Wednesday, February 28, 2018

What Sign?


In John 2, when Jesus turns over the tables, pours out the money, and chases the animals out of the temple, he was performing a prophetic act. By that, I mean he was functioning as a prophet. Several of the prophetic texts from the Hebrew scriptures expect a prophet to come and purify the worship of God's people. Whether Jesus is rejecting the temple cult--the sacrificial system--completely is up for debate. Regardless of what Jesus thought about the nature of blood sacrifice, this action was the kind of altar-pulling-down moment that prophet-leaders like Gideon or Elijah had accomplished. But, in order to legitimate that action, the prophet would need to show the people a sign.

If someone wants to change the way we worship, she or he would need some authority. Typically, in our tradition, that authority is given to the rector, though that person had better work closely with the altar guild if proposing any radical changes. In some circumstances, a bishop or an act of General Convention could make such a change. But what if someone from the congregation stood up, interrupted the Sunday service, and declared that the way we were doing things is wrong? Wouldn't we want to know by what authority that declaration was made? If that person stood up and said, "I am the great-great-great-grandson of Samuel Roth, who gave that chalice to this parish, and he would have left the church if he ever saw us using it to serve grape juice to the Methodists," would that make us more likely to listen?

When the authorities ask Jesus for a sign, we shouldn't think less of them. Of course they want a sign. Jesus has just interrupted and threatened everything they know about worship. Is he a prophet or a nut? But Jesus' reply is enigmatic to them and revealing to us: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." Of course, as John clarifies, he was speaking about the temple of his body, but I think we benefit from taking his words at face value. This isn't a taunt. It's a theological statement: if you want a sign by which Jesus' prophetic authority can be confirmed, you have to wait until the resurrection.

As Christians, we aren't following Jesus because he's a wise teacher or a godly prophet. Sure, love your enemies is a great way to live. Prioritizing justice over worship, as Crossan and Borg stress in The Last Week, makes sense. But we aren't disciples of Jesus because he has the best plan around. We follow the crucified-resurrected one. He is Lord. 

Does our worship reflect our commitment to Jesus as Lord? Is what we do in church on Sunday a reflection of that central belief? Are we reinforcing in our lives and in our world the lordship of Christ through our prayers and praise and worship? Just as the resurrection is the only measure of Jesus' authority, so, too, is it the only motive for our lives.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

How to Preach and Hear a Sermon


This post is also in today's newsletter from St. John's in Decatur, Alabama. To learn more about St. John's, click here.


At St. John’s in Montgomery, there was a crusty old veteran who always came to the early service, always sat in the same pew, and always fell asleep during the sermon. At least, he appeared to fall asleep. Parishioners are surprised, I think, to learn that from the pulpit the preacher can see almost every face in the congregation no matter how far back she or he sits. Every week, as soon as the sermon began, this man would close his eyes, lean his head back, and make no pretense of paying attention. One Sunday, not long after I had arrived there straight out of seminary, I preached what I felt had been a decent sermon and took offense at this man’s dismissive posture. As he shook my hand in the customary receiving line, I prepared to throw a passive-aggressive barb his way, but, before I could speak, he said, “That was a pretty good sermon. I liked what you said about miracles, but I thought your point about Jesus’ identity could have used some more development.” I was stunned and resolved never again to question his attentiveness.

How do you hear a sermon? How are you supposed to listen to a homily? When you come out of church and shake the preacher’s hand, do you try to say something that proves that you were paying attention? Do you offer a word of encouragement even if the sermon fell flat? In our tradition, clergy are trained very specifically in the art of writing and delivering a sermon. We study not only the practice of mining the text for sermon-worthy insights but also how to assemble those insights into a coherent whole and then how to convey it to a congregation through the spoken word. Some preachers are better at it than others, and some seminaries are better at training preachers than others, but all of us work at it. What about the members of a congregation? Do you ever work on the art of receiving a sermon? Do you ever practice with the goal of getting better at listening?

I suspect that the quality of preaching in a parish increases in direct proportion to the level of prayerful and intentional participation of both the preacher and the congregation. This is a work that we share. If I wait until the last minute to read the lessons and haphazardly throw together a few illustrations that are loosely connected with the biblical text, we all suffer. Likewise, if you wait until the last minute to engage the preached word without grounding yourself in prayer, in focused participation in worship, and in attentive listening to the lessons, we all suffer. Each week, I try to spend fifteen to twenty hours reading and reflecting on the lessons for the upcoming Sunday. If I am preaching that week, I aim to double that. Some weeks, however, I allow the distractions and demands of life to encroach upon that sacred time, and, by the time I have finished preaching, everyone can tell. How much more powerfully might God’s word move among us if we all spent a little more time reading and studying the biblical text before we walked into church on a Sunday morning?

Another pitfall of preachers and parishioners alike is the lure of the self-absorbed sermon. When I read the week’s lessons on Monday morning and immediately think to myself, “I already know exactly what I want to say to the congregation this Sunday,” it is a sign that we are all in trouble. Similarly, if you are listening to a sermon and think, “The preacher must be talking about me,” you may have been listening too narrowly. Sure, a part of the preacher goes into every sermon, and there are almost always personal connections that we can make with whatever sermon we hear, but I suggest that a better approach for both preacher and parishioner is to begin by asking what God is saying to God’s people and let the individualized connections come later.

Another challenge for both of us is to let go of the need to like a sermon or to have one’s sermon liked by a congregation. As much as I enjoy hearing unqualified praise, such compliments are like cheap, empty calories: craved but unsubstantial. In that part of me that is sinfully prideful, I care whether the congregation likes my sermon. In that part of me that is committed to the transforming work of the gospel, however, I do not care in the least. I do not write a sermon to make you happy, and I offer that you will benefit more from the endeavor if you stop judging a sermon by how much you enjoyed it. For what it is worth, I think it is more gratifying for a preacher to hear “That was really challenging, something I will need to think about this week,” than to hear “Another nice sermon, one of your best.”

How might we all approach the proclamation of God’s word more faithfully? How might we bring our best to every sermon whether we are in the pulpit or in the pew? How might we, together, commit ourselves to the holy work of preaching, trusting that, every week, the Spirit has something to say to us and through us?

What Makes a Saint a Saint?


February 27, 2018 - George Herbert


Yesterday, in a terrible loss not only to my Lent Madness bracket but also to a Christian theology of sainthood, Esther defeated Lazarus 77% to 23%. Let me start by saying that Esther was a more impressive human being than Lazarus. She is the star of the book of the Bible that bears her name. In it, she saves the people of Israel from the wicked Haman, who in a fit of jealous rage had convinced Ahasuerus, the hapless king of Persia, to have all the Jews in Persia killed. Risking her own life, she approached the king and, through a carefully concocted party plan, flipped the script, resulting in Haman's own hanging. Her bravery and devotion to her people is remarkable. But that doesn't make her a saint.

Lazarus, on the other hand, did almost nothing except die a timely death. Both of his sisters, Mary and Martha, are credited with doing more for Jesus than he did. Basically, we know nothing more of Lazarus than that he was Jesus' friend who died and whom Jesus called back from the dead as a prefigurement of his own resurrection. There are legends that arose after Lazarus' death, but all of them are pure conjecture--attempts to fill out the story of a man whose sainthood has less to do with a dramatic biography of his own and more to do with his relationship with Jesus Christ. And that's exactly what makes him a saint.

You are a saint. I am a saint. And we're saints not because of anything we've done but because of what Christ Jesus has done in us. When the apostle Paul wrote his letters, he began them by addressing his readers as "saints" or "holy ones." That is how the first Christians understood themselves--as having been made holy by Jesus. As I heard from my friend and colleague, Mark Waldo, Jr., this weekend at our Diocesan Ultreya, "holy" is a term we don't use lightly, yet it's a term God himself uses of each of us because of the holiness Jesus has given us. As the Methodist hymnal reminds us by putting the Spanish translation "Santo, santo, santo" of the hymn "Holy, holy, holy" on the adjacent page, the words "holy" and "saint" are interchangable. Those of us who are made righteous by faith in Jesus Christ are holy ones or saints.

Today, we celebrate the life and witness of George Herbert, the Welsh-born poet and Anglican priest. Known mostly for his writing, Herbert was also a remarkable parish clergyman...for the three years that he served before succumbing to ill health and the demands of the job. Although he considered a career in the church in his twenties, he wasn't ordained until his mid-thirties, but he devoted himself unfailingly to the care of his parish. Lesser Feasts and Fasts tells us that he was "unselfish in his devotion and service to others." Wikipedia tells us that he dragged his family into church twice a day every day, walked to the cathedral for services twice a week, sang in the choir, brought the sacraments to those who were ill, and provided food and clothing to those in need. Never a healthy man, Herbert exhausted himself physically and died, leaving us both in his writings and in his lived example an expectation of priestly life that is utterly unattainable and unsustainable, which is to say that his failure to persist beyond three years is itself a reminder that our identity as the holy ones of God is given to us not because of our abilities or our accomplishments but because of our faith in Jesus.

Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit...Blessed are those who mourn...Blessed are the meek...those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...the merciful...[and] the pure in heart...Blessed are the peacemakers...[and] those who are persecuted for righteousness sake." They are the blessed ones. They are the ones upon whom God looks and says, "You are the recipient of my blessing; you are the vessel of blessedness." That is the description of holiness that Jesus himself gives us. And what has any of them accomplished? Poor? Meek? Hungry and thirsty for righteousness? Merciful and pure in heart? One who makes peace, perhaps, has done something. Those who are persecuted are called blessed because of what has been done to them. But all of them are blessed because they belong to Jesus and because belonging to Jesus has changed them in ways visible to the rest of the world. That's sainthood. That's holiness. That's what it means to follow Jesus. 

As the Presiding Bishop has said on numerous occasions, God loves you right where you are, but God isn't going to leave you there. Because of Jesus Christ, God looks upon us as holy ones. Jesus the Incarnate Son of God imputes holiness to humanity. We shine with that holiness when we believe that it is indeed possible for God to love us not because of what we've done or who we are but because of what God has done for us. That's the gospel. That's the Christian faith. We celebrate saints like George Herbert and Lazarus and even Esther because of how their faith in God has become manifest in their lives. Like us, they are saints not because of what they have done but because of what God has done for them and in them and through them. May we, too, be saints of God--those who are holy and whose holiness shines through because of God's love for us. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

Wrong Lectionary Pairing?


This coming Sunday, we will hear the dramatic story of Jesus' "cleansing of the temple," as it is often called, from John 2. We know the story--how he braided cords into a whip and chased out the animals, overturned the tables, poured out the coins, and criticized those who had made his "Father's house a marketplace." We know what happens, but do we know what it represents?

It is interesting to me that we have switched to John's gospel account. In one way that makes sense: this will only be the third week of Lent, and Matthew, Mark, and Luke, who also record this event, place it during the last week of Jesus' life. John, however, places this temple moment toward the beginning of his account, choosing not to portray only one trip by Jesus to the holy city. But John's account of this story is different in another way. All three synoptic accounts record Jesus' criticism of the temple operations through his quotation of Isaiah 56:7: "'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers." In other words, those account make the cleansing of the temple an issue of access. The implicit criticism of the "robbers" is that they have made the necessary mechanics of worship--the required changing of money into the temple tax or the selling of animals for the required offerings--an unfair practice that prohibits access to those who could not afford it.

John doesn't have that approach. Instead, in John's account, as we will hear on Sunday, Jesus said, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!" When asked for a sign of the authority by which he did these things, he responded, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up," meaning, of course, "the temple of his body." In John, therefore, Jesus isn't specifically critical about the "robbers" and their unfair prices and exchange rates but seems critical of the practice itself. His focus, as crystallized in his comment about his body being the temple, is about shifting the locus of worship away from the structure and mechanics of the temple cult and toward the heart of the worshipper.

This is both a theme throughout John's gospel account and seems to be a priority for the Essene community with which some scholars have identified Jesus' ministry. Remember in John 1:51 how Jesus says to Nathaniel, "You will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man?" Remember in John 4:21 how Jesus says to the Samaritan woman at the well that "the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem?" I'm told that the Essenes were those Jews who had moved away from the city and the temple-centered worship and chose ascetic practices in its place. If that's the case--if the cleansing of the temple in Sunday's gospel lesson is supposed to be a criticism of the mechanics of worship and not the spirit behind it as well as an invitation to consider the relocation of our worship from the buildings to the heart--shouldn't we hear something besides the Ten Commandments as our first lesson?

When we hear the Law given to Moses in its clearest, most easily identifiable form and then hear Jesus cleansing the temple, it is easy to draw the false connection between Jesus' actions and the commandments given on Sinai. Jesus' action is not a repudiation of Judaism. Jesus' driving out the animals and overturning the tables isn't a rejection of the Mosaic tradition. It's a clarification and a prophetic purification of it. Jesus may not like temple worship, and I'm pretty certain he would feel the same way about what we do at 10:30 on Sunday mornings, but he wasn't critical of the Law--just our attempt to weaponize it.

How about emphasizing the relocation of the connection between God and earth through a reading of Jacob's dream from Genesis 28, which we otherwise only read on Proper 11A or the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels? Or what about telling the moment when Joshua meets the angel of the Lord and is surprised to discover that he is standing on holy ground in Joshua 5:13-15, which doesn't show up in the lectionary? Perhaps we could read of the construction of the tabernacle in Exodus 36 or Solomon's plan to build the temple in 1 Kings 5, neither of which is in the lectionary?

I don't have the answer, of course, but, as we approach Lent 3B, it's imperative for us to remember what the cleansing of the temple was all about and what it was decidedly not about. How we hear Exodus 20 and John 2 paired together makes a difference in our understanding of the Old Testament, in our understanding of Jesus and his ministry, and in our understanding of contemporary Christian worship. In other words, it's worth getting right.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

One-Sided Covenant?



All week, as I've read the first lesson for Sunday (Genesis17:1-7, 15-16), I've thought to myself, "Where is the other half of the covenant?" When the Lord appears and speaks to Abram, he offers to make a covenant with him and his descendants. God promises to make Abram "exceedingly numerous" in his offspring. God promises to be the God of those descendants. As a ratification of this covenant, God even declares that Abram's name shall be changed to Abraham and that Sarai's name shall be changed to Sarah. But covenants are not one-sided. Covenants are two-way relationships, and the lectionary omits the other half.

On Sunday, we skip over Genesis 17:8-14, and, given the content of the reading from Romans 4, that seems to be a significant omission. Here's what we leave out: God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you." God promises to bless Abraham with land and descendants and God's abiding favor, and, in exchange, Abraham and his descendants will enact the covenant literally, physically in the flesh of their foreskins. If they don't, they fail to keep the covenant: "Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant"

Paul, in the reading from Romans 4, emphasizes that "the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith." In short, God made a promise of land, descendants, and blessing to Abraham, and, when Abraham believed in the promise, God reckoned it to him as righteousness. But what evidence do we have that Abraham's faith was more than a whim? What is the sign that he believed God with all his heart? He sliced off his foreskin. He literally had skin in the game. His faith--his confidence in God--was real and strong enough for him to undergo that primitive surgical procedure.

Paul, of course, has other things to say about circumcision and that it is not the sign by which Gentiles are made children of God in Christ Jesus. In this part of his writings, however, the emphasis is on Abraham's faithfulness. And Genesis 17 makes it clear that the sign of that faithfulness was circumcision. It is a lectionary mistake, therefore, to read of the covenant God makes with Abraham AND the righteousness that comes to Abraham through faith and not see the sign of the faith itself. Without the circumcision passage, we are left with an incomplete picture of Abraham's faithfulness. His faith was costly. If we, too, are made righteous by faith, we must recognize that our faith, too, is costly. We must have faith like Abraham. We must have faith like Jesus.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Ashamed?



There are a few words that I use very carefully around my children. One of those words, which seems to carry immense weight, is ashamed. To describe my feelings toward one of my children as ashamed seems particularly harsh and the kind of damaging description that, if applied to firmly or repeatedly, might require even more therapy than a clergyperson's kid normally endures. So, when I hear Jesus say that he will be ashamed of those who are ashamed of him and his words, it makes me squirm a little bit.

But what does "ashamed" mean in Mark 8, when we hear it on Sunday? The Greek word is a form of the verb "ἐπαισχύνομαι," which is universally translated as "ashamed." I looked in over a dozen other translations of Mark 8:38, and none of them uses any word besides "ashamed." Google says that, in English, the word "ashamed" comes from the Old English "āscamian" which is the intensifier "a" + the verb that means "to shame." But what does the Greek word really mean? What does it come from?

Strong's Greek Concordance indicates that the verb "ἐπαισχύνομαι" or "epaischunomai" comes from "epi," which means "on" as an intensifying prefix that implies "fitting," + the verb "aisxynō," which means to "disgrace" or "dishonor." So it is, in effect, a "fitting disgrace" or a "dishonor that befits someone." The implication, therefore, is that the shame is the natural, appropriate, perhaps even necessary consequence. Strong's goes so far as to say that "epaisxynomai ('dishonor') refers to being disgraced, bringing on 'fitting' shame that matches the error of wrongly identifying (aligning) with something" (emphasis in original). That sounds a little like the context of Mark 8 influencing the definition, but it still hits home.

In the ordinary English sense of shame, a "fitting disgrace" makes sense. I don't decide I want to be ashamed of my children when they screw up. It just happens. They have done something so egregious as to necessitate or invoke within me my shame. Maybe that shifts the way I hear Jesus' words to his disciples and the crowd: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me...Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels." If we are scandalized by Jesus' invitation to take up our cross and to lose our life, doesn't that bring upon us a fitting disgrace? Jesus isn't punishing us when he comes in glory with the holy angels. The truth is revealed. Those who attribute disgrace to the Crucified One will discover their own disgrace. That's the reversal that God's reign represents.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Where Are You Following Jesus?


I've got lectionary whiplash. This Sunday is the Second Sunday in Lent, and we're reading Mark 8:31-38. That's the story of Jesus' first passion prediction, Peter's rejection of Jesus' words, and Jesus' famous rebuke: "Get behind me, Satan." As a reminder, last Sunday we were back in Mark 1 with Jesus' baptism and journey into the wilderness where Satan tempted him. On the Sunday before that we were in Mark 9 with the Transfiguration. And, the week before that, we were over in Mark 1 again, hearing about Jesus' healing of Simon's mother-in-law. Mark 1 to 9 to 1 to 8. It's dizzying.

The challenge of reading Mark this way comes to a head this week. We read Jesus' passion prediction and Peter's rejection of it, but we miss Peter's confession immediately before in Mark 8, and we miss how the Transfiguration follows immediately on its heels. This week's gospel lesson is the middle of an important three-part progression, but we've been jumping around so that's hard to see without preaching a 45-minute sermon. The good news, however, is that the connection between Satan's temptation of Jesus in the wilderness and Jesus rebuke of Peter makes it possible for the preacher to bridge the gap.

"Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly." Notice that he began to teach them. They had been following him for a while by that point. They had seen him work amazing miracles. They had heard him preach incredible sermons. And now, after Peter declares that Jesus is indeed the messiah, Jesus begins to teach them what will happen to the Son of Man. The first half of Mark makes the case for Jesus' identity as the anointed one of God, and the second half reveals the consequences. Like Peter and the other disciples, we've discovered who Jesus really is, but only now are we learning what that means for him and for us. And, right here, in Mark 8, we are given the choice of whether we will follow the Son of Man to the cross.

When I was introduced to Jesus, I was taught that God loved me and that, if I asked Jesus into my heart, God would forgive me of my sins and I would go to heaven. As a child, I desperately wanted to go to heaven. People whom I trusted (parents, preachers, Sunday school teachers) assured me that Jesus could be my savior if I asked him to forgive me and asked him to come into my heart. So I did. Over and over. Maybe it was me--the way I heard their invitation--but no one ever explained to me that, by asking Jesus to come into my heart, I was inviting God to change me into a disciple of Jesus who would follow him down a path that lead to suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection.

Where are we following Jesus? Beginning here in Mark 8, Jesus makes it plain, clear, obvious that the path he walks does not lead to joy, success, power, and prosperity. He does not ride into Jerusalem to claim the throne of his ancestor David. Those who follow him will not be treated like friends of a king. The world will treat us like friends of an outlaw, a rebel, a heretic. If we're following Jesus to the cross, then we're on the right path. Our discipleship does not lead to our glory. It leads to God's glory, and God's glory is revealed in the cross. If we're trying to follow Jesus on a path that leads to earthly glory, well, Jesus has a word for us: Get behind me, Satan!

Monday, February 19, 2018

Standing in the Wilderness with Christ


February 18, 2018 – Lent 1B
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
 
You may have read back in December that Pope Francis had endorsed a new Italian translation of the Lord’s Prayer. The French had adopted their own new translation, and he was encouraging the Italian dioceses of the Roman Catholic Church to follow suit. At issue is a phrase that is problematic in the English version as well: “Lead us not into temptation.” Of those confusing words, Francis said, “It’s not [God] pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen. A father doesn’t do that; a father helps you to get up immediately. It’s Satan who leads us into temptation, that’s his department.”[1]

The problem, of course, is that the Bible wasn’t written in English or French or Italian. The New Testament was written in Greek, and sometimes the spirit of the text gets lost when we move from one language to another. In Matthew 6, where Jesus teaches his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, the Greek text of the phrase in question[2] is a petition that means something like “do not bring us into a trial or test.” A change in the translation can shift the meaning considerably. “Lead us not into temptation.” Does that mean, “God, you be the one who leads us so that we don’t come into temptation?” Or does it mean “God, in case you haven’t made up your mind yet about where you’re going to lead us, we’d prefer the not-toward-temptation option?” It’s easy to agree with the Pope: surely God isn’t the one who leads us into the Tempter’s grasp. But, if that’s what we think, how do we make sense of today’s gospel lesson?

Just as Jesus was coming up from the waters of baptism, he saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Six weeks ago, when we baptized Teddy Olson, we heard those same words in the gospel lesson, but, on that Sunday, that’s where the lesson stopped. We were in church to celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord and to share that Baptism with the newest member of the Body of Christ, so it made sense to stop there with the portrayal of the Spirit’s dramatic descent and the Father’s joyful declaration. But today is different. Today, we come together to celebrate the struggle that belongs to those whom God calls his own children, so our reading goes on.

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.” Jesus didn’t wander out into the wilderness. He didn’t take a wrong turn and find himself stranded in the desert. The Spirit of God drove him there. That sounds a lot like the Lord is the one doing the leading and that he’s leading Jesus right smack dab into the middle of temptation. It’s almost as if God met Jesus at the River Jordan and said, “You are my beloved. You belong to me. With you I am well pleased. Now, get up and go out into the desert where Satan is going to try his best to tempt you.” And, in a sense, that’s what he says to us as well.

In our church, we don’t really come up from the waters of Baptism. We’re Episcopalians. We don’t dunk; we sprinkle with the best of them. But, when we pour water on someone’s head and declare that he or she is baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we are saying those same words. In Baptism, we declare both to the candidate and to the whole world that that person—whether a little bitty baby or a fully grown adult—belongs to God. As soon as the Baptism is complete, we, the congregation, say to the newly baptized, “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” In other words, we say to that person, “You now belong with us in God’s house, in God’s family. In this household, we confess the faith of Christ crucified and proclaim the power of his resurrection, and you will, too. That’s what it means to be a part of this family. That’s what it means to belong to God.”

In that way, our Baptism is not the end of our faith journey but the beginning. It is the moment when the transformation that God is undertaking in the world takes hold in our heart, and it is likewise the moment when God conscripts us as agents of that transforming work. In Baptism, we become citizens of God’s kingdom, and that means that we must let go of our allegiance to the powers of this world. If we are listening carefully when God says to us, “You belong to me,” we will also hear God say, “That means that you do not belong to this world.” In Baptism, we are filled with the Spirit, which breathes life and energy into our souls, changing us into God’s change agents. And that Spirit, as it leads us closer and closer to God, often leads us into desolate places, far away from the comforts and corridors of this world. Out there in the wilderness, the powers of this world can see that we do not belong to it, that we have severed our ties to it, and that is precisely where the temptation comes, luring us to abandon our Christ-like identity, to give up our heavenly citizenship, and to renounce our allegiance to God.

Have you ever felt the Spirit of God nudge you out in front of your peers? Have you ever felt the Spirit pulling you to take an unpopular stand? That’s your baptismal identity shining through. During Lent, we journey with Christ out into the wilderness, but we do so not to prove that we are strong enough and faithful enough to maintain our Lenten discipline for forty days. We go into the wilderness in order to take our stand with Christ. Following Christ, we take a decisive step away from the powers of this world, and sometimes that costs us dearly. It means exposing ourselves to ridicule and exclusion, but such is the cost of belonging to God. In God’s kingdom, there are no racist jokes. Can we say the same about our conversations? In God’s kingdom, there is no sexual harassment. Is that true in our workplace or in our e-mails? In God’s kingdom, there are no assault rifles. What about our gun cabinets and our political agendas? Those of us who follow Jesus follow him into God’s kingdom here and now—not tomorrow, not someday, but right now. The ways of the world are sin and evil and death. Those things cannot define a child of God. The children of God, therefore, must leave behind the ways of the world and the people who advocate for them.
 
Does God lead us into temptation? No, God doesn’t. But following Jesus and allowing the Spirit to guide us means going to places where we are uncomfortable, where we feel alone, and where the temptation to give up and turn back is the strongest. God declares to each one of us, “You are my beloved son or daughter.” But belonging to God means taking a stand with Jesus Christ. It means standing up against the forces of evil and the weapons that they wield. The world crucified Jesus for taking a stand, and the world may crucify us, too. But we belong to God. When the Spirit leads you off into the wilderness, apart from those who enjoy the comforts of this earthly life, out where the powers of this world have you in their crosshairs, will you stand with Christ or will you turn back? May God’s Spirit give us the courage to stand with Christ and resist the Tempter’s power. Only then will we behold the triumph of the resurrection in our lives and in this world.



[1] http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2017/12/08/pope-francis-calls-for-lords-prayer-translation-to-be-changed/
[2] “μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν” (Matt. 6:13)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Truth Will Set You Free

February 14, 2018 – Ash Wednesday
© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

“You look tired,” I said to a classmate of mine in seminary. She was a good friend—the kind of friend you stay up late with, drinking wine and talking about theology and politics and how our class of aspiring priests would solve all of the church’s problems that the generation ahead of us had left behind. When I said that she looked tired, I said those words out of love and concern for my friend, but, before she had a chance to respond, another classmate of ours interrupted and said, “Evan! Don’t ever tell a woman that she looks tired! Ever!” I was taken aback. I hadn’t meant any real criticism by my comment. I wasn’t trying to point out that she looked tired as much as I was trying to let her know that I cared for her and that I sensed that she might be having a tough week. I apologized.

In fact, she did look tired. She even admitted it later on when the other classmate wasn’t around to hear it and I apologized yet again. I understood what the other student was trying to do. It is rude to tell someone—man or woman—that he or she looks tied. It’s rude to say that someone looks like she or he has gained some weight. It’s rude to say that the years are really catching up with someone quickly. It’s rude to say that someone isn’t as sharp as she used to be or as good at something as he once was. It’s rude to tell someone that his jokes aren’t funny or that her breath smells bad. It’s rude to admit that you think that someone’s pot roast is terrible or that you find her constant whining really annoying.

Most of the time, it is impolite to tell the truth. Even when our words are spoken out of friendship, love, and genuine concern, they are not welcome. We’d rather pretend that it’s not as bad as it is—that our hair isn’t that gray, that our pants aren’t that tight, that our jokes aren’t that bad—than hear someone tell us the truth. We only want to see the very best in ourselves, and we expect others to enable us to live under that delusion. But God knows that something is wrong, and so do we.

“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain!” That was God’s way of getting everyone’s attention. Like us, people back then had been ignoring the truth for generations, and the day of judgement was coming. Those in positions of authority had abused their power. The priests cared more about taking bribes than offering sacrifices on behalf of the people. No one wanted to hear the truth, but the integrity of the nation was crumbling. The armies of their enemies were amassing at their borders like a swarm of locusts preparing to devour a field. No one wanted to admit it, and no one wanted to listen to a prophet point it out.

We don’t need a prophet to tell us that the world isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. Look around. Children are hungry. Addiction is rampant. Violence spills out in our streets, in our schools. Suffering has no end. People die before their time. And, for the most part, people like us are insulated from it. That sounds a lot like life back in the time of the prophet Joel. Those things may not feel like they are our fault, but they are symptoms of the sin that infects us all. The question is whether we are willing to confront it and, if so, what good it might do.

A month ago, at 8:07 on a Saturday morning, cell phones and televisions and radios in Hawaii alerted people that a ballistic missile was on its way and that people should immediately seek shelter. To everyone’s horror, the alert made it clear that it was not a drill. Of course, we now know that it was a mistake—that a state employee involved in the warning system mistook a test for the real thing. In hindsight, however, the false alarm has raised some important existential questions like whether people should be warned ahead of a devastating attack if there is nothing that they can do about it. Would you rather spend the last ten minutes of your life blissfully ignorant of the inevitable destruction that is on its way or fighting through an inescapable panic? Those Christians who put up billboards on the side of the highway that make us feel like waiting for Jesus’ return is like waiting for a ballistic missile attack might ask themselves such questions about the day of the Lord, but Joel makes it clear that that’s not the issue we face.

“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart…Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Our God is a forgiving God. Our God wants to welcome us back with open arms. Our God waits to take our brokenness upon himself and make us whole. But how will we ever know the limitless love of God if no one ever tells us the truth about our need for forgiveness and if we refuse to admit the truth of our sin to ourselves?

Today is a day when we not only acknowledge the truth of our brokenness but actually wear it on our foreheads. Usually, we sit in church pretending that we’re humble while also pretending that we’re not completely desperate. But today is the day when it’s ok to strip away all the pretense and admit how much we need God. Today, we all come together—old and young, even infants at the breast—to say to one another and to God that our lives aren’t the way that they could be and that our only hope is in God. Today, we tell ourselves that truth not because we want to convince God to accept our repentance but because we are convinced that God will. We are not here to pretend that we are miserable in order to make God happy. Instead, we are here to confront the magnitude of our brokenness—our need for God’s help—in order that we might find the help we need.

Baptismal Identity Crisis


I love Mark. I write that pretty often during Year B, but this Sunday's gospel lesson is the perfect example of why I love Mark's gospel account so much. Instead of a showdown between Satan and Jesus in the wilderness, Mark shows us that Jesus comes up from the waters of baptism, sees the heavens torn apart and the Holy Spirit descending upon him, hears the voice of his Father, and then immediately is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. Matthew and Luke also mention the Spirit's role in pushing Jesus out, but, because the narrative exchange between Jesus and Satan over turning rocks into loaves of bread and throwing one's self down off the pinnacle of the temple is so long, Year A and Year C do not make the clear baptismal link. Shame!

This Sunday, therefore, is our principal opportunity to make the statement that baptism is what sends Jesus (and us) out into the wilderness, where the Tempter awaits. Isn't that true in the daily grind of discipleship? Isn't Jesus' temptation, when so closely connected with his baptism, a reminder that our identity as the redeemed children of God is what opens us up to the assaults of the devil?

We are citizens of God's kingdom. We may not be able to see it all of the time. It's king may be invisible to us. The earthly powers that stand in opposition to God's kingdom may be a lot easier to perceive that the quiet, persistent reign of God, but we are baptized into the Body of Christ. That is our initiation into God's kingdom. As we proclaim in the proper preface for baptism, "...in Jesus Christ our Lord you have received us as your sons and daughters, made us citizens of your kingdom, and given us the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth." It is confirmation of Jesus' identity as the beloved child of God that propels him out into the wilderness where Satan tries his best to undermine that identity, and it is those moments when our baptismal identity is most profoundly internalized that we are most vulnerable to the devil's work.

This Sunday, once I put aside an Ash Wednesday sermon, I'll preach on that particular crisis of identity: it is hard to live as a baptized citizen of God's kingdom because the ways of the world and the ways of its prince stand in opposition to it. Like a clerical collar or cross necklace around one's neck, the Jesus fish or Episcopal shield on the back of the car makes it simultaneously easier and harder for us to display our true identity as Christians. But that is who we are. And we should expect temptation. We should prepare ourselves to be assaulted by the devil and all his powers. And we should cling to Christ and the promise he has made to be with us always.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Giving Something Up or Getting Ourselves Ready?


This post is also in today's newsletter from St. John's, Decatur. If you want to read the rest of the newsletter, click here.


At diocesan convention this weekend, the keynote speaker, the Rt. Rev. Robert Wright, Bishop of Atlanta, encouraged us to follow Jesus as his disciples by living as those who “walk in love.” In part of his address, he encouraged us to examine the meaning behind our Lenten disciplines:

If the best we can think of is to give up chocolate and sherry for Jesus, then we ought to think again. I mean, if you have a bona fide spiritual problem with chocolate and sherry, I give you…a pass. I don’t; bring it to me. But, beloved, Lent is for serious and careful examination of the darker corners of our hearts so that, at Easter’s “Alleluia!” you and I have something to shout about: that the tectonic plates of our hearts are moving, that our hearts are unfolding, that we find the courage to look into ourselves, understanding that in Christ Jesus, therefore, now there is no condemnation.
 
Bishop Wright's address starts at 1:02:35. The remarks about Lent begin at 1:25:15.
 
Lent begins tomorrow. Perhaps you have already decided what you will give up. Maybe you give up the same thing every year. Or maybe, like me, you are scrambling to think of something that will teach you a little bit about the faithfulness of self-discipline without giving up something that will cost you too much. Bishop Wright has made me rethink that approach. His words remind us what Lent is all about and why giving something up is meaningless unless it prepares us to walk into the light of Easter with renewed confidence that we are the forgiven, redeemed, transformed children of God.

Even before we get to tomorrow’s Ash Wednesday service, take a look at your life. What has been hiding in the darkest corner of your heart, a quiet reminder that the work that God has begun in you is not yet complete? Perhaps you would benefit from forty days of letting the light of Christ bathe that secret spot. Might you give up cynicism? Might you give up lust? Could you practice beholding each person you meet as a beloved child of God instead of looking at them through the stereotype you instinctively bring with you? Could you let go of some of that defiant self-reliance by which you have fooled yourself into thinking that you will be alright all on your own?

The truth is that we cannot get to that place of spiritual perfection by ourselves—not with forty days of heightened spiritual discipline, not with forty years of unwavering ascetic practice. In order to be complete, in order to be made perfect, we need God’s help, the saving help he gives us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But the miracle of Easter cannot shine completely in our lives if we pretend that there is a part of us that God cannot redeem, if we deny God access to the sin-infected recesses of our soul, if we refuse to examine the deepest shortcomings of our lives, if we will not give those shortcomings to Christ, begging him to give us the strength to amend our lives.

The true Lenten journey from the wilderness of our temptation to the salvation of the cross and into the light of the resurrection is far more difficult than giving up candy or cursing or Coors Light for forty days, but, by giving up whatever it is that takes us away from the love of God, we invite God to come into our lives in places we have not noticed him for a long time. That is what it means to undertake the observance of a holy Lent. That is what it means to prepare for Easter.

Eliminating Limits on Love


Absalom Jones was born into slavery. Along with his mother and six siblings, Absalom was the property of a wealthy plantation owner in Delaware. While doing field work, Absalom's master noticed that he was an unusually intelligent child, so he ordered that Absalom be trained to work in the plantation house. While there, he learned how to read and write and saved what little money he had to buy books, including a Bible. When Absalom was around 10 years old, his owner died, and he became the property of the owner's son, who, a few years later, sold the plantation, including Absalom's mother and siblings, and took Absalom with him to Philadelphia as his slave. Absalom's owner opened a store, where Absalom was forced to work. On Sundays, they attended St. Peter's Episcopal Church. At night, Absalom was permitted by his master to go to a night school operated by Quakers, who furthered his education.

With the permission of their owners, Absalom married Mary Thomas, the slave of another parishioner at St. Peter's. After saving up what money he could and imploring his Quaker mentors to lend him additional money, Jones bought the freedom of his wife, but, after repaying his debtors and saving up additional money for his own freedom, Jones' master refused. Several times, Absalom pleaded with his master to let him purchase his freedom, but that man would not give in to the request. Finally in 1784, after 38 years of enslavement, Jones' master granted him a manumission.

Absalom Jones and his wife left St. Peter's and joined St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church, where he became a prominent lay leader to the black congregation. Alongside friend and colleague Richard Allen, Jones worked to bring new black worshippers to St. George's. So successful were their efforts, that they raised money to build a gallery in the church where members of the growing congregation could sit. Without informing Jones or Allen, the congregation decided to enforce segregated seating, requiring all those of African descent to sit upstairs in the gallery. Jones and his fellow worshippers walked out in protest. They again pooled their resources and built a new church specifically for blacks in Philadelphia. The congregation voted to affiliate with the Episcopal Church, and they applied for membership in the Diocese of Pennsylvania under three conditions: 1) that they be received as their own organized body, 2) that they have local control over their own affairs, and 3) that Absalom Jones be licensed as a lay reader and, if qualified, ordained. Eventually, Jones was ordained a deacon and then a priest, the first African-American priest in the Episcopal Church (see https://www.hsec.us/releases/we-need-a-new-biographical-sketch-of-absalom-jones).

I wonder what Jones' sermons sounded like. I wonder what sort of spirit filled the church when he preached on a passage like Isaiah 61: "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners." I wonder what it felt like to have Absalom Jones look you in the eye and read Jesus' words from John 15: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." Do you think Jones knew what it meant for all of Jesus' followers to love one another with Christ-like love in a way that we fail to grasp at least most of the time?

Jesus said to his disciples, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." When their master--when our master--summed up his teaching in one simple commandment, that was it. You must love one another. You must imitate my love. If you are to be my followers, you must lay down your life for one another in love. You must give up your life as you know it for the sake of love.

It's pretty easy to love our families like that. Wife and husband, mother and father, son and daughter, sister and brother--it isn't hard to love them selflessly, the way that Jesus loved the world. Our friends, too, draw that love from us...on a good day, when all is right between us. And those very best friends are those for whom we really would lay down our life. But what about an acquaintance or a stranger? Would we love them the way Jesus loved us? Could we look at them with the same sort of selfless love? Does it matter what sort of acquaintance or stranger they are? If they were young and attractive and well-dressed and articulate? Would it make a difference if they were white or Latino or black or Arab? Would it make a difference if they were homeless or unkempt or drunk or high?

Absalom Jones was born into slavery. He lived most of his life as someone else's property. And the Holy Spirit helped him know that God's words of hope and promise and liberation were intended for him and other slaves like him. We grew up in the opposite culture with access and power. What is the Holy Spirit saying to us? I wonder what is harder: to be a slave and know that you have a full and equal claim on God's love or to be a descendent of slave owners and know that the poor among us have as much a claim on God's love as we do. Jesus said, "This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you." Do we?

Monday, February 12, 2018

Practice Your Piety In Secret


The gospel lesson for Ash Wednesday is always Matthew 6:-6, 16-21: "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them..." I've written before about the clergyman in Mobile who, believing that the world needed more visible Christians, gave the congregation permission to ignore Jesus' words and wear their ashen crosses in public. It wasn't a good sermon. No, I do not think we should wear our crosses beyond the church door. That's why we put tissue boxes in the narthex on Ash Wednesday. But that's only half of the reason I found his sermon less than inspiring. Not only is it a good idea to take Jesus at his word, I also think it's a good idea to ask what those words are all about.

Jesus did not say, "Thou shalt not practice thy piety before others." He said, "Beware..." He is alerting us to a potential problem. And, in order to benefit from Jesus' words, we need to understand the problem itself--not just the symptom. Notice that Jesus does not say, "Beware of practicing your piety before others," and then stop right there. He gave a reason: "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them." And there's the real issue. Are we practicing our piety in front of others in order that we might be seen by them? Or are we motivated by something else?

There is nothing wrong with fasting. There is nothing wrong with praying. There is nothing wrong with wearing sackcloth and ashes. But why do we do those things? Are they to show others how holy we are? Or are they to strengthen our relationship with God--our "Father who sees in secret?"

Lent is a time of renewal. It is a time to purify our piety. Our prayers, our practices, and our worship are refined so that they may be pleasing to God. The problem is that we have a tendency to do all of those things for show. Our habits have become empty. Over time, all habits lose touch with their foundation. Lent is a time to rediscover the reason for our piety--because practicing our piety has the power to deepen our connection with God. When we strip away all the pretense and shut the door and pray to our Father who is in secret, we find what has been missing in our public performance of prayer.

Is it ok to wear an ashen cross throughout the day on Ash Wednesday? In theory, yes. If someone could wear that cross not so that anyone else would notice it but only so that she or he could internalize the mortality that we have proclaimed in worship that day, then there's nothing wrong with it. But that's not possible. (Sorry, Tony Reali.) Even if we mean to wear it in secret, there is a part of us--our broken, human selves--that cannot wear it without wanting others to see it, to notice it, to give us credit for it. And then we've lost the whole purpose of Lent right as it gets started.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Healed by the Call of Jesus

February 9, 2018 – The 187th Convention of the Diocese of AL
Opening Eucharist – For Social Service
© 2018 Evan D. Garner

We gather this afternoon as the assembled Diocese of Alabama, our particular stem on this particular branch of the Jesus Movement, and, even though we gather as a unified diocesan family, there are cracks running through the body of Christ. Some of them are hairline fractures that are too small for us to see. Others are deep rifts that feel like they could break us apart at any moment. But don’t lose heart: the body of Christ has been broken before, and that hasn’t ever gotten in the way of what God is doing in the world.

Where are the fissures and cracks that we bring with us today? What fractures do we embody by our very existence? What brokennesses have we papered over, like a couple desperate to sell their house, hoping that no one will notice what’s behind a fresh coat of paint or under the new carpet? What chasms do we hold out proudly in front of us for anyone and everyone to see like wounds that we choose to define us?

There are rectors who have angered their biggest pledgers by preaching about guns and gays and #BlackLivesMatter and whose vestries have begun to meet without them—not in an official capacity, of course, but just to talk about the situation. There are parishioners who resent the preferential treatment that others always seem to get—the newcomers who are allowed to sit wherever they want, the altar guild chair to whom everyone is expected to make obeisance, the ushers whose not-so-secret society is more selective than Skull and Bones, and the kitchen ladies who never seem to need any help because the same eight people always have every job covered. Then, there are the individuals and parishes and sometimes dioceses who decide to take a stand on whatever issue has ruffled their feathers this week, and there’s the rest of us who wonder why they care so much about the latest controversy when the “real problem” (in our not-so-humble opinion) is the work of the gospel however it is that we understand it. And, of course, there are the bishops who, depending on your perspective, aren’t doing enough about it or are getting too involved and who, as a result, are responsible for the whole mess.

Perhaps, as we gather together as the leaders of our diocese—bishop, priests, deacons, delegates, spouses, seminarians, and guests—it is important for us to remember that Jesus would have made a terrible rector, that no one would have ever elected him to a vestry, that the altar guild and ushers would have kicked him out long ago, and that, as a bishop, he would have been remembered as a dismal failure. Yet, even though Jesus never would have been accepted in any of those roles, he is still the hope of all of them—of all of us to whom he calls out, “Come, follow me.” And his call is the only thing that can bring us back together and reconcile us to God and to one another.

This gospel lesson from Mark 10 begins at a moment of real brokenness among the disciples of Jesus. As is so often the case in our own contexts, the cause of that estrangement is hidden from us—a part of the story not recounted in this abbreviated narrative. A few verses before our passage begins, James and John, while walking with the others on their way toward Jerusalem, caught up with Jesus, who was walking ahead of them, to ask him a favor. “Teacher,” they said to him coyly, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” We remember how that part of the gospel story plays out. James and John revealed their ignorance and their arrogance by asking their master if they might be granted the privilege of sitting next to him—one on his right and one on his left—when he came into his kingdom. To us, it seems like a ridiculous power-grab, and to the ten disciples who overheard them, it was a galling request that threatened to break their fellowship apart.

How could those brothers be so naïve? How could they travel this far with the Son of Man and not understand what he was all about? And, to make things worse, Jesus didn’t rebuke them the way that he had said to Peter so harshly, “Get behind me, Satan!” Nor did he reject their request outright just as he had sent away the rich young man a few verses earlier because that man had refused to sell all of his possessions. Any one of the other ten disciples happily would have traded the comforts that come with having a rich colleague like that would-be disciple for the empty arrogance of James or John. Mark tells us that the ten were indignant at them, and, as today’s gospel lesson picks up the story, we aren’t sure how this rift between the disciples could possibly be healed.

So what did Jesus do? “Jesus called them to himself.” He called the ten together along with James and John, and, right away, their hearts and the anger burning within them began to soften. Jesus called them together and reminded them that “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” None of them had been chosen by Jesus because of his accomplishments or his abilities or his particular brand of holiness. They had been chosen because of their willingness to follow him—to stand at the back of the line and follow the example of their master and become a servant of all. When Jesus calls you like that—calls you because of who he is and not because of who you are—it becomes easy to let the differences and disagreements that separate us fall away…at least at first.

But even those of us who walk in the back of the line behind Jesus have a tendency to forget how we got there. A few verses later, as the disciples and Jesus made their way through Jericho, a blind beggar heard who was passing through. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” he cried out. Unable to see whether Jesus was near enough to hear him, the beggar sat on the side of the road, yelling out his request over and over, hoping that the famous rabbi would stop. But “many rebuked him, ordering him to be quiet.” They knew that Jesus didn’t have time to stop. By this point in his ministry, he was finished with miracles. His face was set firmly on Jerusalem. The work ahead of him was too important to allow for any distractions. If Jesus didn’t have time for a rich young man, he certainly didn’t have time for a blind beggar. But, to everyone’s surprise, Jesus stopped, and he said, “Call him.” And, when he did, something happened.

Yes, Bartimaeus, the last recipient of a healing miracle in Mark and the only one whose name is recorded for us, had his sight restored, but he wasn’t the only one whose blindness was cured that day. Notice what happened to the crowd when they heard Jesus call Bartimaeus: those who rebuked him became the very ones who said, “Take heart; he is calling you!” No longer was Bartimaeus seen as a distraction, an unworthy diversion that threatened to take Jesus and his disciples away from their mission. When the people heard that Jesus was calling the blind beggar, everything came back into focus, and they saw that, because of the master’s call, Bartimaeus was just like them, another disciple waiting to follow Jesus.

Something happens inside of us when we hear Jesus’ call. And something else happens inside of us when we hear him call those people who, in our judgment, don’t belong in his company. No one likes the Bartimaeus of our day. No one wants the important work of the church to have to stop and turn aside to address the cries of one blind beggar, one angry protestor, one radical diocese, one cause-happy parishioner or rector or bishop. But the call that Jesus issues to us is the same call that he speaks to them. None of us is called because of who she is but because of who Jesus is and because of who God is. God is the one who loves us with no regard for who we are or what we think or how we act. That is the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is the nature of his call. And, when we hear it, spoken both to us and to those whom we find most threatening, we discover that, in Christ, covered by God’s unconditional love, we are all one.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

And He Was Metamorphosed Before Them!


Every week our staff gathers on Tuesday to read the gospel lesson for the upcoming Sunday, to discuss it together, and to pray. Yesterday, after reading Mark 9:2-9, we all agreed that "transfigured" is a word we rarely use in conversation. Sure, we say "transformed" or "changed," but "transfigured" seems to imply a very specific kind of event that doesn't happen very often. What does that word really mean?

The prefix "trans" implies a change since its roots are "across" or "through." The root of "figure" has to do with shape or appearance or form. But this event on the mountain top, where Jesus is "transfigured" before his disciples, seems more than just a change in appearance. We use the word "disfigured" to describe someone whose form has been marred by an accident or a fire. The term "prefigure" means a foreshadowing--literally a coming into shape beforehand. But how does the word "transfigure" mean to change as in going through or across one form to another?

During staff meeting, I opened the Greek Bible app on my phone (I'm still looking for a good one) and was reminded that the word translated for us as "transfigured" is "μετεμορφώθη" or, transliterated, "metemorphothe," which, of course, comes from the same root as metamorphosis. What happened to Jesus, therefore, was more than a change in appearance. He was metamorphosed in front of their eyes. Now, I use the word "metamorphosed" in conversation even less frequently than I use the word "transfigured," but the recapitulation of the Greek root helps me visualize both literally and theologically what happened to Jesus.

To the Greek readers of Mark's gospel account, Jesus was transformed beyond mere appearance. One does not say to someone who changes clothes in the middle of the day, "Wow, you've been transfigured!" To metamorphose means to transform--to grow, to change, to develop. We use that terminology for a caterpillar turning into a butterfly or a tadpole changing into a frog. No, Jesus didn't become something new, but can we say he developed? Or can we say that his form--his figure--changed into its mature state?

I've always described the Transfiguration as a moment when Jesus' divinity shone through his humanity--not replacing or mixing or overshadowing it in an anti-Chalcedonian way--but breaking through the surface. This refocusing on the Greek word for what happened makes me wonder whether, at least in the eyes of his disciples, Jesus reached his full God-man maturity. Yes, I'm aware that either doesn't make sense or is a full-blown heresy (I'll take the former, please), but what happened on the mount of Transfiguration is more that just a pulling back of the curtain.

By the time they walk back down, Jesus is back to normal, or at least it seems that way. So this isn't the kind of caterpillar-into-butterfly metamorphosis that we're more familiar with. But it's more than just a laser light show. It's more than just Superman taking off his Clark Kent suit to reveal that he's actually a superhero. This is a change, a development--at least for a moment. Given Mark's narrative to this point--building the case for Jesus as the manifestation of God's authority and power on earth--that makes sense. How can we behold that transfigured, metamorphosed Jesus for ourselves?

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Watching Until The End


There is a supernatural character to Elisha's decision to accompany Elijah, his prophet-master, until he is taken up by God in the chariot of fire. In Sunday's first lesson, we will hear Elijah say to Elisha several times, "Stay here!" but each time Elisha says, "As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you." First, they stop in Bethel. Then, they head to Jericho. Finally, they cross the Jordan. At each stage of the journey, Elijah urges Elisha to stop. Twice, people whisper to Elisha, "Do you know that today the Lord will take away your master from you?" and twice Elisha responds, "Yes, I know; be silent." Yet Elisha perseveres to the end, asking a double-portion of Elijah's spirit as an inheritance.

There's also an ordinary, everyday quality to Elisha's journey. Not only is he pursuing the double-portion, but he's also waiting and watching and walking with someone he loves as that someone approaches the end of his life. Sure, Elijah's end comes with a chariot of fire and a divine whirlwind, but the reality is the same: Elijah is going to leave this life, and Elisha is not willing to look away. How many people do we know who make that same journey?

It is hard to wait and watch at a hospital bedside. It is excruciating to camp out in the bedroom of a loved one while she struggles to breathe, hearing the haunting gurgle of fluid in her throat that she doesn't have the strength to clear. It can take hours or days or weeks. Everyone assures us that it is ok to step away, that we must take some time to take care of ourselves. And we may sneak off for a shower or a few hours of sleep, but we never really leave. Even the one we care for in those moments would tell us that it is ok for us to go, that everything will be alright, that she wants us to get on with our own life, but our quiet, gentle response is the same as Elisha's: "As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you."

There is a holiness, a noble faithfulness, to waiting and watching as someone dies. Like Elisha, we are not motivated by the inheritance, but we know that we will get something from the journey. It's nothing tangible. Those sorts of things will be taken care of in the estate. The thing we receive is as powerful yet invisible as the double-portion of a prophet's spirit. The double-portion of the estate would go to the firstborn son, but Elisha--no blood-relative of the senior prophet--does not stand to inherit anything more than Elijah's mantle, which he picks up in verse 13 and wields much as his master did. Instead, the double-portion we seek is the connection of kinship, the love between one who waits and one who is waited upon. And for us, like Elisha, the journey is exhausting, but the journey itself is the reward.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Intermission


When Jesus came up from the waters of baptism in Mark 1, Jesus heard God say to him, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Although it's possible that other people heard it, Mark places the emphasis on Jesus' encounter. He's the one who saw the heavens torn open, and he's the one that the divine voice addresses. During the season after the Epiphany, when we journey from the River Jordan through the early miracles of Jesus' ministry, we get glimpses into who Jesus really is. He's the one with authority over demons. He's the one who can heal the sick. He's the one who can raise the dead. Then, right smack dab in the middle of Mark's account, we hear an echo from Jesus' baptism, but this time the voice speaks to us.

In Mark 9, Jesus goes up on a mountain and takes with him his closest disciples, Peter, James, and John. While there, he is transfigured before them. His clothes become dazzling white. His skin begin to shine. His divinity breaks through the surface and those around him get to see plainly what everyone has seen hints of. In that moment, God again speaks, but this time God addresses whomever is listening, presumably the disciples, the reader, and the whole world: "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" They are almost the same words--statement of filial identity, statement of preferential love--but this time they are given not to Jesus himself but to those who are with him.

We're still only half way through. The baptism was a moment when Jesus heard God proclaim his identity as God's beloved Son. The transfiguration was a moment when Jesus' disciples heard God repeat that identification. At the end of the story, in Mark 15, when Jesus dies on the cross, questioning his own identity with the words "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" we hear the centurion repeat the true identity of Jesus: "Truly this man was God's Son!" It's the moment of clarity when the full implications of Jesus' sonship are manifest. Yes, Jesus heard it at the Jordan. Yes, the disciples heard it on the mountain top. But what it means for Jesus to be God's Son is only fully disclosed in the crucifixion.

This Sunday is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. Ash Wednesday is a little over a week away. Lent begins. We journey down the transfiguration mountain and on toward Jerusalem. With each step, the remaining puzzle pieces are put into place. Jesus doesn't need to show us that he's God's Son any more. We've already seen that. Now, he has to show us what it means to be God's Son. This Sunday is only an intermission--a brief moment when things seem clear. But then it's time to journey on and go to Jerusalem and learn for ourselves what it means to be a child of God.

We Can't Stand Still


February 4, 2018 – Epiphany 5B
Isaiah 40:21-31; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
 
The news that a charismatic, young rabbi had come to Capernaum spread quickly throughout the region. Jesus had visited the synagogue there on Saturday morning as a guest teacher, and the congregation was most impressed. In the middle of his talk, a man who was possessed by a demon started shouting strange things about him: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?…I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” At first, the members of the synagogue just stared at each other, wondering who would step in and take care of the disturbance, but then Jesus intervened and rebuked the evil spirit, which cried out in a loud voice as it left the man. Amazement spread throughout the congregation. “What is this?” they remarked to one another. “A new teaching—with authority!”

Surely one or two of them whispered something about the sabbath and how this rabbi had performed the exorcism at a time when the Law of Moses said it was forbidden. The collision of two competing dispensations—the God-given power to heal and the God-given mandate to rest—was as exhilarating as it was confusing. The strange combination of emotions and the fact that people did not know exactly how they were supposed to feel in the presence of this power ensured that the story of the controversial healing spread like wildfire.

Not wanting all of that attention, Jesus and his disciples slipped away from the synagogue and went to Simon’s house. Normally, his mother-in-law prepared a fine Saturday dinner, but she was in bed with a fever. Realizing that his rabbi and other companions would be expecting an afternoon meal, Simon apologized that the offering would be simpler than usual. “Usually, my wife’s mother makes an excellent brisket,” he explained, “but she hasn’t been feeling well of late.” It may have been the thought of a good meal that sent Jesus back into her bedroom, but, whatever the reason, he did not hesitate, taking her by the hand and lifting her up, healing her immediately of her illness. So thorough and instantaneous was Jesus’ restorative touch that Simon’s mother-in-law set straight away to entertaining her guests.

An hour or so after the meal was finished, there was a knock at the door. Simon went and opened it, and his jaw dropped at what he saw. There were at least a hundred people gathered outside. They had been assembling for over an hour, and, as soon as the sun disappeared below the horizon, signifying that the sabbath was over, the first in line knocked on the door to see if the visiting rabbi was still there. Someone had been fairly certain that he had seen Jesus and his disciples duck into that small house on the corner, and, from there, the news travelled fast. “Um, Jesus?” Simon called out toward the room where the rabbi was reclining. “You’d better come and see this.”

For hours, Jesus healed those who came to the door. Children had brought their parents, and parents their children. Husbands and wives had brought their spouses. Neighbors had brought their friends. Dozens upon dozens of people crowded in to see if Jesus would heal their loved ones. There were fevers and palsy and dropsy. Some were blind or deaf. Some were lame. Several were possessed by demons. And Jesus healed one after another after another, taking time to look his patients in the eye and listen to their complaints. Perhaps he could have simply waved his arm over the multitude and healed them all at once so that he could go back inside and get some rest, but Jesus knew that the people needed more than a cure. They needed the healing touch that only he could give them. Long after it had grown late, hours after everyone had grown tired, Simon waved his hands and said to those who remained in the crowd, “Come back tomorrow. It’s late. The rabbi needs to rest. We all need to rest. Go home and come back in the morning.”

But, when they came back, Jesus wasn’t there. As soon as it was light, Simon got up, rubbing his eyes and recalling how late they had all gone to bed. He went to open the windows and door to let air through the house, and he saw the crowd, already waiting for Jesus. He spun around to see if the rabbi had gotten up from his pallet, and there was his blanket, neatly folded, but Jesus was nowhere to be seen. Simon stuck his head in all the rooms, asking if anyone had seen the rabbi, but it quickly became clear that Jesus had left before anyone was awake to notice. So Simon went back out front and said to the crowd, “He’s not here. He’s…well, I don’t know where he went. But I’m sure he’ll be back soon.”

No one moved an inch at Simon’s words. The disciples got up and washed their faces and hands, saying their morning prayers, and then they set out, hunting for Jesus. They knew the kind of place where their master liked to go for some quiet prayer, and they found him in such a spot among the hills outside the town. “What are you doing here?” they said to him. “Everyone in the town is searching for you. People have come from all over. There are many more who want to be healed. Quick, we’ve got to go back. There’s no time to waste. We’ve got a full day ahead of us.” But Jesus seemed not to hear them. “Jesus?” Simon said, wondering what his rabbi was thinking. “Let us go on to the neighboring towns,” he answered them, “so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”

As a church, we wake up every morning and hunt for Jesus. We search for him because we want him to validate the work that we are doing. We want him to join our efforts to feed hungry children and heal the uninsured and tutor those who otherwise would go home in the afternoon to empty houses and teach their parents how to speak English. We are doing good work—godly work—and we don’t want Jesus to leave before the work is finished. But the truth is that there will always be hungry children in Decatur. There will always be individuals who slip through the cracks of our health care system. There will always be more students who need tutoring and more immigrant parents who are desperate to learn English. But Jesus isn’t hanging around any longer. He setting out for a new town, for a new school, for a new clinic, for a new church. And he’s asking us to go with him.

“Let us go on to the next place so that we may bring the good news there also; for that is what I came out to do.” Our church does a lot of good in this town, but we aren’t in the doing-good business; we’re in the good news business. All of the good that we do is a testament to the good news that we share: that God’s transformative love has come to the world in Jesus Christ so that all people—rich and poor, brown and white, privileged and oppressed—might find a place in God’s kingdom. That’s why we spend all of this money and give all of this time carrying out these ministries: to show people a glimpse of the hope that God has come to give them—a hope that will long outlast our efforts. And, as followers of Jesus, our calling is always to take that transformative hope with us to the next place where God’s kingdom is waiting to break through.

Yes, of course, we will continue doing all of the good that we already do, but we cannot stop there. We cannot stay where we are. We must move on to the next place, to the next school, to the next need that is ripe for the saving news of the gospel. Where will that be? Will we take Homework Helpers to another elementary school like West Decatur? Or will we take that work to the next level and partner with a middle school like Oak Park? Will we reach out to other congregations across the city and help them establish their own programs until every at-risk student in the district gets the help he needs and the food he needs and the opportunity he needs to fulfill the dream that God has for him?

Several years ago, we made the mistake of confusing the building that is Episcopal Center for the work that happens inside of it. We cared more about getting credit in the community for what we had already done than using the capacity that we had developed to take the work of the kingdom to the next big project, and it made us look like hypocrites. Let us not make that mistake again, especially now that we are in the middle of a building project. Sure, there is plenty of good work to be done right here on this city block, within these very walls, but Jesus won’t let us stand still. The need waiting just over the horizon is too great. There are others who need to know that, despite all of the forces of evil that are working against them, God is on their side. Who will tell them? Who will show them the transformation that God has promised in Jesus Christ? Will we? Will we have the courage to stretch beyond ourselves and take the good news to whatever next place needs to hear it?

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Getting a Good View


According to the Google, the tallest mountain in Israel is Mt. Hermon, which stands at 7,300 feet. I like to imagine that the prophet had looked down from somewhere up that height when he wrote Sunday's reading from Isaiah 40: "It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers." Of course, they didn't have airplanes or skyscrapers. From a high mountain, people below might look like grasshoppers or even ants. What happens when you go higher?

Although I prefer the aisle seat, I do enjoy looking out the window of an airplane as the cars get so small that I can no longer make them out. And then the roads blur out of focus. And then individual buildings disappear. And then whole cities become blobs of color on the ground. And then I can see nothing but enormous swaths of green and blue and brown. What happens when you keep going up?

Image from the International Space Station from https://i.ytimg.com/vi/PoOmhQyTEaw/maxresdefault.jpg

The International Space Station is 254 miles or 1,300,000 feet above the earth. From that perspective, one can behold at once entire countries or even continents. Do you remember the "Pale Blue Dot" photo that Carl Sagan showed the media as Voyager turned around and took a picture toward the earth, happening to catch a tiny speck that was earth caught in a sunbeam? Of that dot, Sagan wrote, "That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives...There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world." I think Carl Sagan was a fan of Isaiah 40.

God is so high above us, sitting on his infinite perch, that he beholds in an instant not only all of humanity but also the entire expanse of interstellar space--all the distance between all the stars around which orbit all the planets and, almost certainly, all the other intelligent species with whom we will never make contact--at least in this life. Yet the same God who sees all that, who created everything that is, "gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless." The reach of God, measured in light years, still stretches down to those who need God's help. God knows us and calls us by name. Those who wait upon the Lord are not forgotten but are sustained, are made strong, and soar like eagles. We are vain who think that God's power belongs to us. Who are we? We are less than a breath on the scales of life. Yet those who wait on God with humility, patience, and faith are met by the Almighty.