undermine that transformation when we fail to identify and excoriate the systemic racism that leads Grandma to think about her African-American neighbors as a threat to her safety and security and that leads Jesus to call this Canaanite woman a dog.

I preached about this gospel lesson at a midweek service last week, before Charlottesville had made the headlines. In that sermon, which you can read here, I discussed the anachronistic label that Matthew uses for the Gentile woman who sought Jesus' help. In short, there were no Canaanites back then. Using that term was a way to remind the readers of those people who, long ago, had literally stood in the way of God's people entering the Promised Land. By bringing us back to that chapter in Israel's history, Matthew is inviting us to see this woman as someone whom Jesus wasn't supposed to help. Her faith, therefore, comes as a surprise to everyone--even Jesus. Her statement about gathering up the crumbs under the table and Jesus change of heart represent the kind of reversal that God is enacting in the world through God's Son. There can be no bigger reversal of fortunes than this "Canaanite" woman receiving salvation at the hands of the "Son of David." In the end, therefore, there must be transformation. The outcome of this gospel lesson--in the story itself and also in our lives--must be the radical equalization of universal and undifferentiated access to God and God's love. But we can't get there unless we embrace the fullness of the racism that otherwise would stand in its way.

Jesus may be sinless, but he is bound by his humanity, and that includes the shortsightedness of systemic, cultural racism. (My friend Steve Pankey wrote beautifully about that on Monday, and his post has been an important part of my prayers and work this week.) To a faithful first-century Jew, this Gentile woman--especially when labeled as a "Canaanite"--is nothing more than a dog. That's just the way it was. And that was as true for Jesus as it was for anyone else. Of course, that isn't the way God's reign looks when it is fully manifest. In God's eyes and in God's kingdom, the Canaanite woman is as beloved as any of God's children. We can see that now in ways that Jesus couldn't see and, perhaps, that our grandmothers couldn't see either. Even in the first century, however, Jesus represented the possibility that God's love could extend beyond traditional cultural, religious, and racial boundaries. It is in Jesus, therefore, that this barrier is shattered in this encounter with the Gentile woman. It is through Jesus that the world begins to see a little more clearly that racism of any kind--personal, cultural, inherited, systemic--stands in the way of God's reign.

If we pretend that racism only affects those who travel to Charlottesville to "unite the right," we will be guilty of perpetuating the same racist theology of privilege that led white preachers to issue their "Call for Unity," urging civil rights demonstrators to abandon their "unwise and untimely" provocation that had upset Birmingham in the spring of 1963. If we deny the racism that affects the culture and systems that we inhabit, we are guilty of the same racism that led southern states to secede from the Union in order to preserve their slavery-supported economy and lifestyle. If we refuse to confront the racism upon which our lives--our education, our wealth, our access--have been built, then we are guilty of the same exclusionary approach to God's blessings that led Jesus to turn that Canaanite woman away.

In each of those moments, God's kingdom is breaking through, but it is breaking through not in the stories of those who have power and authority and control but in the lives and witness of those who are oppressed, enslaved, and excluded. If we are going to see that kingdom and participate in the transformation that it has brought to this world, we must not remain silent any longer. We must not let passive participation in the unjust structures of society go unchallenged. We must forsake the racism that has shaped our ancestors, our institutions, and ourselves, and follow the one who unites all peoples through his death and resurrection.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Calling Out Sin or Facilitating Forgiveness?


Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

If you search the internet for "drunk preacher Easter sermon," you can find an incredibly profane, curse-filled, five-minute audio clip of a made-up Easter Day sermon in which the supposed preacher calls out a dozen congregants for a wide range of sins. From the pulpit, he names a man and woman who have been having an affair. He calls out a Sunday school teacher for neglecting his duties and fires him on the spot. He berates another man for putting a quarter in the offering plate. It's funny because it didn't really happen. It's funny because preachers may think things like that, but we'd never actually say them.

Warning: this clip contains profanity!

Then again, if you look at the other video clips that YouTube suggests when you're listening to that make-believe sermon, it's not so funny anymore. There are actual preachers in actual churches who find ways to weave specific people and their specific sins into their sermons. It makes me nauseated to imagine being in a congregation while something like that takes place. How can any clergyperson charged with care of a congregation ever berate people in public like that? It's spiritual abuse. That makes the old saying about the pulpit being six feet above contradiction pretty scary. Is there ever a good time for a pastor to call out a congregant for his or her sin?

I'm not good at that. Sure, I have no problem telling people that they are sinners in need of repentance. I have a pretty low anthropology. I believe that human nature is fundamentally sinful. I believe in original sin. When it comes to having a meaningful relationship with our loving God, I believe that the first and most important gesture we can make is one of repentance. But looking someone in the eye and saying, "You've got to stop drinking," or "You need to apologize to your sister," or "You have to end that relationship," or "You must stop posting things like that on Facebook," is incredibly difficult. Who am I to judge? Well, actually, who am I not to? And who are you not to?

In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus says, "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when you are alone...If you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you...If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and, if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." I must admit I find those words to be a bit of a turn-off. They sounds so mechanical, so hierarchical. Perhaps it's worth noting that there was no ἐκκλησίᾳ in Jesus' day--at least not in the institutional setting. The word translated for us as "church" means "an assembly of the called-out ones," and there were assemblies of faithful ones back then but not in the Christian context. This seems to be Matthew's retrojection of instructions for good church order back onto the words of Jesus. Still, whether Jesus said them or Matthew and his community wrote them, they are a set of instructions give to us? How do we make sense of them?

These verses are chosen for today in a daily Eucharistic lectionary. The implication, I think, is that we would have assembled yesterday to hear the passage that comes right before this and that we would come back again tomorrow to hear what comes after it. Yesterday was the feast of St. Mary the Virgin, so we didn't get to hear the beginning of Matthew 18, and tomorrow is Thursday, when we don't have a service, so we won't get to hear the end. So maybe it's worth taking just a moment and recalling the rest of Matthew 18.

Jesus says, "Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones...What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountain and go in search of the one that went astray?" Later, after Peter asks Jesus how many times he should be willing to forgive his brother, "as many as seven times?" Jesus responds, "Not seven times but seventy-seven times." In other words, these instructions are not about calling out sin but about facilitating forgiveness. I don't like pointing out other people's sins, but I do relish the opportunity to invite people into a reconciled life.

There's been a lot of news lately about calling out sinners. Will the President call the alt-right movement, the KKK, and neo-Nazis the un-American, hate-filled, violence-inspired groups that they are? Is it right to use the same labels for the counter-protesters who claimed to be standing up to hate? Is James Alex Fields a terrorist whose radical ideology led him to drive a car into a crowd of demonstrators? Is Heather Heyer a martyr who was killed because she stood up for her faith? Should we share snapshots of "Unite the Right" demonstrators on Facebook so that they might be shamed by their friends and families and, perhaps, fired from their jobs? If we discover that our own child has fallen into this web of racism and hatred, should we disown him? Is it right to expunge our cityscapes from all statuesque representations of the Confederacy and the slavery it stood for? Should they be left as a symbol of heritage? As a testament to our shameful past? Are those who say that they should remain guilty of sin? Can we have a civil conversation about a legacy of our inhumane history?

It's easy to affix labels like "sinner" and "racist" and "bigot" from a distance. It's easy to preach against the sins that manifest themselves in the headlines and the sinners who stand on what the majority feels is the wrong side of a demonstration. But what happens when that person sits in one of the pews in your church? What happens when that person has a place at your Thanksgiving table? What happens when that person has a bedroom in your house? We don't shy away from calling a sin a sin, but we do so not to make ourselves feel better by declaring our superiority. We approach the sinner as a brother or sister who has lost his or her way. We invite that person to return to our fellowship. We reach out to that person in the name of the church and the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for even a lost sheep like him or her. We yearn for reconciliation. We want to be a path to forgiveness. We are willing to demonstrate the limitless forgiveness of God by forgiving our brother or sister seventy-seven times, which is to say as many times as it takes. As we discuss the sins of our ancestors and decry the sins of our contemporaries, may we never shy away from the totality of that sin, and may we never miss the opportunity to preach forgiveness and reconciliation for all.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Weak Made Strong


Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

I'm not as strong as I used to be, and I bet you're not either. I suppose my physical strength peaked when I played high school football. I haven't lifted weights since then, but, more than that, age slowly takes its toll on everyone. Sure, it's impressive when 83-year-old Jack Palance does a one-armed push-up on stage at the 1992 Academy Awards to demonstrate to the producers in the audience that older actors might be worth the risk, but no one who lives until she's 83 is as physically strong as she was when she was 23. It just doesn't work like that. Just ask Usain Bolt.



Eventually, human beings give out. Our strength wanes. Our speed retards. Our looks fade. Our memories blur. Our accomplishments, no matter how impressive, whether built of steel or language or insight, will erode. One day, even Robert Frost's divergent roads will slip out of human memory. It is a principle of the universe in which we live that all things--all matter and energy--are moving on a steady decline. But God has something different to say about that.

In the Incarnation, God declares a new law--one that does not replace the laws of thermodynamics but that transcends them on a different plane of existence. In God, the Virgin Mary declares, the powerful are brought down from their thrones while the lowly are raised up; the hungry are filled with good things while the rich are sent away empty; the lowliness of the humble is regarded as blessed because of what God is doing. That doesn't make sense, of course. In our experience, the weak don't become strong. The humble aren't exalted. The rich and proud may eventually return to the dust just like the rest of us, but our future isn't one of increase but decline. Except that in God our weakness becomes strength, our humility becomes blessedness, because of what God has done for us.

"In the fullness of time," Paul writes, "God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children." In order for us to escape the limitations of our human nature and the ravages of decline that come with it, God had to become a human being. In order to reverse the inevitability of our weakness, God had to become weak. God had to unite himself to us so that we might be united to him. That which is broken and flawed inside of us is changed when it is united with that which is perfect and complete in God. Because God became man, we become like God.

That's why Mary sings her song of transformation not as if it will happen one day but as it takes place within her womb: he has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things; he has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy. And just as that transformation of humanity took place inside of her, so, too, is that same transformation taking place within us. It has taken place. It is taking place.

As the redeemed people of God, we have to look upon the world the way that God sees it--the way that Mary saw it. We must see how the lowly have become blessed, how the poor have been made rich, how the weak have been made strong. We cannot see that truth unless we look with the eyes of faith. Although we still inhabit this life, we also exist simultaneously in a different realm. Every day, we must die with Christ to this world so that we can be raised with him in the next--not when we die but now. The union of divine and human is not a moment locked in the past nor promised in the future. It is true now. See how God's nature has already been put upon you, and let that transformation, which began so long ago, be continued in you today.

Monday, August 14, 2017

God's Vision: Unity


When I was a kid, our family went to see Saving Private Ryan after church on Easter Day. I am not sure that I'd call it a resurrection story, but it wasn't a bad way to spend the afternoon. There's a scene near the end of the film where the title character is standing in a military cemetery, asking the graves of those who died trying to save his life whether he'd earned their sacrifice. Whenever I see that scene, the floodgates open, and I start crying like a baby. In fact, it doesn't even matter whether I've seen the whole film. If I flip through the channels and happen across that cemetery scene, I can't help but weep.

On Sunday morning in our Track 1 parish, we'll hear the tiniest sliver of the Joseph story (Genesis 45:1-15), but it's still enough to make my eyes well up with tears. Earlier this year, our men's Bible study read the Joseph story. Unlike the lectionary, which skips from yesterday's reading of Joseph being sold into slavery to the moment when he reveals himself to his brothers, we read every chapter and, even though we knew the outcome, wondered whether Joseph would survive, when he would show himself to his siblings, and whether he would ever be reunited with his father. Over and over in our study, I reminded the class that there must be reunification. The patriarchal story, which concludes with Jacob, must end with unity. We can't have one of the tribes estranged until after this part of Israel's history is finished. Still, we spent months enduring the ups and downs of the narrative until, at last, we could celebrate with Joseph and his brothers.

Typically, I would be drawn to Joseph's line about God being responsible for everything that happened: "So it was not you who sent me here, but God." That's a powerful statement of looking-back theology from which contemporary theologians and contemporary Christians shy away. Would we really say that God made that happen just because it ended well? There's so, so much to say about that. Combine it with the NT lesson from Romans 11 about God's promises being irrevocable, and you've got a great mind-spinning sermon about how God works throughout human history. That's what I'd typically focus on. That's where I'd usually be drawn. But not this year.

Today, I find it impossible to read the story of Joseph and his brothers and hear the words of Psalm 133 and not think of Charlottesville, Virginia. When my eyes fill with tears at the thought of Joseph's reunion with the same brothers who sold him into slavery, I cannot see anything but the police barricades that attempted to separate white-supremacists from counter-protesters. When I hear the song about how good and pleasant it is when the brethren dwell together in unity, I cannot hear anything but the loud, clear, dull thud of the car allegedly driven by James Alex Fields plowing into human beings, killing Heather Heyer, who was there to stand up to hatred. This Sunday, a week after the violence, when I hear God's plan for unity among estranged brothers, I will ask myself when that vision for unity will be a reality in this world.

God's plan for this world is unity. We read that not only in this Sunday's lessons but throughout scripture. God's dream, seen by God's prophets, is of a time when all nations will know God and stream together under his protection. Abraham is promised to become a light for all nations. Through Jesus' outstretched arms on the hard wood of the cross, God is reconciling the whole world to himself. So good and godly is that unity that it can be compared with oil running down Aaron's beard--a sign of anointing and abundance. Anything and anyone who seeks to divide the peoples of the earth is, therefore, working against God, and anyone who refuses to say so is complicit in their sin.

When we describe white male murderous car drivers who plow into crowds as "lone wolfs" and not "domestic terrorists," we are standing on the side of Satan. When we fail to make the explicit connection between the alt-right movement and the ethnic cleansing that their forebears enacted upon God's people, we are standing on the side of Satan. When we say that "both sides" of demonstrators in Charlottesville need to refrain from violence and hatred without also distinguishing between those who wear white hoods and use Nazi salutes and those who advocate for dignity and respect for all people, we are standing on the side of Satan. Hatred and violence and bigotry are always wrong. They are never excusable. When we pretend that they are not at the root of what happened in Charlottesville, we are standing on the side of Satan.

God is working to bring all peoples together. Under God's reign, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. In Christ, we are all one. The work of God, therefore, is carried out by those who stand up against hatred and who name bigotry and bigots for what they really are. The alt-right may be a political movement, but it is not only about politics. It is about hatred. It is about violence. It is about everything that stands in the way of God's reign being established here on earth. It is anti-Christ, and followers of Jesus must be willing to say so or else Satan wins.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

If Saved By Grace, Why Faith?


August 13, 2017 – The 10th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
 
How long has it been since a preacher asked you where you would wake up if you died tonight? For me, it’s been a while—not long enough, but a good while. What if you don’t know the answer to that question? What if you’re not sure? Does that mean that you’re definitely going to hell? How sure do you have to be in order to get into heaven? How much faith does it take? And do you have to believe everything with that much confidence or just the really big things? For example, if you’re 100% committed to the resurrection but only 85% committed to the virgin birth, can you still squeak by? And what about the even less important things like whether there really were 5,000 men plus woman and children who were fed by Jesus with five loaves and two fish that day? And who gets to decide which things are the important ones and which ones are not so important? And is there any way for us to know before it’s too late?

I think it’s funny—as in actually chuckle-worthy—that preachers who are obsessed about heaven and hell seem to talk a lot about faith but not so much about grace. In fact, there aren’t a lot of preachers anywhere who talk a lot about grace. Grace is tricky—a lot trickier than faith. Faith is easier to understand because it feels like faith is something that comes from within us—something that we’re responsible for, something we choose. That makes faith something that preachers can weaponized as they climb up into their pulpits, saying, “If you don’t have enough of it, then you’re in trouble.” Grace, on the other hand, doesn’t lend itself to fiery sermons because grace, by definition, is something that we don’t make happen. It’s a complete gift—unearned, undeserved. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that fire and brimstone preachers don’t talk a lot about grace. After all, how do you convince people to come down for an altar call if you start by telling them that God already loves them just the way they are?

Even in our tradition, where we talk a lot about unconditional love, grace can be hard thing to wrap our minds around. Jack Charlton was a saintly man who knew as well as anyone what it meant to love his neighbor, but he still had a hard time with grace. Before he died, he used to tell me that he didn’t understand it. And sometimes I’d tell him that I don’t understand it either, that I know it’s a good thing, and that I’m sure we need it, but that wasn’t the answer he was looking for. The truth is that it’s a lot easier to believe in a God who gives people what they deserve—that people who reject God and his ways go to hell and people who choose God and his ways go to heaven. But that’s not grace. That’s just a nicer way of saying that you’d better be sure where you’d wake up if you died tonight. Believing in grace, on the other hand, means believing that none of it depends on us—which might be why it’s so hard to understand. But this week, as I read this gospel lesson, I encountered not an explanation of grace but an experience of it, and it made me wish that I had thought of it back when I still had the chance to talk about it with Jack.

It was before dark when the disciples got into their boat and set sail for the other side of the sea. By the time Jesus walked out toward them upon the water, they had been struggling against the wind for hours. Matthew tells us that they were still a long way from shore and seemed to be making no headway. The sky was starting to lighten when Jesus caught up with them, and the sight of him, rather than reassuring the disciples, terrified them. “It is a ghost!” they said to one another because to them a ghost seemed more likely than the truth. After Jesus identified himself and told them not to worry, Peter took the opportunity to test this apparition to see if it really was his master. “If it is you,” he said, “command me to come out to you on the water.” Jesus said, “Come,” and Peter put his legs over the side and slipped down onto the surface of the water, and, instead of sinking beneath it, it held his weight.

Soon, however, Peter had stepped beyond the lee of the vessel, and he felt the full force of the wind. “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea,” he thought to himself. Like weights upon his ankles, his doubts mounted, dragging him down below the waves. “Lord, save me!” he cried out. And immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught Peter and said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” literally, “You little-faithed-one, why did you waiver?” Then, he led Peter back to the boat, and, as soon as they had climbed aboard, the wind ceased. And the disciples, recognizing the one who stood before them and the power that he had, fell down and worshipped him.

Perhaps the most important thing for us to note in this story is that          Peter tests Jesus not the other way around. Peter didn’t have the faith that he needed in order to get to Jesus. He had enough to get himself started, but, when the force of the wind hit him in the face, he wasn’t so sure anymore. And what was Jesus’ reaction? He reached out his hand and caught him. Jesus didn’t have to do that, of course. Jesus could have yelled back at Peter, “What happened to your faith? You got yourself into this mess. Why don’t you believe your way out of it?” But that’s not what Jesus said because that’s not who Jesus is, and it’s not who God is, and that’s not how salvation works.

Grace is being caught by Jesus even when our faith fails us. Our faith isn’t what saves us. If our salvation depended upon our faith, we’d be as sunk as Peter was as soon as the first doubt crept in. We are saved by God’s grace. God does all the work. God is the one who reaches out and catches us even when we’ve forgotten that he can. So what does faith have to do with it? Faith is the recognition that God alone is the one who saves us. As the apostle Paul wrote, “By grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). Faith is the vehicle or lens through which we see that God is the one who saves us. It is the blindfold coming off, the look over our shoulder to see that it’s God who has been with us all along. Faith is the confidence we have that God is the one who has saved us and who will always save us. But even when that faith falls apart—even when we forget who it is that has promised never to leave us or forsake us—God’s salvation is still assured.

God doesn’t love you because you believe in him. God loves you because that’s who God is. God doesn’t save you because you’re 100% sure that what the preacher says is true. God saves you because that’s who God is. Grace is what our religion is built upon—not a life well lived or a conviction thoroughly held. God doesn’t care whether you believe in him or not. He loves you just the same either way. But doesn’t knowing that and seeing that and believing that make life so much fuller and richer? Isn’t it a blessing to go through life knowing that you are not alone—that there’s nothing you can do to cut yourself off from God’s love? You don’t have to be sure of that in order to be saved by God, but being sure of that—having faith like that—gives us the comfort and confidence that come only when we recognize that we belong to God.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Worn Down


Yesterday, Steve Pankey wrote about the time of day when Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 14:22-33) about the walking on the water takes place. In a way for which I am often grateful to Steve, he identified something that I hadn't really noticed. Not only did he help bring the story to life by filling out more completely its setting but also helped me perceive another aspect of this story related to time--how long it takes.

When the passage begins, Jesus orders his disciples to get into the boat and begin making their way across the sea, while he stayed behind and dismissed the crowds. Keep in mind that they had just been fed with the five loaves and two fish, which Jesus miraculously multiplied in order to satisfy 5,000 men plus women and children. Maybe you remember how that miracle begins. The disciples are worried that evening was approaching and that the crowd needs to be dismissed or else they will not have a chance to buy food for themselves in nearby villages. I don't know what time shops closed in first-century small-town Palestine, but it seems likely that they closed pretty early.

That helps us fill out the chronology a little more fully. It was early evening when the people were fed, after which Jesus immediately sent the disciples across the sea in a boat. I think they left before dark--maybe after sunset but before twilight. At that point, Jesus sent the crowds on their way and went up on the mountain to pray. It seems that he prayed all through the night because, as Steve reminds us, it was the fourth watch of the night--sometime between 3am and 6am--when Jesus went out to meet the disciples on the water.

That's a long time after they started sailing. A quick Google search suggests that a normal crossing of the Sea of Galilee might take a few hours. The disciples had been in the boat from evening until morning--seven or eight hours or perhaps longer. Not only that, the fourth watch is the last watch of the night. Although I like Steve's suggestion that we recover that detail and help the congregation see how the darkness was starting to lighten, the NRSV translation of "early in the morning" helps us know that the time when Jesus met them was the time when night was passing into day. In other words, they had been struggling all night long. That's hard work.

It's into that context--the struggle all night long context--that Jesus meets them. It's after an exhausting, struggle with the wind and waves that Peter asks to come out and see Jesus. Don't forget that Jesus made them get into the boat. Jesus "ἠνάγκασεν" or "compelled" or "constrained" them to get into the boat. He was a carpenter's son. His fishermen disciples may have looked up at the sky and thought, "This isn't a great time to get into the boat and try to sail across the sea. Can't he see that a storm is coming?" But Jesus didn't give them a choice. He didn't "invite" them to go ahead without him. He made them do it.

Sometimes we've been battered by our own wind and waves so long that we're ready to give up. Sometimes it feels like God has led us right into that place of struggle. What are we like in those moments? What sort of response to we have when salvation appears? Do we have the same incredulous reaction that the disciples did? Are we likely to step out onto the water and then change our mind when another gust of wind blows?

So much of this story gets lost in its brevity. There are hours worth of struggle in this passage that are easy to miss. I'm grateful that Steve helped me see them because that kind of hard, long struggle seems pretty familiar to me and those around me. Maybe this appearance of Jesus walking on the water will feel a little less fantastic and a little more real when we remember how the disciples struggled through the night.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Humility Unites Us All


One summer in college, I went to visit a friend and her family in the middle of Illinois. I went in order to rekindle that friendship, but I also went to see a part of the country I know almost nothing about. I remember driving out into the middle of a field, turning off the truck's lights, and seeing more stars than I had ever seen before. I remember eating buckwheat pancakes--something the father made every single morning whether anyone else ate them or not. And I also remember learning about Scandinavian culture, visiting a museum of Swedish immigrant history, and hearing one Scandinavian joke I'll never forget.

Two young Swedish farmers ran into each other at the feed store. One of them said to the other, "I heard a good joke the other day. Let me tell it to you. Two Norwegians were walking down the road and talking with each other..." At that point, the other farmer interrupted and said, "You can't tell that joke. That's politically incorrect." "What do you mean?" the other farmer said. And his friend replied, "You can't tell a joke about Norwegians. That's impolite. You can tell the joke, but don't make it about Norwegians or else someone will be offended. Instead, make it about a nationality that doesn't exist anymore--like Hittites or Amorites. They died off long ago. You can tell a joke about them and no one will be upset." After a lengthy pause, the first farmer said, "Ok. Two Hittites, Ole and Sven, we walking down the road and talking with each other..."

I didn't get it. The farmer of Swedish ancestry who hosted me had to explain to me that Ole and Sven were distinctly Norwegian names. Even thought the farmer had called the two men Hittites, by naming them "Ole" and "Sven," he hadn't really changed the joke at all. I think about that joke whenever I read Matthew 15:21-28 and the story of the Canaanite woman who begged Jesus to heal her daughter.

There were no Canaanites in Jesus' day--at least no one thought of them that way. Canaanites were an ancient people who had inhabited the Promised Land when Moses and the people of Israel moved in. We hear about them in Numbers 13, when Moses sent spies to survey the land of Canaan to see whether it was a good place to settle and whether God's army could defeat the tribes who already lived there. So, when Matthew uses the label "Canaanites," he's sending us a signal about the sort of person who approached Jesus. He could have called her a "Gentile woman," but, by labeling her as a Canaanite, Matthew is bringing back to mind an ancient ethic, religious, national separation that was defined by armed conflict, bitter rivalry, and pure hatred.

This is the person that came to Jesus and asked him to heal her daughter. Jesus had entered the region of Tyre and Sidon, a Gentile area north of Galilee, Jesus' hometown. Just then, a Canaanite woman came to Jesus and said, "Have mercy on me, Son of David." Isn't it interesting that this foreigner is able to identify Jesus as the descendant of Israel's greatest king? She gets the words right, but words aren't enough. Jesus ignored her. The disciples tried to chase her away unsuccessfully. They asked Jesus to take care of the matter quickly, but he refused, saying, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel"--another anachronistic reference to a kingdom that had disappeared centuries earlier. Undeterred, the woman flung herself at Jesus' feet, imploring him to help, but Jesus said to her, "It is not fair to the children's food and throw it to the dogs." Those words are shocking to us. They aren't the words of the tenderhearted Good Shepherd. They sound like a curt statement from a diehard bigot. But the truth of this passage is that they aren't the really shocking part.

Matthew calls the woman a Canaanite in order to show us that she shouldn't have been helped. She was, by definition, the enemy. She represented those who stood in the way of God's conquest. She was reckoned as one who must be eliminated before God's promise can be fulfilled. Jesus wasn't supposed to help her. As strange as it sounds to us, Jesus wasn't supposed to heal her daughter. But the woman showed Jesus and us something no one expected--not even Jesus himself. After being rejected by Jesus a third time, she said to him, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." And what was Jesus' reply? "Woman, great is your faith."

There is something about humility that transcends even the most bitter separations. As St. Thomas tells us, the word "humility" comes from the Latin humus, which means "dirt." It is that which is beneath all of us. It is that from which all of us are made. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. All we go down to the dust, from which we were made. The act of total emptying, total humility, is the most basic expression of this Canaanite woman's humanity. It thus unites her with all children regardless of her ancient ancestry. As one who lowers herself even to gather up the crumbs under the table, she becomes something more fundamental than a nationality. In humility, she becomes God's creation. She becomes God's child.

What labels do we use to define ourselves? Mother, father, brother, sister, doctor, lawyer, teacher, student, college-graduate, high-school-dropout, Swedish, Norwegian, Scots-Irish, English, Caucasian, African-American, Arab, Jew, trust-fund-baby, welfare-recipient, Republican, Democrat, American, Episcopalian, Christian? What are the labels we place upon ourselves? What are the labels that others place upon us? Rarely are we defined by our humility. Rarely are we defined as God sees us. God looks upon all of us as his creation, as his children. Anything else we hold onto is pure hubris. All we are is dirt. All we are is the dust from which we are made. May our response to God be 100% humility so that we might truly know the indiscriminate nature of God's love.

Joseph and the Many-Colored Family System


Because my colleague and his wife had a baby (Congrats, y'all!), I'm preaching both weekday services this week, and that usually becomes my blog writing for the day. That feels unfortunate since the lessons for Sunday are really fabulous. I have a lot more to say about them than I can say in a Sunday-morning sermon, and, if I don't find time to put it into words in blog posts, there's a good chance the sermon will end up wandering from one vague realization to another without ever actually making a point. So, this is a brief bonus post for today.

One of my favorite family-systems stories from the Bible is the story of Joseph and his relationship with his father and his eleven brothers. We read a bit of that story in the Track 1 OT lesson this Sunday (Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28). There are a few details in this passage that let us see what's going on behind the scenes, and it's worth noting them for our own edification.

For starters, notice how the episode begins--with seventeen-year-old Joseph bringing a bad report of his older, adult brothers to his father. (Note, of course, that Benjamin is younger than Joseph, but I'm lumping him in with the rest for the purpose of this post.) No one like a tattle-tale, and that's especially true when the tattle-tale is doted on by his father: "Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves." Parents are not supposed to play favorites, but Jacob (a.k.a Israel) does. He loves Joseph to the point that his preferential love becomes the source of hatred that the other brothers have toward Joseph: "But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him." So angry were they that they couldn't even speak a decent word to him.

Later in the story, we see that Joseph, sent out to find his brothers, can't even figure out where they are on his own. Jacob says to Joseph, "Aren't your brothers our working near Shechem? Quit hanging around the house; go join them." Then, we see how inept he is. "He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, 'What are you seeking?' 'I am seeking my brothers,' he said; 'tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.'" A man found him wandering in the field. That sounds like something my children do when it's time to get ready for school--wander around upstairs aimlessly until someone else comes along and says, "Hey! What are you doing?" Remember, he had eleven brothers, and, being as rich as they were, they must have had a gargantuan flock of sheep. If he were any kind of shepherd worth a damn, he could have found them on his own.

But he's the baby of the family. He's been taken care of his whole life. He has been doted upon and provided for. The attitude of the arrogant brother is unforgivable, but the crime of the ten brothers (excepting Reuben) is even worse, yet the crime of the father seems to be worst of all.

It's hard to be independent when you're the twelfth child of someone's old age--the youngest except for one. It's hard to have balanced relationships with siblings when your parents openly prefer you. It's hard to be well-adjusted when an authority figure keeps heaping privilege upon your shoulders.

Sometimes the system is as responsible for a person's behavior as the person himself. That's not an excuse, but it is an explanation. And it helps me to remember that people are conditioned by the systems they are in. My paternal grandfather was the youngest of a very large family. It may have been frustrating to his wife and children when he failed to take the lead in a moment of crisis, but how could he? Our job, therefore, is to think systemically, to recognize the power of systemic influences, to note how we and those close to us are conditioned by those systems, and to attempt to differentiate ourselves from those around us. That doesn't always mean detach, but it does mean to recognize the forces that are at play so that we can participate in the system without being controlled by it. Otherwise, our story becomes a soap-opera not unlike that of Joseph and his family.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Have Blessed Feet


Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Have you ever noticed that some Christians talk about God, about Jesus, and about the Bible differently than you do? How is it that we can read the same book, belong to the same Lord, and worship the same God and still end up believing such different things about what it means to be a Christian? Sometimes that's a good thing. I like it that people in a Bible study or Sunday school class see the meaning of passages differently from me. But other times I find it difficult or even repulsive, like when I hear a preacher say something about God using the fear of damnation to scare us into believing in him. That's not the gospel. That's not love. That's psychological torture that's certain to lure someone into a false understanding of what it means to belong to the Good Shepherd. What are we to do when most of the Christian ideas you hear on television or on the radio or in casual conversation are heresies? What are you to do?

It turns out that St. Dominic had an answer. In the late twelfth century, Catharism was becoming popular in southern Europe. It was a splinter from Christianity that emphasized dualism. They believed in two different but overlapping realities--one good and one bad--and two separate but competing gods--the good God of the New Testament and the bad god of the Old Testament. The good God created our souls, but the bad god created the physical realm, which is tainted by sin and the effects of sin. The purpose of life, therefore, is to leave this limited physical realm and return to the spiritual state that our souls were created to inhabit.

Sure, that sounds a little strange, but really it's a pretty attractive system. Cathars had an answer for why people who had been baptized into new life were still stuck as sinners. It was the bad body competing with the good soul. They had an answer for where evil came from--not from the God who saves us in Jesus but the god who created the mortal bodies and physical world that has ensnared our immortal angelic spirits. They believed in Jesus and called themselves Christians, and they understood that Jesus' resurrection was the return of his incarnate spirit to its natural glorified state.

But there were problems, of course. For starters, we don't believe in two gods, and we believe that the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament. We might not have a good answer for where evil comes from, but we do know that the story of salvation that God has been writing in all of creation history is the same story from the same author. But how do you convince a heretic whose system seems to have such good answers for such terrible problems that he or she is wrong?

Dominic was convinced that even though the Catholic Church was pretty good at chasing down heretics, capturing them, convicting them, and executing them, the better way to win them over was good preaching from good preachers. In his estimation, that was something the Church was lacking. He understood that force wouldn't work. Instead, humility was crucial. He sold all of his possessions and founded a new religious community that accepted the absolute poverty of the Franciscans but that focused exclusively on study and preaching. He attracted a handful of followers, who became known as the Ordo Praedicatorum, or Order of Preachers, which is why Dominicans still have "O.P." after their name to this day. Their plan for converting the Cathars didn't work very well. It turns out that the Cathars were more interested in fighting than listening to good, humble preachers. But the real success of Dominic's mission is the transformation of preaching that took place throughout the church as his order began to grow and spread.

"How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!" the prophet Isaiah tells us. The apostle Paul picks up this line in his letter to the Romans, when he defines the focus of his ministry as bringing the good news of salvation to all people--Jews and Gentiles. In his day, it was heresy to believe that the xenos (or other-ones, foreigners, aliens) had as much access to Israel's God as the children of Israel. But Paul had received a message directly from Jesus himself, and that message was that God's love belongs to all people. The Way of Jesus, which he had worked so hard to extinguish, became his own path. And Paul desired earnestly for all people to know the saving Way of Jesus.

"Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved," he wrote, "but how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?" Paul knew that the good news of Jesus Christ--the real gospel of salvation for all people through God's grace and love--needs preachers like you and me.

The world is desperate for something to believe in, and that desperation is being filled by those who claim to follow Jesus. As far as I can tell, most of the "Christians" filling that vacuum are preaching a message that isn't the gospel. It's "believe what we tell you to believe" or "be a good person" or "love your neighbor." All of those things can be good. It's right for us to love our neighbor and strive for a holy life, but those things don't get you to heaven. That's not what it means to participate in God's kingdom, but that's what people are hearing. And it's leading to heresies like "God loves good people more than bad people" or "only people who agree with us can go to heaven" or "your salvation is dependent on how you live your life." All of those things undermine the good news that God's love isn't dependent on us, that our salvation isn't a product of our own doing, that we go to heaven not by our choosing of God but by God's choosing of us.

But how will the world know the true saving love and grace of God in Jesus Christ if no one tell them about it? How will people know to cry out for Jesus to save them if they don't understand what it means to trust in him instead of themselves? How will people know that Jesus shows us that God is worth trusting in unless someone tells them about the transformation that faith provides? How? We have work to do--not just me and preachers like me, all of us.

Be humble. Read the Bible every day. Study scripture and what thoughtful and faithful people have written about it. Pray for the grace to share good news with those in your own circle. Just because someone claims to follow Jesus does not know that that person understands the liberating, life-giving love that he brings to the world. You have good news to share. Blessed be your feet as one who comes to share it.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Up And Down Faith


Because of the lectionary jumping around that the Transfiguration provided yesterday, we have two weeks in a row to shine a spotlight on Peter. This Sunday, we will return to Matthew and will read the story of Jesus walking on the water and calling Peter to come out on the water to him. It's the kind of story we remember from Sunday school even if we've forgotten several of the important details.

Three of the gospel accounts include this passage: Matthew, Mark, and John. But Matthew is the only one who includes the part about Peter walking on the water, too. That gives the preacher a chance to focus on Peter and let this story be as much about the disciples' faith (and our faith) as it is about Jesus' ability to walk on the water. Given that the disciples were terrified to see Jesus upon the water in all three accounts, perhaps that was Mark and John's intent anyway.

After startling the disciples and then reassuring them with the theologically laden "It is I," which likely makes another blog post this week, Peter says to Jesus, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." Then, when Jesus said, "Come," Peter got out of the boat and started walking to Jesus on top of the waves. But, when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, began to sink, and cried out, "Lord, save me!" It's hard to tell a stronger story of fear and faith and fear and faith in a more compact space.

At first, he was terrified because he thought Jesus was a ghost. Then, he had the confidence that Jesus could enable him to walk on the water. Then, he saw the wind and his fears began to erode the buoyancy that Jesus had given him. Immediately, Jesus reached out and caught him, and, when they had gotten back into the boat, Peter and the other disciples worshipped him in another sign of faith.

Here are some questions I'm asking as I think about a sermon for this week:

1. To what extent did Peter's faith enable him to walk on the water? To what extent was it a miracle of Jesus?

2. When God enables miracle in our lives, how much of it depends on our faith and how much of it comes straight from God?

3. To what extent is faith a product of our own doing and to what extent does it come to us as a gift from God?

4. Have we begun to think of faith as a work that has made grace even harder to grasp?

Sunday, August 6, 2017

A Light in Dark Places

August 6, 2017 – The Feast of the Transfiguration
© 2017 Evan D. Garner

 
Audio of this sermon is available here.
 
Every Sunday, all over the world, Christians take a little trip away from the rigors of ordinary life and climb up their own mountain top, where they look for Jesus. Since the first Christians climbed back up the steps into the Upper Room one week after the resurrection of their Lord, we have been stepping aside from the rest of the week to behold the glorified Son of God. This time apart is supposed to be an opportunity to be recharged and refreshed. This moment of meeting Jesus is supposed to give us the strength we need to follow him back down the mountain, back down into ordinary life, where we carry him with us into the world. But I suspect that we’ve been climbing up the nine steps it takes us to get from the front of St. John’s to the altar rail for so long that we’ve forgotten who it is that we’ve come here to meet.

Who do you think Jesus is? Who is it that you expect to meet today? It turns out that I’m not the only one asking. Right before today’s gospel lesson, in Luke 9:18-20, Jesus said to the disciples, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” and they answered, “John the Baptist; but others, Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.” Then, Jesus looked at them and asked, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter replied, “The Messiah of God.”

He was right, of course. Jesus had shown them some pretty amazing things up to that point. He had cast out demons and healed lepers. He had made a lame man walk and pronounced that his sins were forgiven. He had even raised a widow’s son from the dead. He had taught the disciples to call the poor blessed instead of the rich and to see the mournful and hungry and persecuted as those whom God favors. He had described God’s kingdom in strange ways—like a sower who scattered seed all over the place. He had even fed 5,000 people with only a few loaves and fish in the kind of miracle that only someone like Moses could pull off. And, through it all, no one other than the demons had recognized who it was that had done all of that…until Peter put it all together.

Whom have you come here to see today? What sort of Jesus do you expect to encounter? A great teacher? A mighty prophet? A powerful healer? Are you here to find the one who can heal your infirmities, who can tell you how to live a good life, who can help solve all of your problems? When Peter finally saw what had been hiding right in front of him all along, when he at last recognized Jesus as “the Messiah of God,” surely he and the other disciples rejoiced at what they had found. Their master, their teacher, was the one whom God had sent to win the victory over the forces of evil and everything that stood in between God’s people and the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. But, as soon as Peter had said it, Jesus let them know what being the Messiah really meant.

Jesus said, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And he wasn’t finished yet. Then he said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

Confused? So were the disciples. It doesn’t make sense that God’s Messiah would end up betrayed by one of his followers, rejected by his own people, and handed over to the Roman authorities for torture and execution on the cross. It doesn’t make sense that the Messiah’s followers would be destined for a similar fate. But that’s exactly the messianic ministry that Jesus had in mind. And that’s why he took Peter, John, and James with him up on the mountain to pray.

While he was praying, Jesus’ countenance changed, and his skin began to shine with a brightness like the sun. His clothes became dazzling white, and suddenly Moses and Elijah, symbols of the Law and the Prophets, stood with him, speaking to him about his upcoming departure (or “exodus,” as the Greek word puts it), which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem. If that wasn’t enough, God’s own presence overshadowed them all in the form of a cloud, and the Father’s voice boomed, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Was there any room left for doubt? This was God’s way of showing that the Law and the Prophets, which is to say all of the expectations of the Jewish people, were pointing to Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises. Even God himself had spoken to the disciples, letting them know that Jesus and his strange prediction of suffering and death were exactly what God had in mind for his chosen one.

And my favorite part of it all is that the disciples almost missed it. Luke tells us that they were heavy with sleep but managed to shake it off just in time to see their master’s glory revealed in front of them. And we, too, run the risk of missing it when we climb our own mountain each week, expecting to see someone who Jesus is not. If we are here to meet the triumphant one without first journeying through the cross, we will leave without having encountered the real Jesus.

There’s a reason that Jesus told the disciples to keep his predictions a secret. And there’s a reason that Peter, James, and John didn’t say anything about the Transfiguration until after the resurrection was accomplished. It’s because people who look at the life and ministry of Jesus with the eyes of this world instead of through the eyes of God’s kingdom cannot see who Jesus really is. He is God’s chosen one, but he has been chosen to suffer on behalf of the suffering. He is God’s anointed one, but he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor and the oppressed and the forgotten. The path of God’s Messiah must always lead through the cross and the grave before it can emerge in the light of the resurrection. And, if we are going to follow him, if we are going to experience the risen Christ who meets us here every week, we, too, must die with him before we can behold his true glory.

We do not come into this place to seek refuge from the burdens of this life. We come here to be delivered from the presumption that God is only with the successful, the joyful, and the prosperous. We come here not to encounter a God who is only found in the victories of life, but to meet a Lord who has taken all of life’s struggles onto himself in order that they might be defeated. Only when we come here to experience the glory of God that shines first in the darkest places of this world can we receive that glory and take it back with us into the world. That is our God, that is God’s Son, and that is our calling—to bring the light of hope and love to the places and people of this world that need it most.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Eight Days Have Disappeared


If you, like me, use the lectionarypage.net version of Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 9:28-36), you probably missed the first seven words of verse 28, which are left out. If you use the lectionary inserts provided by Church Publishing, you also likely missed those seven words. And, if you read the gospel lesson during church from one of the gospel books published by Church Publishing, the whole congregation will miss them, too. I plan to print out those seven words and tape them into the gospel book so that the congregation doesn't miss them. They're important:
 
Now about eight days after these sayings,
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James,
and went up on the mountain to pray. 


I understand why the editors of the lectionaries cut them out. If we leave them in, the hearer naturally asks, "What sayings?" That's a good point. Whenever a first verse in a lesson begins with a word like "Therefore" or "So," it can be right to cut it out. this time, however, I think the sayings that took place eight days before the Transfiguration are critical. Simply put, you cannot have the Transfiguration without the sayings that took place eight days earlier, and omitting the reference to them, which Luke used to forever link this moment of Jesus' glorification with the words that came before it, leaves something out.
 
What were those sayings? As in all the synoptic accounts, the Transfiguration follows Peter's confession of Jesus as the Messiah. This is, in effect, a turning point in the case being made for Jesus' messiahship. For the first half of the synoptic gospel accounts, the authors use the miracles and parables and other encounters to show us who Jesus really is. Then, in an epiphanic moment, Peter discovers the truth. Only then is Jesus' glory revealed on the mountain top. After that, the synoptics portray a Jesus who is focused on Jerusalem and the fate that awaits him there. No longer is the case being made for the disciples, but the case for Jesus as the to-be-crucified and to-be-resurrected Messiah is being made for all of us. If he really is God's anointed one, what will that mean? It means betrayal, suffering, death, and then resurrection.
 
And that's the rest of the sayings that we lose when we discard those seven words. After Peter's confession, Jesus predicts his death for the first time. Luke omits the argument between him and Peter about whether that's true, but Luke does include Jesus' description of true discipleship as a path that requires us to take up our own cross and follow him. We must lose our life if we are going to save it, he tells us.
 
And then, and ONLY then, do they head up the mountain for the Transfiguration.
 
Don't lose sight of those seven words. Even if you don't read them aloud--and I think you should--then keep them in your mind as you preach. The Transfiguration is not merely a moment when Jesus' glory shines through. It is a moment when that glory shines through in direct response to Jesus' description of his own ministry and the ministry of those who would follow him as one of rejection, suffering, and death. On Sunday, if we leave the mountain top with a sense of victory that does not first lead through the valley of struggle, we will have missed the point entirely. That victory is assured, but it doesn't come in isolation. It doesn't come without following Jesus all the way to the cross.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Put On White


On Sunday, Jesus' clothes and countenance will become a dazzling white as he is transfigured before Peter, James, and John in Luke 9. In that moment, the Father's voice will say from a cloud, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" As it is portrayed to us, that voice is speaking to the disciples. It is telling them about Jesus. It is God's way of identifying for them that Jesus is his chosen one and one worth listening to. But a few chapters earlier in Luke's account, the Father spoke similar words to a different audience that may be worth considering here.

Back in Luke 3: 21-22, Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan. Luke describes for us how the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. (Luke likes concrete images.) Then, a voice from heaven declared, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Sure, some of the words are different--beloved instead of chosen and well pleased instead of worth listening to--but the form is parallel. God identifies his Son and declares him worthy. The interesting difference is that in the baptismal account, God is addressing Jesus directly. God speaks to his Son, saying, "YOU are my Son." We don't know whether anyone else heard the voice, but it doesn't really matter. Clearly, the words were meant for Jesus. In his baptism, Jesus hears the Father claiming him as his Son. In his transfiguration, the disciples hear the Father claiming Jesus as his Son.

Maybe it's taken six chapters for a sufficient foundation to be laid before the Father could make this declaration to these disciples. Only Jesus' three closest companions were allowed access to this mountain-top experience. Perhaps they were the only ones who were ready to hear this voice. Maybe the truth that was declared to Jesus in his baptism was invisible to the world until it took shape through the miracles he performed, the teachings he presented, and the social barriers he broke. And, then, maybe it was only visible to these few. Maybe it takes the rest of us a little bit longer for that voice to make sense to us. Maybe that's why the three disciples kept silent about these things.

What about our identity as God's chosen sons and daughters, his beloved children? We believe that identity is proclaimed for us at baptism: "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ's own forever." Often we baptize little babies, whose godliness is reflected in their cuteness. Nothing could be more precious than a sweet infant. But do we see God's own children in that moment? In the white robes that children wear during their christening, can we see the radiance of God's light shining through? Or does it take a lifetime for that chosenness to take shape so that the rest of us can see it. Maybe the work belongs not to the baptismal candidate but to the congregation--the community of faith that beholds a child who grows from sweet infant into the holy terror that is a two-year-old. Maybe we need to look for the baptismal identity even before it has taken shape in plain ways. What was Mother Teresa like as a child? When did John Paul II become holy? Was it not when God called them his beloved children--long before they did anything worth writing about?

This Sunday, we will hear God declare Jesus his beloved Son, his Chosen, one worth listening to. In part, he says the same to each of us at our baptism. Will we wait until we get to the top of the mountain before we look for that chosenness in each of us?

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

A Light Within


When it comes to comparing Moses' shining face and Jesus' transfigured appearance, I have always assumed that Moses' glow was a reflection of the light he encountered while speaking with God and that Jesus' light was the divinity shining from within. This summer, however, I took a class on early Christian monasticism and learned about theosis and am beginning to wonder whether there is another angle of this comparison worth considering. Theosis or deification is the process by which an individual attains union with God. By setting aside the aspects of this life that distract us from God through ascetic practices like repeated fasting, austere living, and intense prayer, one becomes more and more like God. As the divine displaces more and more of the human, one becomes more and more fully united with God. In the end, which is to say at the end of this life and at the end of all time, we are totally united with God. But we have an opportunity to begin to experience this resurrected body while still in this life, which admittedly makes this concept totally fascinating and totally strange.

This isn't very western and certainly isn't Protestant, but, in the eastern tradition, theosis has always been (and still very much is) the goal of the Christian life. Salvation isn't described as a sin-debt being paid or a wrathful God being propitiated but as God in Jesus the God-Man, the Incarnate One, taking on our human nature so that our human nature might be reunited with the divine through death and resurrection. That death and rebirth do not only happen when this mortal life is over but also as we die with Christ in our baptism and continue to die daily to all that separates us from God. I know: it's strange and sounds dangerous. I'm not attempting a full explanation here because I'm not really an expert on theosis. But I can tell that it's cool, and I know that it's a real thing, and I know enough to begin to think about Moses and Jesus in a new way.

The ascetics we studied in class this summer had bizarre traditions. They went to extremes of asceticism--not eating more than a morsel of bread every day or two, sleeping less than an hour every day, battling demons who sought to prevent this reunion with God. Prayer was an important part of the tradition, and some of them emphasized an approach to prayer known as apatheia, which has its root in "apathy" and means something like "a state of unaffectedness." When the prayerful person could reach that state of no longer being tied to the concerns of the world--the ups and downs of life--that person opened up the possibility of union with God. As the union increased, when all sight of the world disappeared, the person may see a divine light and even begin to glow with a sapphire-blue light that was a sign of theosis. This is thought to be the color of God's presence and is based on Exodus 24:10-11, which describes what Moses and a few others saw when they approached God: "...and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness." One does not see God but sees God's throne, which apparently glows with a sapphire-blue clear light. When one is truly in God's presence, one sees that light.

Back to Moses and Jesus. Moses' face, we are told, shone like the sun because he had been talking with God. Maybe that glow wasn't totally external. Maybe Moses, entering God's presence as one might enter God's presence through transcendent prayer, began to shine with the light of God as he was united with God. Granted, the whole Incarnation not having happened yet thing makes this decidedly problematic, but isn't it worth noting that Moses wasn't your average person? Moses spoke with God in a way no one else did. That time with God was surely transformative, and that Moses was chosen, not unlike Mary, surely indicates a certain potential for transformation. During his time on the mountain, Moses neither ate nor drank for forty days at a time. That sounds a lot like leaving behind the concerns of this world in an apatheia kind of way. Maybe Moses' shining face wasn't just an afterglow. Maybe it was a glimpse of his future resurrected body--a deified state of existence.

Jesus, of course, always had that full divinity within him. This Transfiguration moment is not simply the God-light unveiled. The divinity and humanity can't be separated like that. I wonder whether the focus should be on Peter, James, and John, who were able to see that shining light because they had come away, because they had stayed awake, because they had left behind the concerns of this world. Maybe Jesus was always shining like that but only visible to those who emptied themselves of the disquietude of this world (see Sunday's collect).

As you can tell, I don't really know what I'm talking about. Don't worry: I'm not preaching on theosis this Sunday. But I am asking myself (and perhaps our congregation) what it takes to see Jesus for who he really is. Beholding Jesus as the true God-Man is not an operation of the intellect. It is a process that requires our whole selves--mind, heart, soul, body. When we come to church, are we looking for a wise teacher or for God himself? Whether we encounter the living God in the person of Jesus the Christ may depend on whether we bring our whole selves and lives to worship.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Searching for God


This post is also featured in this week's newsletter from St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, Alabama. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn more about what God is doing in and through the disciples of our parish, click here.


Many of us set resolutions for ourselves when the calendar year begins. We decide that this is the year when we will lose those fifteen pounds that we have been carrying around for at least fifteen years. By February, of course, most of us have given up. The terrible truth about human nature is that it is far easier to make a resolution than to make the lifestyle change it takes to keep it. The good news, however, is that God has an answer for that predicament known as grace. Instead of self-improvement, we believe in God-improvement—that Jesus’ death and resurrection show us that God has the power and the will to transform us even when we fail to do it on our own.

Still, we benefit from taking stock of our physical, financial, mental, and spiritual health from time to time. Although they might not express them as resolutions, many people look to the start of the school year as a good opportunity to resume a healthful rhythm. Whether we have school-aged children or not, as summer gives way to autumn, we feel that pull to get back into a routine of earlier bedtimes, daily exercise, and regular attendance at church. Of course, being a part of a community of faith is far more than merely showing up at church, but taking the time and effort to darken the door is a good way to start.

This year, as I am transitioning out of the school holidays and into the rigors of fall, I have noticed the shape of my spiritual life showing up in an unexpected place. On my computer, when I launch a new tab on my internet browser, I am offered a shortcut to the ten websites I visit most frequently, and the specific shortcuts that pop up say a lot about my life and work and walk with God.

Some of them are stalwart friends that never change—my Netvibes newsfeed, my e-mail inbox, my Google calendar, and Facebook. These are the websites that I visit several times every day whether I am in town or travelling with my family. They are always there, and their rank among my most frequent sites never changes. The other six, however, fluctuate depending on my daily habits. When I am on vacation, I do not publish posts on my blog, so the shortcut links to that blog as well as to the Bible Gateway website and the online Greek interlinear Bible I use for research as well as the Twitter-based website I use to distribute those posts disappear from my frequent sites. Almost always, the websites for the Sunday lectionary and the Daily Office appear somewhere, but, if I have not been diligent in my daily prayers, they drop down in the rankings. Every once in a while, they disappear completely, and I am reminded, as I type in those website addresses manually, that my spiritual rhythm must be out of balance.

What is it that awakens within you a recognition that the pattern of prayer, study, worship, and Christian service, which typically sustain you day after day, is out of balance? If you do not use the internet to guide your daily spiritual practices, where does a period of neglect show up? You certainly do not need a list of frequent websites to know that something is missing. Maybe you feel like you are carrying around a little more anxiety than usual. Maybe the news channel you watch is stirring up more anger in you than it used to. Maybe you feel more distant not only from God but also from your spouse or children or friends. Maybe your outlook on life has gone from bright to partly cloudy or altogether uncertain. How might you notice that now is a good time to return to the daily, weekly, and monthly spiritual disciplines that have undergirded your faith in the past?

Not unlike losing fifteen pounds, renewing your spiritual life does not happen all at once. It takes time. It takes practice. Unlike self-help, which is built upon our own efforts, Christian spiritual practices are not the origin of our relationship with God but a response to it. God already loves you—whether you go to church, whether you say your prayers, whether you read the bible, or whether you help other people in Jesus’ name. God loves you just the same no matter what, and, because of that love, God is inviting you into an intimate relationship with him. The relationship God offers us is not like the relationships we have on earth—relationships that over time deteriorate with neglect. God’s love for you and God’s choice of you as one of his beloved children does not depend on whether you nurture that relationship at all. Of course, the benefits of that love and that relationship—like peace and joy and hope and love—are more fully manifest in the lives of those who tend that relationship daily, but you do not have to be a spiritual champion to know God’s love and reflect it in the world.
 
Take a moment and think about your spiritual health. No matter how fleeting they are, how do you spend those quiet moments that life gives you? Do you miss talking with God? Do you hear God inviting you to return to him? God’s arms are always open, and, as the psalmist reminds us, no matter how far we run, God is there. Start small. Make a few tiny changes in your life—like waking up ten minutes earlier to say thank you to God for a new day. No matter how small they are, God takes the offerings of our lives and honors them. God’s love is certain. How we respond to love is the pursuit of our lives.

Joseph's Missing Story


Audio of this sermon can be heard here.


Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea, after laying Jesus' body in the tomb, was approached by an apparition of Jesus and given the Holy Grail for safekeeping. When imprisoned as a follower of Jesus, the Grail supposedly gave Joseph supernatural sustenance, keeping him alive as the keeper of the holy cup. In the years that followed, as Christianity spread across Europe, eastern Asia, and north Africa, Joseph was said to have travelled to Britain, where he established the earliest Christian oratory in Glastonbury. It is said that when he placed his walking stick upon the ground it spontaneously took root and began to blossom in what became known as the "Glastonbury Thorn," which pilgrims in Britain came to see until the oratory and legendary plant were destroyed by the Reformers, who weren't as comfortable with the cult of the supernatural.

Of course, none of those stories has any basis in the canon of scripture. In fact, most of them seem to have been invented no earlier than the 12th century, when the commerce associated with medieval pilgrims filled the coffers of the church. There are other earlier legends about Joseph, too. Some of the ancient church fathers like Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Tertullian expanded upon the record of scripture and told stories of Joseph's accomplishments. Some identify him among the seventy elders commissioned by Jesus in Luke 10. Others recall stories of Joseph being delivered from prison by the Holy Spirit. Some early writers claim that Joseph did make it to Britain, where he served as a bishop.[1]

In truth, all we know about Joseph of Arimathea is what all four canonical gospel accounts tell us: that he was a member of the Jewish council and a follower of Jesus who approached Pilate and asked for Jesus' body so that he could lay it in a nearby tomb. Think about that for a moment. Think about who Joseph was. Think about what it meant that he stepped out and approached the Roman prefect and asked if he could honor the criminal with a decent burial--something that crucifixion was by definition designed to prevent. Consider what it mean to his colleagues on the Jewish council that he would show this decency, this tenderness, to this messianic pretender. Consider what it meant to the disciples of Jesus--the men who had run to hide and the few women who stayed by the cross--that Joseph, a known leader in the community, would do the thing that no one else had the guts to do.

Does it surprise us, then, that in the retelling of Joseph's story he ends up entrusted by the ghost of Jesus with the Holy Grail? Does it surprise us that this holy man's walking stick took root and blossomed into a new flowering plant? Is there any pilgrimage, any bishopric, any legend too grand for this disciple of Jesus?

If only we had the real story. If only we knew what happened to Joseph. If only we had something other than an Arthurian legend to honor the life and witness of this humble, faithful, devoted servant of God. Then again, we do.

What does it mean to stand out for what is right? What does it mean to risk being ostracized because we stick up for the way of Jesus? What does it mean to cast our vote not against the presumed troublemaker of the day but for patience, forgiveness, and honesty? It is hard to be a part of society's council and stand up for those whom society has condemned. Just look at the current election campaign for the senate seat in Alabama. The candidates are not giving us their own ideas for the future of our state. They are simply competing to align themselves most closely with the president and his agenda and, thus, the popular vote in this state. It is not easy to go against the tide. It is not easy to stand up for justice and equality when the mob has a thirst for blood. It won't get you elected. In fact, it may ruin your life. But Joseph isn't remembered because he cast his vote along with his peers. He is remembered because the way of Jesus had so transformed his life that he could not remain silent any more. He had to do something. The kingdom of God had taken hold of his life, and he had to take a stand for Jesus.

His story is not over. I don't know if it leads to Glastonbury, but I know that it comes to us here. We may feel far removed from that first-century trial and execution, but I assure you that we are still there, standing at the foot of the cross, beholding a travesty of justice. We may not have the power to stop the crucifixion of God's beloved, but we do have the power to respond to it with our whole lives. We have the power to devote our hearts and minds and strengths and voices to the way of Jesus. We have the ability to be so transformed by the kingdom of God that we cannot stay silent anymore, that we cannot sit in the shadows any longer, that we cannot hesitate when the time comes to approach the emperors of this world and demand decency for the justice that they have sought to execute. Joseph's story isn't finished if the followers of Jesus are still willing to confront the powers of this world that seek to kill him all over again. The story of Joseph isn't finished if it lives on in us.





[1] For these and other legends about Joseph of Arimathea, see Wikipedia.