Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Maryphobia


I grew up in the Deep South, in a town where everyone was presumed to be Christian and the only distinctions of faith were on a subjective scale of nominality. There were plenty of small non-denominational congregations, and, although they may have taken Jesus seriously, their members weren't taken seriously by the rest of us. The Baptists were the dominant presence in the community, and we recognized differences between "big-church" Baptists and those who took their faith seriously enough to go to the smaller congregations where fiery preachers were more easily tolerated. Methodists were pretty common, and they were glad to not be Baptists, but the differences between Methodists and "big-church" Baptists were primarily manifest in their recycling bins. (Methodists were willing to recycle beer and wine bottles at the curb.) Presbyterians were present but not numerous, and, unless they had broken away from the mainline denomination and joined the Evangelical PCA, they were thought of as nearly as nominal as the Episcopalians, who were dangerously close to Catholics. Most of us recognized that Catholics were Christians, although some would question openly whether they would really go to heaven when they died. Plenty of us wrongly assumed that their version of Christianity involved a strange mix of taking orders from the Pope, praying to idol statues, and confusing the roles of Jesus and his mother in the economy of salvation. It seems pretty silly looking back, but those stigmas have a lingering effect.

I've always been afraid of Mary. More accurately, I've been afraid of Mariology or Marian devotion. "We don't do that," seemed like a pretty sufficient response for a Protestant of any stripe. Those suspicious aren't a new development. They've been part of the Protestant heritage since the Reformation, when Puritan influences removed to varying degrees anything that seemed tainted with the vague and unpleasant odor of popery. In the Anglican tradition, the Puritans didn't win out, but they certainly helped strip (or at least force underground) any Marian piety in the Church of England and, by extension, its successors. For example, note that, of the Thirty-Nine Articles, at least three have something to do with denying a prominent role of Mary in Anglican theology (IX, XV, XXII). So it's not only in my upbringing, it's also part of our church's history. But, today, as we celebrate the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin (not the Assumption of Mary, which is a Roman holiday and doctrine not celebrated in the Episcopal Church's calendar), I wonder (again) whether Mary might be the best model of Christian sainthood that we have and that as Anglicans we've missed it because of our fear of "popery."

This morning, I was reading Hannah's song in the Daily Office. It forms the basis for Mary's song in Luke 1, and it reminded me how foundational the availability for the Holy Spirit's work is to both of those women's witness to God. In the scriptural account, both Mary and Hannah are seen by God, acknowledged by God, and blessed by God. To Eli the priest, Hannah says, "Let your servant find favor in your sight." Similarly, the Angel Gabriel says to Mary, "You have found favor with God." We aren't told what that means, and that leads to a lot of Marian doctrine and devotion that seem unnecessary (perhaps unreasonable), but the primary witness of both women is to what God does in and through them, not what they do on their own.

Isn't that sainthood? Doesn't being a saint--a "holy one of God"--mean being one through whom God acts? God makes us holy. Mary's response to God's invitation, "Here I am, the servant of the Lord," is the response of all through whom God acts. Few (i.e. none) have a witness as profound as that of the Mother of God, but the basis for God's action coming into the world through human beings is the same. Mary, then, is a paragon not of self-generated holiness (that's Jesus' role) but of God-generated holiness, and a holiness that spills over into the world. May her witness shine bright in the eyes of our faith so that, like her, we, too, may say to God, "Behold, the servant of the Lord."

Monday, August 13, 2018

So Much For Metaphor


Yesterday. I had the luxury of preaching on the part of Jesus' bread of life discourse in which he wants the crowd and the authorities to understand that he is the bread of life that has come down from heaven. They seem to have misunderstood his message. Jesus mentions bread that endures for eternal life, and the crowd wants to find the bread. Jesus says to them, "I am the bread of life," meaning not the kind of bread you could buy in the market or make at home or even gather up in the wilderness when God sends it down from heaven to sustain God's people but Jesus himself. Jesus is the bread of life.

It makes a good image or analogy. Jesus is the bread of life. He is the basic physical sustenance for God's people. The spiritual nourishment that he provides is as foundational as bread is in their diet. God provided manna in the wilderness, and God is providing the bread of life in Jesus. One is actually eaten by God's people, and the other is internalized in other ways. It's a nifty analogy, and last Sunday was a chance to refocus from real bread to spiritual bread.

And then there's this week's gospel lesson.

Jesus tells the crowd and the authorities, "...the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." Again, maybe it's a metaphor that links the upcoming crucifixion with the spiritual sustenance that God is giving the world through God's Son. But then Jesus doubles down and leaves me confused and slightly sickened.

The religious authorities, still unable to perceive metaphor, ask, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" And, just when we're expecting Jesus to say, "It's a metaphor, you twits!" instead, he declares, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink."

My flesh is true food? My blood is true drink? In contemporary parlance, the word "literally" has become itself an analogical intensifier. "That is literally the worst thing I could ever imagine," someone would say sympathetically to a friend not actually (literally) meaning that it was the worst thing imaginable. But that practice wasn't familiar to Jesus and his contemporaries. When he said, "really food" and "really drink," he meant it. Really?

Sometimes it's fun for the preacher to say, "According to this week's readings, everything you heard last week is wrong." That wouldn't be a bad place to start. I'll spend this week trying to figure out when to hear Jesus speaking in metaphor and when he's speaking literally literally. I'll have some time to explore how his flesh is true food, and how "true food" might be different from "food indeed." And, hopefully, by Sunday, I'll be ready to hear what, in the gospel reading for the following Sunday, the disciples will call "a difficult teaching." Because then I'll have another week to preach on it.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Salvation Is A Gift Not A Treasure Hunt


August 12, 2018 – The 12th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14B

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Have you ever heard a preacher tell a story or use an analogy that was so entertaining, so compelling, so inspiring that you forgot what the rest of the sermon was about? As a preacher, I can tell when I have spent too much time on the window dressing and not enough time on the content of a sermon because the comments I get from people on their way out of church have more to do with the anecdote than the gospel. The comments themselves aren’t deflating, but the realization that I missed the opportunity to invite a congregation to hear what God is saying instead of what their preacher has to say is.

I suppose, however, that faithful preaching requires both a faithful preacher and a faithful congregation. And I suppose that, in theory, the misplaced focus on an image or analogy could be the listeners’ fault and not the preacher’s. I say that not because I want to defend myself or my preaching but because, in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus used a catchy image that seems to have distracted his audience, and I’m far more likely to criticize our collective listening than Jesus’ preaching.

“I am the bread of life,” he said to them. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” We hear those words as if spoken in a gentle, reassuring tone—the words of a savior beckoning God’s people to come to him and be sustained forever. But, when we read them in the larger context of John 6, we discover that Jesus wasn’t trying to encourage the crowd but to refocus their attention on his real message. In what would have been our gospel lesson if we had not celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration last Sunday, Jesus said to the multitude, “You’re only looking for me because you ate your fill of the loaves and the fish that I multiplied for you. Quit searching for the food that perishes, and start pursuing the food that endures to eternal life—the true bread of heaven.” He was talking about himself, of course, but, when they heard him speak of the “true bread from heaven” that “gives life to the world,” all they wanted to know was where they could find that magic bread.

I grew up on the Gulf Coast, and, whenever forecasters predicted that a hurricane was coming, the run on milk and bread left the store shelves empty, and friends and neighbors would tell each other which store still had some. Living in northern Alabama, whenever the meteorologist mentioned the possibility of even a dusting of snow, we experienced the same phenomenon. Given that milk and bread are some of the first things that spoil, that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it seems that the survival instinct runs strong in every generation. Jesus mentioned that he could give the people a bread that endures for eternal life, and, after that, the only thing that they cared about was finding that bread. “Sir, give us this bread always,” they said. And Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life, you twits!” (The word “twits” isn’t in the Greek manuscript, of course, but I like to imagine him using a tone that made his intentions clear.) “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” I wonder what tone Jesus uses when he speaks those words to us. I wonder whether we, in our pursuit of Jesus, have become so focused on finding the right bread, the magic path that leads to heaven, that we have forgotten what it means to take Jesus at his word.

Today’s gospel lesson is all about misunderstandings. Notice that the crowd wasn’t the only group that was confused. The religious authorities, whom John unhelpfully nicknames “the Jews,” started complaining when they heard what Jesus had to say. Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” and they immediately began to grumble among themselves about Jesus’ origins. Unlike the crowd, who got distracted by his words about bread, they couldn’t wrap their minds around where Jesus had said that he was from. “How can he say that he has come down from heaven?” they said to each other. “This is Jesus, Joseph’s son, Mary’s son. We know his parents. We know where he grew up. How can anyone listen to this nonsense?” The crowd couldn’t get past the offer of bread, and the authorities’ couldn’t get over the claim of a heavenly origin, but both, in effect, had the same problem. They all wanted to make sense of Jesus’ words on their own terms instead of accepting the truth that he was trying to give them. Isn’t that our problem, too?

Jesus comes to give us salvation, and immediately we want to know what we have to do and where we have to go to find it. But the truth that Jesus gives us is that the work of salvation isn’t ours to do. That work belongs to God. It isn’t up to us to find the right bread that leads to eternal life or to figure out how the Incarnate One could come from heaven yet be born to Mary and Joseph. It isn’t up to us to find the right path to salvation or wrap our minds around the mysteries of God’s love. It is up to us simply to receive what God has given us and to believe that God’s gift is enough. God makes salvation happen; our job is to see it and believe it.

Jesus tried to tell us that in this gospel lesson. To the crowd, he said, “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.” To the authorities, he said, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” Don’t let those sound like off-putting, discriminating words. They are a reassurance. It is God who sent God’s Son into the world, and it is God who draws us to God’s Son. That is among the most threatening and liberating truths of the gospel. We do not choose God; God chooses us. And, until we know that in our hearts and minds, we cannot know the peace that comes from belonging not on our terms—not because of who we are or what we have done—but because of who God is and how much God loves us.

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus says to us. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” It isn’t bread that we are after; it’s love. Showing up on Sunday morning and eating the Communion bread and listening to the sermon and saying our prayers won’t get us to heaven because, in God, we’re already there. It’s God loving us enough to meet us in Jesus and draw us into God’s self and care for us for all eternity that saves us. And God has already done that for each one of us. That’s what Jesus wants us to hear. Will we take him at his word? Will we believe it? Will we trust it? Will we stop running in search of the thing that is right in front of us? When we take that piece of bread in our hand, will we look at it and know that we have been loved by God beyond measure, trusting in our hearts that there is nothing that can take us away from that everlasting love?

Thursday, August 9, 2018

A Theology Of Being Good


Much of what the apostle Paul writes to the churches with which he has a relationship deals with community problems that they are experiencing. Yes, sometimes he focuses on wrong beliefs, but often he is dealing with wrong actions. There's a connection, of course. How can the Corinthians be members of Christ's body yet unite themselves to temple prostitutes? How can the Galatians be set free by Christ yet require Gentile converts to become slaves to the law? Over and over, Paul tells his readers how to behave, not just what to believe, but it's his approach to the relationship between right action and right belief that gives me hope for the twenty-first-century church.

In Sunday's reading from Ephesians (yes, I know most scholars don't think of Ephesians as having been written by Paul, but that doesn't bother me, and I'm going to call the author "Paul" anyway), Paul offers an exhortation that has become the most popular offertory sentence in the Episcopal Church: "live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." We leave out the "fragrant" part and usually say "walk in love," but it's the same thing. Before we pass out alms basins and give the congregation the opportunity to devote themselves and something of value to God's work in the world, we urge them to walk/live in love in the same way that Christ himself loved us, which is to say that he yielded his life as a sacrifice to God. Of course, we have more in mind than the folded-up twenty-dollar bill that you drop into the plate when we say those words. We mean to walk in love with your whole life. But how different would that moment feel on Sunday morning if the presider said, "Love one another in the same way that Jesus loved you when he died on the cross for your sake?"

There's something powerful about making the connection between how we have been loved by God in Jesus Christ and how we are called to love one another. The opportunity for real transformation exists when, instead of saying, "Be good because you're supposed to," or "Be good because God is watching you," we say, "Be good because you are good because that's what God has made you through his limitless love in Jesus Christ." The transformation doesn't come from us. It comes from God. Whenever Paul urges his readers to live a godly life, he makes that clear. God has done the work of making you good, now remember that and live like it.

Look again at the Sunday's reading from Ephesians and notice how Paul's string exhortations is grounded in the transformation God has already enacted in those who read Paul's letter: "Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another." - Why should we speak the truth? Not because it's the right thing to do but because we have been made members of one another in Christ. That "members of one another" governs his words about thieves not stealing and no evil talk coming out of their mouths. Paul urges them to forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven you. Perhaps summing it all up, he tells them to imitate God as God's beloved children, walking in love.

I spend too much time telling my kids to behave and not enough time telling them that they are loved. I spend too much time thinking that I should do better and not enough time remembering that I have been made good by God. Those two things go together, but one cannot expect change in behavior without a change in identity. How might each of us know so deeply that we have been loved by God into a new life that we live that new life as children who naturally imitate God just as a child naturally imitates a parent?

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Two Breads


What's your favorite kind of bread? For most applications, I prefer rye bread. Turkey, ham, tuna, grilled cheese sandwiches all go nicely on rye bread. I also enjoy a piece of rye toast. Sometimes, though, I need the empty calories of white bread to go with a tomato sandwich or a BLT. And homemade sourdough is a real treat on occasion. And sometimes a hearty wheat really hits the spot. What about you? Do you like some breads more than others?

Yesterday in staff meeting, Fr. Chuck Walling noted that there are two breads being discussed in Sunday's gospel lesson from John 6. I appreciated the reminder, especially since we skipped last Sunday's reading about working not for the food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life. In this week's reading, Jesus expands upon that concept, explaining to the religious authorities, who have taken issue with Jesus' self-identification as "the bread that has come down from heaven," that their ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and died but those who eat of the bread of life (i.e. Jesus) will live forever. Chuck's distinction was helpful for me because it allowed me to shift my focus away from comparing bread and begin to focus on sustenance more generally.

It's easy to read Jesus' words in John 6 and feel like we're comparing breads. The Israelites ate manna in the wilderness and died, but Jesus' bread of life will let them live forever. The crowd wanted more of the loaves that Jesus multiplied, but Jesus urged them to pursue the food that endures for eternity. Of course one wants the bread that Jesus offers. It never goes moldy or stale. It never runs out. But Jesus isn't comparing different breads. Jesus isn't offering us a magic loaf.

This is one of those passages of scripture when the metaphor loses its connection with reality and then becomes an isolated focus. Yes, there is Eucharistic imagery here, and, yes, in next Sunday's lesson, Jesus will tell us to eat his flesh, which makes the overlap with Communion even more clear. But this isn't only about Eucharistic bread. This is about sustenance. This is about being fed in spiritual ways. Jesus is comparing two very different concepts of bread. As Chuck put it yesterday, one is physical bread, actual food, but the other isn't really bread at all but spiritual sustenance.

Think of the other ways we talk about bread. "Give us this day our daily bread." Does that mean only literal bread? Or does that mean sufficient food of any type? Or does it mean whatever physical necessities we will receive for the day, including shelter? Or does it begin to hint at a concept of faithfulness--trusting God's provision more generally?

Jesus' assessment of the crowd is one we need to hear again: "Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves." The actual bread is just a means to a bigger end. Eating the bread won't give you eternal life. Even eating Communion bread won't give you eternal life. It's belief. "Whoever believes has eternal life," Jesus says. To eat this bread is to believe in him and the one who sent him. It means depending, trusting on God to provide even our most basic necessity. Maybe it's time to get away from the image of bread--not completely but just enough to see that we're not talking about magic crackers. Bread was the natural image through which Jesus could convey a message of daily sustenance that never runs out. Maybe bread is still the best thing we have to do that, but maybe there are other ways to invite people into confidence in God's never-failing provision. Hot dogs, anyone?

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Deepest Grief


I find Sunday’s reading from 2 Samuel to be one of the most moving passages of scripture. It is the story of Absalom’s death and his father David’s grief. I usually complain about how the lectionary butchers a long passage, giving us the basic narrative but leaving out the real essence of the entire passage, but this time they do a pretty good job. Still, I urge you to read the whole of 2 Samuel 18. If you read the whole thing, you get a better sense of the grief and agony that David experiences when he hears of his son’s death.

First, a little background from 2 Samuel 13-17. Absalom was David’s son. He had a sister whose name was Tamar, with whom his half-brother Amnon fell in love. Amnon was obsessed with Tamar, but, of course, he could not have her because such a thing was an abomination. So Amnon concocted a scheme by which he pretended to be ill, asked his father David to send Tamar to nurse him back to health, and, when they were alone, he seized her and raped her. Then, disgusted with her and with himself for his misdeed, Amnon sent Tamar away in shame.

Tamar’s brother Absalom was furious. For two years, he plotted his revenge. One night at a sheep-shearing festival, Absalom killed Amnon and then fled away. For two more years, he lived in exile until he got word that David, although angry, would not harm him. He returned to Jerusalem where, for two more years, he lived but was not allowed to see his father, the king. After two more years, David called Absalom into his presence, and it seemed as if they were reconciled. Over the following four years, Absalom would sit at the gate and serve as a surrogate judge for the people, helping them solve their problems and endearing himself to them.

During that time, it became clear to Absalom and David that the people’s heart belonged to Absalom. The son plotted against the father, and, under the guise of offering a sacrifice in Hebron, Absalom went out and sent messengers through the people, telling them to proclaim “Absalom is king” when the trumpets blew. The conspiracy grew until it became clear that David and his loyal followers were vastly outnumbered. They fled Jerusalem, and Absalom took over the throne.

Skip ahead to Sunday’s reading. The king sent his troops out into battle, urging them not to harm Absalom. By chance, while riding through the deadly forest, Absalom got stuck in a tree with his feet dangling down toward the ground. News of his predicament reached the general, who asked why Absalom was not killed, and the soldier replied, “Even if I felt the weight of a thousand pieces of silver in my hand, I would not have hurt the king’s son because he ordered us not to harm him.” The general, knowing the necessity of the conspirator’s death, ordered his troops to surround him and kill him. News of his death was sent to David by two different messengers, only one of whom we read about in Sunday’s lesson. The first was Ahimaaz, son of Zadok, who gave news of the victory but withheld news of Absalom’s death. As we read that part of 2 Samuel 18, the suspense grows. We know the awful tidings that are on their way, and we know that David will be devastated, but we must wait along with the king.

Then, when the news comes, David is despondent. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you!” And he went up to his room over the gate and wept.

The bitterness of his tears. The magnitude of his loss. His wish to have taken his son’s place. The confusing and conflicting feelings of anger, resentment, and betrayal along with relief, security, and victory. We hear that collision in David’s words. They are the hollow, longing, empty words of a parent who has lost a child. Even if we have not experienced a loss like that, even if we cannot imagine a grief that deep, David’s words help us see it, even if from a distance. Eric Whitacre composed a choral piece around David’s words, which makes me weep every time I hear it. And that’s what I’m supposed to do. We are supposed to weep with David because a victory like this one comes with an incredible cost, and the people of God are supposed to bear it.



Monday, August 6, 2018

Origins Matter


We're back in John 6 this Sunday. Again. As a recap, here is how the lectionary breaks up the Bread of Life discourse: 1) Feeding the 5,000, 2) Jesus' exchange with seekers regarding true bread, 3) Jesus' exchange with Jewish authorities over his identity, 4) Jesus' exchange with Jewish authorities over his edible flesh, 5) Jesus' exchange with his disciples over this difficult teaching. That means that this Sunday is the first of two in a row in which Jesus addresses the complaints--the grumblings--of the religious leaders of his day. In this overlapping, repetitive discourse, it's easy to blur the lines between one Sunday's sermon and the next, so, before I paint myself into a corner that requires a sermon on the Old Testament lesson next week, I want to focus narrowly on this Sunday's reading.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the authorities seem to be complaining about the wrong thing. John tells us that "[they] began to complain about him because he said, 'I am the bread that came down from heaven.'" John identifies that as the issue that made them upset, but their actual complaint seems to have missed the point: "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven?'" In other words, instead of taking issue with Jesus' claim to be the food that leads to everlasting life ("I am the bread"), they take issue with his origins ("that came down from heaven"). Shouldn't they care more about Jesus' claim to offer everlasting life than what family he came from?

Of course, in the mind of a first-century Jewish authority, in ways I don't appreciate fully, Jesus' origin and his claims are inseparable. "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" John records Nathaniel saying to Philip when he heard that he had found the messiah. "My kingdom is not of this world," Jesus says to Pilate in John's version of the passion. Where Jesus is really from really matters, especially to the one who locates the origin of the Word "in the beginning with God." Origin matters. There's a difference between sparkling wine and champagne. I probably can't taste it, but there's a difference, and my grocery store receipt testifies to it. Before they even tackle the substance of Jesus' claims, the authorities are prepared to dismiss it because of his pedigree.

"Don't we know his parents?" they ask those gathered around. "His father is Joseph. You remember that. He grew up not far from here. You played with him when you were children. Don't listen to him. What does he know about everlasting life? He's just a local boy that got the 'big head.'" In one sense, they're right. Jesus had grown up around there, and there were people who knew him as a boy. It did not make sense that he could be one whom God had sent from heaven. If they were going to believe what Jesus was saying about himself, they would have to get beyond his Galilean upbringing.

We have to get past it, too. Maybe not in the same "my-sister-went-on-a-date-with-him" kind of way, but we have to deal with the inherent disconnect between Jesus' historical biography and his identity in the Christian faith. There are a few ways to do that. We can ignore the historical account, pretend that Jesus wasn't at some point a grumpy six-year-old, and ignore the fact that no adolescent with that intellect and those powers was easy to deal with. Or we can try completely to separate the historical Jesus from the Jesus of faith and engage one in our minds and the other in our hearts, leaving either us or Jesus or both with schizophrenia. Or we can let the historical identity overshadow the Christian claims about Jesus and dismiss the christological understanding as myth. Or we can join the crowd in wrestling with that difficult truth. How can it be that the man standing there that day, who had grown up in their midst, could be the bread of life, the one sent by God to sustain the world?

Jesus was from Nazareth. Jesus was from heaven. Jesus was a carpenter's son. Jesus was the Son of God. How can this be? That's not an easy question, but it's easier than trying to figure out how we're going to eat the flesh of Jesus. That's next week's problem.