Sunday, July 14, 2024

The Holiness of God

July 14, 2024 – The 8th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 10B

© 2024 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video can be seen here.

“Marion, don’t look at it. Shut your eyes, Marion. Don’t look at it, no matter what happens.” Indiana Jones speaks these words to Marion Ravenwood in the scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark when the Nazis open the Ark of the Covenant in an attempt to harness its awesome power. Stephen Spielberg’s take on what happens next was probably inspired, in part, by the passage we read from 2 Samuel this morning. 

Rival archeologist and Nazi stooge, René Belloq, dressed in Hollywood’s take on the garments of a high priest and holding a replica of Moses’ staff, utters incantations in Aramaic, and the top of the Ark is removed. When they look inside, initially they find only sand—the natural accumulation of millennia in the desert. But, before long, a swirling portal of light and cloud begins to fill the Ark. Ghostly spirits leap from the vessel and begin to fly around. 

Then, in an instant, the Nazi’s curiosity turns to horror. Divine power, represented by fiery beams, begins to emanate from the Ark, killing and consuming anyone it touches. In what was a cutting-edge special effect back in 1981, the heads of Belloq and the Nazi leaders standing with him are liquified by the fire and then explode. Finally, when God had finished consuming all who thought the Ark could be used for evil, its cover falls back into place, slamming shut the container of divine power, effectively resealing the presence of God within the sacred chest. 

In today’s Old Testament reading, we see the power of God spill out from the Ark and consume Uzzah, the priest, because he dared to underestimate its holiness, but this story is a little harder for us to understand, because Uzzah wasn’t a bad guy, and he didn’t wear a Nazi uniform.

In last week’s reading from 2 Samuel 5, we heard the leaders of the twelve tribes proclaim David as the king of all Israel. He established Jerusalem as his capital city and fortified it as the place from which he would reign. But something was missing. The Ark of the Covenant was the literal seat of God, the place where the Lord of Hosts came to dwell among God’s people. For two decades, the Ark had been kept in the home of Abinadab, only brought out a time or two during military campaigns. But David was the king after God’s own heart, and he wanted to bring God’s presence and power into his capital city. So he led a procession of priests, choristers, dancers, and officials down to house of Abinadab to retrieve the Ark and bring it into the City of David.

But something went wrong. Along the way, the cart being led by the oxen was shaken, and the Ark of the Covenant began to fall. Without thinking, Uzzah reached up his hand to steady the holy seat of God to prevent it from falling to the ground. In an instant, the Lord struck him dead. Although it is missing from our translation, the biblical text lets us know that what Uzzah did was an “irreverent act,” but I’m not sure that really helps us understand it. As a child, I remember hearing this story and being confused. How could the God who loves me punish with instant death a man whose instincts had led him to save the Ark from falling in disgrace?

Of course, it’s more complicated than that. The problem started earlier, when the sons of Abinadab loaded the Ark onto a shiny new cart, built solely for this purpose. But the Ark isn’t supposed to be transported on a cart. The Bible makes it clear that the Ark must be carried on poles because it is too holy to be touched by human hands. That might sound like a silly detail, but, when we’re talking about the actual throne on which the Lord, the God of Hosts, chooses to sit, it matters. 

When God struck Uzzah down, David became angry, and I wonder whether it was because, in that instant, David recognized that he should have known better. Quickly, his anger changed to fear as he realized that the carelessness with which he had approached this entire operation could be his downfall. “How can the Ark of the Lord come into my care?” David asked in a panic. So he left the Ark at a nearby house and cancelled the celebration and sent all the revelers home.

This same episode is recorded in 1 Chronicles, a book of the Bible that tells the history of God’s people from a priestly perspective. That account makes the issue clear. According to the Chronicler, after David had decided to try again, the king said to the priests, “Because you did not carry it the first time, the Lord our God burst out against us, because we did not give it proper care” (1 Chr. 15:13, emphasis added). The second time, in both accounts, the priests get it right, and they carry the Ark into the holy city, and David goes dancing before it.

The death of Uzzah is not the only part of this story that challenges our assumptions about God. As the king led the procession into Jerusalem, wearing a linen ephod and dancing with all his might, Michal, his first wife and the daughter of Saul, David’s predecessor, looked on with contempt. She despised him in her heart, the Bible tells us, and that comes as no surprise. Although, on the surface, it seems clear that the reason Michal holds David in scorn is his unseemly, anything-but-regal behavior, there’s more going on than the king’s embarrassing display. 

Michal had been scorned. Her father had given her away as a wife for David, and the scriptures tell us that she loved her husband. In the Bible, Michal is the only woman who is ever said to have loved a man, but her love was not reciprocated. [1] When David was being hunted by her father, Michal helped him escape, choosing love over loyalty to Saul. But, by the time David and Michal were reunited, the would-be king had already begun to collect a harem of wives and concubines. In a political negotiation with one of Saul’s sons, David asked that Michal be returned to him in order to legitimize his claim to the throne. So she took her place, the first of David’s wives now reduced to a status she shared with more women than she could count. 

Of course Michal was angry—angry at how David and her father had treated her, angry at the way that nothing had changed, angry that her husband, the king, now danced into town, exposing himself to all the women and girls who looked on. But the Bible doesn’t make David out to be the villain we think he is, at least not in this passage. Eventually, there will be consequences for his adulterous behavior, but this story isn’t about our sense of justice. It’s about the importance of losing ourselves in the awesome presence of God.

David wasn’t dancing for the women and girls who looked on, nor was he dancing for Michal. He was dancing for God—shamelessly, recklessly, passionately consumed with zeal for the Lord. Regardless of the unspoken reasons for Michal’s contempt, the criticism she expressed was that of a king who embarrassed himself by dancing the way a common, ordinary, vulgar fellow might dance. But, as David’s reply makes clear, God didn’t choose him to be king because he was a dignified politician but because ordinary people were able to see in him a man who belonged to God.

I don’t like the fact that God killed Uzzah because he dared to touch the untouchable Ark of God. And I don’t like the fact that Michal is portrayed in the wrong even though her contempt for David is not only understandable but justified. But, standing in the awesome presence of God, it doesn’t matter what I want or what I think or what I wish were true. The holiness of God must consume every aspect of our lives. It shapes us, not the other way around. Yes, our God is loving and merciful, but it’s not up to us to decide how and when that love and mercy are manifest. And thanks be to God for that! Can you imagine how quickly we’d find a way to substitute our self-seeking rationalizations for the eternal goodness of God?

Although much has changed since the Old Testament was written, human nature hasn’t changed at all. I am confident that the ancient Israelites who told and retold this story were as sensitive as we are to the unfairness of Uzzah’s death and the heartache that Michal felt. They didn’t like them any more than we do. But they told this story for the same reason we read it today—because we need to be reminded how easy it is to forget that God’s holiness is the source of our moral life. It always takes precedence. It must be the fount of our aspirations, the all-consuming compass that guides our every move. 

When we forget that and begin to think that God’s power is something we can use to suit our needs and conform to our desires, we set ourselves up for the kind of moral catastrophe that exceeds even a Hollywood script. As history has shown, the consequences of wrapping our sinful ambitions within a religious veneer are disastrous in any generation. The biblical story of the Ark of the Covenant teaches us to recognize that regardless of the uniform its bearers are wearing.

____________________________________

1. Gafney, Wilda C. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne. Westminster John Knox Press; Louisville: 2017, 129.


Sunday, June 23, 2024

You Have Nothing To Fear

 

June 23, 2024 – The 5th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 7B

© 2024 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video can be seen here.

What are you afraid of? More than anything else in the world, what do you fear? Years ago, Jerry Seinfeld joked that the number one fear among Americans was speaking in public. Number two was death. As he put it, that means that at a funeral most people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.

For several years, researchers at Chapman University have conducted a survey that identifies what people fear the most. In 2023, the most popular answer was government corruption (60.1%). In second place was the collapse of the economy (54.7%). In third place was Russia using nuclear weapons (52.5%), and right behind that was the United States getting involved in another world war (52.3%). Only after those four things, all of which involve geopolitical issues, did people name anything personal. “People I love becoming seriously ill” (50.6%) and “people I love dying” (50.4%) were fifth and sixth, respectively.[1]

What we fear as a nation changes significantly year after year. Just one year earlier, in 2022, when the pandemic was still big news, “People I love becoming seriously ill” (60.2%) was Americans’ second greatest fear, and economic collapse (53.7%) was way down in eighth place. [2] Throughout your lifetime, I bet the things you fear most have changed as you have gotten older and gained some wisdom and experience. As infants, we don’t even know how to be afraid of nuclear war or Covid-19. As we get older, fears like separation from our parents or loud noises give way to more abstract concerns—things like disappointing our parents or the monsters under our bed. Then, as we learn more about the world, those abstract fears become concrete again, and we become terrified of awkward social situations or the very real monsters we hear about in the news.

Although some children experience the death of a loved one early on, most of us only acquire a fear of our own death relatively late in our development. Maybe that’s why you need to be twenty-five years old to rent a car but only eighteen years old to vote. It’s only after we’ve pushed through all of our other fears in order to encounter our fragility and mortality that we realize death’s inevitable sting. As Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “A person always acquires courage in this way: when one fears a greater danger, a person always has courage to confront a lesser one—when a person infinitely fears one danger, it is as if the others did not exist.” [3] So what is it that really keeps you up at night? What would threaten the very security you depend upon to navigate all the other threats that come with this life? 

What if I told you that there is something far more dangerous for us to fear than our own deaths? What if I told you that, of all the terrible things that could happen to you or your loved ones or our nation or the economy, the only thing that you should be afraid of is being afraid? 

Although his was a political speech, designed to give hope to a nation that was stuck in the Great Depression, FDR’s first inaugural address might as well have been a sermon on today’s readings, if he had only based his hope upon God instead of the American ideal. Roosevelt said, “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” [4] Over and over—and chiefly in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—God has shown us that it is nameless, unreasoning, and unjustified terror that paralyzes our souls and that faith in Almighty God is the only thing that can set us free from the fear of fear itself.

When David, the young shepherd, arrived at the battlefield, the stench of Israel’s fear filled the air. Goliath, the champion of the Philistines, whose height was six cubits and a span—that’s nine and a half feet—and whose armor was intimidatingly more sophisticated than that of the Israelites, had taunted Saul and his army for days. “When [King] Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine,” the Bible tells us, “they were dismayed and greatly afraid.” But not David.

Foreshadowing the complete reversal of their relationship, which only would come years later, David said to the king, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” Saul rejected the boy’s offer: “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” But David’s courage did not sprout from recklessness or ignorance. He had been anointed by Samuel the prophet. The Holy Spirit had come mightily upon him. David belonged to God, and he knew it in his bones. 

The Philistine giant disdained the shepherd boy and cursed him by his own gods, promising to deliver his lifeless body to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field. Unimpressed, David responded by invoking with confidence the name of the Lord: 

You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the LORD does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the LORD’s and he will give you into our hand.

We don’t teach the story of David and Goliath to our children so that they will learn that David was a mighty warrior. We teach it to them so that they will know that they, too, belong to the God who has the power to deliver them from anything that threatens them—so that they, like David, will have courage in the Lord.

The very same fear that filled the hearts and minds of Saul’s army filled the disciples in the sinking boat. “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” they asked Jesus, as they awoke him from his slumber. Just as the author of 1 Samuel contrasted the armor-free David with the Israelite soldiers, so, too, does Mark depict the peaceful Jesus in contrast with his frantic followers. “Do you not care that we are perishing?” they asked him, using a word that implies that they were worried that they might be lost forever—that they might be destroyed, annihilated, or devoured by the sea. But Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!”—literally, “Be silent, for you have been muzzled!” And the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

Once the threat had passed, Jesus said to the disciples, “Why are you afraid?” He says those same words to us whenever we allow the storms of this life to fool us into thinking that we could ever be lost to God: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” These are not the words of a harsh rebuke but those of a tender and loving reminder that our fear is a merely sign that we have forgotten who is in charge of our lives—that we have lost sight of the one who has defeated death itself—that we have allowed the terror of the moment to obscure the everlasting promises of God. 

I do not mean to suggest that God will always protect you from pain, loss, grief, sickness, suffering, or death. If you live long enough, you will discover that every one of those is real and horrible and inescapable. But what I do mean—and I mean it with every fiber of my being—is that none of those things has the power to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. You belong to the one who has slain the giant and stilled the storm. You belong to the one who took on the threat of everlasting death so that you might be set free from its clutches. You belong to the one who has always loved you and will always love you, even from this life into the next. And nothing could ever change that.

The only thing you should be afraid of is losing touch with that truth. The only thing that should really scare you is the thought that you could ever forget how much God loves you. The only thing worth losing any sleep over is the fear that you could ever be afraid. So nourish your true identity as God’s beloved child each day. Read from scripture the stories of God’s saving deeds, and pray that God will remind you that you are precious in God’s sight. Ask God to deliver you from anything that threatens you and to remind you that there is nothing that can come between you and God’s love. When you remember that, you truly have nothing to fear.

__________________
1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-time-cure/202401/what-are-you-afraid-of.
2. https://blogs.chapman.edu/wilkinson/2022/10/14/the-top-10-fears-in-america-2022/.
3. Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness unto Death. Bruce H. Kirmmse, transl. Liveright Publishing; New York: 2023, 15.
4. https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/franklin-roosevelt-inauguration.htm.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Tell It Slant

 

June 16, 2024 – The 4th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 6B

© 2024 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video can be seen here.

The kingdom of God is like a preacher, who sets his alarm the night before Daylight Saving Time. He sleeps and wakes every hour or two, checking his phone to see if it has automatically sprung forward. Each time, he compares the display on his phone with the analog watch he put on his nightstand just to be sure. A little after 2:00 in the morning, he sees that his smart phone has done the same thing it has done every year for almost two decades, and he drifts off to sleep, still not sure how it works but grateful that Steve Jobs made it possible for him not to worry about oversleeping.

The reign of God is like a patron of the Fayetteville Public Library, who forgot about the book she checked out two weeks ago until she got a text message letting her know that it has automatically be renewed. She’s not sure why the library doesn’t go ahead and make it a four-week check-out period since she never returns her books until after the second two weeks are up, but she’s grateful that the library knows she wants to renew it even before she does.

The way God envisions the world to be is like an eight-year-old who puts a bag of popcorn into the microwave and presses the popcorn button. After two and a half minutes of watching the timer count down, she opens the door and pulls out a puffed-up bag of yummy, buttery goodness. She doesn’t know a thing about the vibrational frequencies of water molecules and the microwave radiation that excites them until they boil over, exploding each kernel like a miniature starch grenade, but she knows that, without fail, what started as a flat envelope of inedible seeds and salt will become a tasty snack.

There’s no such thing as a perfect parable because parables aren’t supposed to be perfect. They aren’t intended to convey the full, complete picture of what God’s reign looks like, but they do give us an important glimpse into what God sees among us. Parables can be simple comparisons—like the parable of the mustard seed—or they can be complex narratives—like the parable of the prodigal son. When we encounter a parable, we must resist the temptation to over-interpret it, forcing it to yield more than it was designed to convey. We must instead allow the parable to work on us, gradually and persistently, until a deeper knowledge of God and God’s kingdom has become clear, even if that insight isn’t as profound as we’d hoped. 

When Jesus tells a parable, he always has a goal in mind—a truth or an insight he wishes to convey—but to try to unlock a parable as if it were a mystery or a riddle to be solved is to miss the richness of this teaching technique. Parables may have a central goal or purpose, but there’s always more to them than a simple, straightforward interpretation. To mine one of these similitudes for its true value is to stretch it beyond the point of logic or reasonableness before allowing it to snap back into its more familiar shape. Sometimes we learn best what Jesus is teaching us by straying off into the realm of the absurd before returning back to what really makes sense. And sometimes Jesus’ parables teach us something that Jesus himself would not have recognized when he spoke these words so long ago.

“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how…With what can we compare the kingdom of God…? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs.” What is Jesus trying to teach us, and why does he need these parables to get his teaching across?

Jesus lived at a time when faithful people were eager for God to come and make all things right. They waited and watched and hoped for the day when God’s judgment would come and God’s vision for their lives would finally be fulfilled. Sound familiar? They had been taught all the same things about God that we have been taught—that God is powerful, that God is loving, that God is merciful, that God is just. They knew that God is faithful and that, because God is faithful, one day God would come and fulfill God’s promise to establish God’s perfect reign on the earth. And, as they waited and hoped and believed that that day would come, their prayers sounded a lot like ours: How long, O Lord? How long?

It’s hard to know where to look for God’s kingdom when so many people in the world experience so much pain. It’s hard to remember to watch for God’s reign every day when it feels like things are getting worse, not better. Surely that’s not what God envisions for our lives. We want to see signs that God is in charge and that all the things that stand in the way of God’s perfect, loving reign have been extricated from our lives. We want to look around and see clear evidence that God’s kingdom has come and that God’s will is being done here on the earth just as much as it is in heaven. And, when that evidence is hard to see—when God takes longer than we’d like—we’d just assume God step aside and let us take over. But do you know what God’s kingdom looks like? Do you know where we are supposed to look in order to see it? 

It is like a farmer who scatters seeds on the ground and who sleeps and rises, night and day, beholding the miracle of those seeds sprouting and growing one day at a time. Jesus probably didn’t mean to imply that the farmer sits around and does nothing. Someone has to water, fertilize, and weed the crops in order to coax them into their full potential. But it’s kind of fun and informative to contrast in hyperbolic ways Jesus’ portrayal of the man with that of the earth, which Jesus tells us “produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” The word Jesus used to describe how the earth produces the grain is “automate,” from which we get the word “automatically.” In other words, we might be called to tend God’s garden, but no matter how eager we are to see it bear fruit, we aren’t the ones who make it happen. 

The sexton at St. John’s in Montgomery, Mike Jarrell, used to grow lots of tomatoes every summer. He would sell them to parishioners on Sunday mornings, using a scale in the church’s kitchen, and sometimes he would give the clergy a paper sack full for free. One spring, I asked Mike if he was growing any tomatoes, knowing that the answer would be yes, but he quickly snapped back, “I don’t grow tomatoes. I plant and water them. God is the one who grows them.” I guess he paid better attention to the parable than I did.

In these parables, Jesus teaches us that God has scattered the seeds of the kingdom all over the earth. As that kingdom grows among us, we may not understand any better than the farmer how God achieves that growth, but Jesus has taught us to trust that the seeds which have been scattered will grow and bear fruit for the harvest. And he teaches us to believe that, even though the growth comes more slowly than we’d like, God will bring all things to their perfection in God’s perfect time. 

We may want God’s reign to be as strong and tall and majestic as a cedar of Lebanon, but Jesus teaches us to look for that reign not in battlements and fortresses but wherever a mustard seed has been planted. That’s because God’s kingdom shows up whenever something small and insignificant grows big enough to provide shelter for anyone who seeks it. 

How else could we possibly understand the nature of God’s reign if it weren’t given to us in parables? How would we ever make sense of Jesus’ death if we hadn’t been taught to look for God’s triumph where the world fails to see? 

Everything Jesus taught the crowds, Mark tells us, was in parables. Maybe Jesus used parables because it’s easier to get from this world into the kingdom of God through story, analogy, comparison, and play than through explanation, definition, interpretation, and direct instruction. Maybe the only way we can receive the reign of God is backwards and strange and full of surprise.

As Emily Dickinson wrote, 

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind — [1]


_______________________________________

1. Dickinson, Emily, The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Ralph W. Franklin, ed. Belknap Press; Harvard, MA: 1998. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56824/tell-all-the-truth-but-tell-it-slant-1263. 


Sunday, June 2, 2024

Holy Practices Bring Life


June 2, 2024 – The 2nd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 4B

© 2024 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video can be seen here.

For a few years—from the time my family moved to Fairhope, Alabama, until the time his family moved away—Bryant Stringham was my best friend. We did everything together. We climbed in his tree fort. He taught me how to play chess. One day, at the end of P.E., in an expression of how silly we were, we tied each other’s shoelaces together. When our sadistic P.E. teacher saw what we had done, she decided to make the whole class run one last lap. Frantically, we tried to untie the knots we had made, but they were too tight. One row at a time, the teacher dismissed the students to run that extra lap, saving our adjacent rows for last. We managed to half-run-half-hobble around the field and back to the school building, falling face first into the dust every few strides. I would tell you that we learned our lesson, but I don’t think we did.

Bryant and I did everything together. I played at his house, and he played at mine. One Saturday, I was having so much fun in his backyard that I got a feeling that something this good shouldn’t have to end. “What are you doing tomorrow?” I asked him. “Would you like to come over and play at my house after church?” “I can’t,” he said, with a clarity and finality that surprised me. “Why not?” I asked. “Because Sunday is a day for family. We spend the whole day together,” he said. “Well, can I come over and play here?” I asked innocently. “No,” he said, “it doesn’t work like that.”

I didn’t understand it at the time, but Bryant was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. As a Mormon, Bryant and his family approached Sunday as a Sabbath day. Instead of working, shopping, or even playing with friends, they believed that Sundays should be spent going to church, focusing on their family, and resting from their usual activities. For them, it was a beautiful opportunity to reconnect with the most important things in life. For me, it meant I wasn’t allowed to see my friend.

Thirty-five years later, I’m still not ready to say that spending time apart from our friends is a good thing, but I do find powerfully attractive the idea of setting aside a day each week to realign my life with what truly matters. What if all of us set apart a weekly Sabbath day, not merely as a day away from work but as a day to celebrate the best things in life? 

For the most part, our understanding of the Sabbath comes not from the Jewish tradition, in which Jesus lived and taught, but from the Western and, eventually, Protestant reinterpretations of that tradition. As a result, we tend to think of the Sabbath as a day off—a day when sabbath-observers rest from their labors in order to renew their strength for the next six days of work. But, according to Jewish teaching, that approach is backwards. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote, “The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living.”[1]

We see and hear what Jesus says and does in this gospel reading, and we think that our Lord and Savior came to set us free from Sabbath observance. But that approach ignores the beauty of a practice that Jesus surely would have treasured. And, more significantly, it misses the important and life-giving point that Jesus is making. Jesus doesn’t rebuke the Pharisees, get angry at them, or grieve their hardness of heart because they love the Sabbath. He is upset because of what they have allowed sabbath observance to become—a means for death instead of the means for life that God intends. But, to see that, we have lean into the importance of sabbath observance a little more fully.

Did you know that many modern appliances come with a Sabbath or Shabbat mode? When you put your oven in Sabbath mode, the interior light won’t come on when you open the door because turning on or off a light is prohibited on the Sabbath. Also, the oven won’t cycle on and off but will maintain a steady temperature to keep your food warm and ready to eat because neither cooking nor kindling a fire is permitted on the Sabbath. 

Preparing for Shabbat, which begins at sunset on Friday, takes time, effort, and intention. You must remember to leave a light on in the kitchen and the bathroom and to turn off the lights in the bedroom. You need to put the brisket in the slow cooker early in the day and make sure the challah is finished in time. You must even pre-tear sheets of toilet paper or else the Sabbath won’t be very pleasant.

Why do those things matter? Because time itself is a sacred gift of God that we all too easily pollute with things that distract us from the truly important parts of life. As Rabbi Heschel wrote, “The Sabbath is the most precious present mankind has received from the treasure house of God. All week we think: The spirit is too far away, and we succumb to spiritual absenteeism, or at best we pray: Send us a little of Thy spirit. On the Sabbath the spirit stands and pleads: Accept all excellence from me…”[2]  Only a strict observance of the Sabbath allows us to give our best to God. As soon as we bring even the smallest shred of work into the day of rest, we lose our ability to dwell undistracted in the presence of God.

Was Jesus taking issue with the sort of legalistic religiosity that leads to pre-torn toilet paper? It’s tempting for Gentile Christians to think that, but I don’t think that’s right. There are thirty-nine categories of work that are prohibited on the Sabbath, including spinning, weaving, sewing, and tearing; trapping, killing, skinning, and curing; writing, building, demolishing, and transferring; planting, ploughing, reaping, and threshing. When Jesus’ disciples plucked those heads of grain, they were violating Sabbath observance. When Jesus told the man to stretch out his hand in order to heal him, because the man’s life was not in danger, Jesus violated Sabbath observance. But the gospel text shows that Jesus wasn’t challenging the holiness of Sabbath observance as much as the way that the religious authorities were eager to use it to condemn others.

When the Pharisees pointed out the disciples’ unlawful act, Jesus replied by appealing to the story of David from 1 Samuel 21: “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?” At first, Jesus’ choice of that biblical passage doesn’t make a lot of sense. Other than being hungry, which isn’t a valid excuse in either case, there isn’t an obvious connection between the two episodes, unless you focus on David himself. 

David was God’s anointed. He wasn’t perfect by any means, but he was the one whom God chose to be the King of Israel. The scriptures do not condemn David for giving the showbread to his companions, but the Pharisees were eager to condemn Jesus for allowing his disciples to pluck heads of grain on the Sabbath. But Jesus was the new and perfect David—God’s anointed one, the Christ. As the Son of Man, who came to the earth with the full authority of God, Jesus wanted the religious leaders to recognize what they were missing—him. 

All along, God’s will for God’s people has always been abundant life. Observing the Sabbath as fully as possible is one way to celebrate the life that God has given us and has promised us. But our failure to be as faithful as God asks us to be or as we hope to be is as sure and certain as the cycles of the sun and moon. How those failures affect our relationship with God is at the heart of this gospel passage. 

Jesus came to give life to the world, and he succeeded in giving us that life in a way that no effort or intention on our part could ever accomplish. “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” Jesus asks, calling into question not only the Pharisees’ agenda but our own approach to religiosity—the fiction we write of our own self-justification and the condemnation of others. When the result of Jesus’ healing act is the religious leaders’ decision to go out immediately and conspire with the political leaders about how they will destroy Jesus, the universal failure of humanity is on full display. 

Jesus didn’t come to set us free from something as beautiful as keeping the Sabbath. He came to set us free from our proclivity to make good and holy religious observances a channel through which we would condemn others or ourselves. Faithful practices are supposed to bring life, but, when we define ourselves by them and by our failure to live up to them, we make them an instrument of death. 

Because of Jesus, we are already good enough, holy enough, even perfect enough to inherit the full and abundant life that God has promised us. When we recognize who Jesus is and what he has given us, that life becomes ours here and now instead of a longed-for hope that is beyond even our fullest striving. As a people who belong to God in Christ, our religious observances are not a path to abundant life but a celebration of that life which God has already given us, and that is something worth celebrating any day of the week.


1. Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sabbath. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; New York: 1951, 14.

2. Ibid, 18.

 

Monday, May 20, 2024

Power From On High

 

May 19, 2024 – The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday

© 2024 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video is available here

The late, great, king of the one-liner, surrealist comedian Mitch Hedberg, told more than one joke about Subway restaurants. One was about how ducks eat for free at Subway. Another was about Kilkenny, Ireland, where for Hedberg the only familiar thing was Subway. He called it his own personal American embassy. He joked that, when he went to an Irish bar and aggravated a local, he would race to Subway and claim asylum: “Dude, I’m sorry, but you are out of your jurisdiction. But you can have a cold cut combo though.”

I lived overseas for two years, and, during that time, the thing that kept me tethered to my American identity more than anything else was Subway. I never ran there seeking protection from an adversary, but I did go to renew my affection for simple things that we Americans often take for granted—things like getting free refills, putting as much ice into your cup as you want, and ordering a perfectly customized sandwich. The ham and brie baguettes for sale in the local sandwich shop were delicious, of course, but what if I want to put banana peppers on it? There were other icons of American identity in Cambridge, like the annual Thanksgiving Dinner all the expats shared, but nothing made me feel at home like Subway.

Imagine travelling abroad to a place where you know the language and the culture but do not call them your own. Imagine arriving for an important religious festival, one in which you take part every year, but always in a language you do not speak at home. Imagine listening to the sacred stories and prayers, hoping to catch most of the words but knowing that many of them will be spoken too quickly for you to understand. Imagine trying to hide your accent from the worshippers around you because you know that the majority, while outwardly gracious, thinks of you as a second-class participant.

Now, imagine walking through that sacred city one morning near the end of the festival and hearing something both deeply familiar yet unexpected and strange. It’s the story of your people—God’s people—the story of God’s saving deeds of power at work in the lives of your ancestors—but it’s being proclaimed in your own language—not the language of the city but the language waiting for you back home. In perfect fluency, you hear the words of God’s love and salvation being spoken in the same tongue that your mother used when she tucked you in at night. Imagine hearing in that place for the first time the good news that you belong to God proclaimed in the language of your birth. That’s Pentecost. That’s the power of God which is revealed on this day. That’s the good news that we have come here to celebrate.

Surely the disciples were as caught off guard that day as the Jews who had come to Jerusalem from all over. Jesus had told his disciples to remain in the city until God’s power from on high had come upon them. That morning, they were all together in one place. Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a blazing tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit. And then they began to speak.

Remember that these were people living under threat. Their master had been arrested, tortured, and executed by the religious and political authorities. Any association with the Way of Jesus was enough to warrant their own deaths. After he had been raised from the dead, Jesus assured his followers that God would clothe them with new power—power that would enable them to carry God’s good news to the ends of the earth. Surely that power would make them invincible. Surely God’s power would grant them victory over their enemies. 

But, when the Holy Spirit came upon them, they opened their mouths and began to speak. And the power of God became manifest not as a testament to the disciples’ power but as the proclamation of God’s saving love spoken in all the languages of the known world. Instead of the power of protection, God gave them the power of connection. Instead of invincibility, God gave them intimacy.[1] When the disciples had received the gift that Jesus had promised them, they were no stronger, no smarter, no more powerful than they had always been. But they had become instruments of God’s great power in the world, and that power is the power of inclusion.

The people standing nearby who heard the disciples speaking in their own native languages were amazed at what happened. “How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” they asked. “What does this mean?” But others, we are told, were not impressed, probably because they had never needed anyone to translate for them. “They are filled with new wine,” they scoffed. It may be hard to imagine that anyone could confuse this beautiful Pentecost moment for a bunch of drunken gibberish, but isn’t it true that people who have always had access to the majority language have a harder time appreciating a beautiful moment when it’s in a language they don’t understand? 

Which is easier for us to believe—that the power of God has come into the world to break down all the barriers that separate us or that people who talk like that might as well be drunk? Which is easier for us to believe—that the prophets who come to tear down traditional institutions and structures are led by God’s Spirit or that they are drunk on their own revisionist agendas? If the only way you’ve ever had access to the story of salvation is in a language and a culture that isn’t really your own, it’s easy to see what God is doing this day. But, if the way things have always been has always been just fine for you, recognizing that God is doing something new can feel really threatening. 

We live in the last days—the era of Pentecost, the age in which the power of the Holy Spirit is available to all people. No longer is God’s power reserved for a few mighty prophets. God is pouring out that power onto all flesh so that all of our children might prophesy and our youth might see visions and our old ones might dream dreams. This era of the Spirit began with the translation of the good news of salvation into many different languages, but that was just a beginning. Not even the disciples could have anticipated how radical God’s work of inclusion would be.

We can’t always see where the Holy Spirit is going, but we can always tell in which direction it is headed. When God’s power is at work in the world, the circle is always drawn wider. When God’s Spirit is manifest among us, walls are always being broken down. God does not come among us to cut people off or leave people out. God comes to let people know that they belong. 

Sometimes that power doesn’t feel all that powerful. Sometimes we’d rather God come to us with a show of force—like sending down fire from heaven. But maybe the most powerful thing God can show us doesn’t come to the world in a gesture of earthly might. Maybe God’s greatest power looks a lot more like a generous welcome or a surprising translation. Maybe the greatest power God has given us is as simple as allowing someone to know that they, too, are at home in God.

___________________________

1. Willie James Jennings focuses on "intimacy" in Acts: A Theological Commentary.


Monday, May 13, 2024

Criteria for Greatness

 

May 12, 2024 – The 7th Sunday of Easter, Year B

© 2024 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video can be seen here.

“What if God picks me?” For more than three years, Matthias had followed Jesus practically everywhere he went. He was there when Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River. He was there when Jesus fed the five thousand with only five barley loaves and two fish. He walked behind him into the holy city of Jerusalem, and he saw him overturn the tables of the money changers and drive out those who had made God’s temple a marketplace. He had watched from a distance as Jesus was crucified, and he had seen the risen Lord when he appeared to Peter and the other disciples. And now Matthias prayed with all his heart that, if God should choose him, God would make him worthy of the task.

I wonder if Matthias was nervous. I wonder if he was anxious. I wonder if he thought to himself, “It’s about time my name gets mentioned among the other disciples.” I wonder if he whispered a prayer so quietly that only God could hear him: “Please, not me. Please, anyone but me.”

Matthias had felt the sting of Judas’ betrayal. That infamous disciple had traded his teacher’s life for thirty pieces of silver, and Matthias had taken it personally. Over the last forty days, he had experienced the same roller coaster of emotions that the other disciples had felt. He had watched in disbelief and horror as Jesus was nailed to the cross. He had felt the confusion and bewilderment that came with reports that the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid was found to be empty. And he had known the jubilation and rapture of seeing the risen Christ and hearing him speak his name. 

Matthias was there when Jesus opened the disciples’ minds to understand why his death and resurrection were necessary. He had heard Jesus commission them to preach the good news of repentance and forgiveness to all nations. He had seen Jesus lift up his hands in blessing and watched as he ascended high into the clouds, disappearing from the disciples’ sight. And now he knew that the time had come for Jesus’ disciples to take up the work that God had given them to do—to carry the good news of God’s love to the ends of the earth. 

But, first, they needed to choose another apostle to take Judas’ place. They needed to reconstitute the perfectly symbolic dozen in order to demonstrate to the world that not even Judas’ betrayal could interfere with God’s plan of salvation. So Matthias prayed. The Bible does not tell us what words or emotions filled Matthias’ heart and mind and prayers, but our experience of faithfulness in our own lives and in the lives of other saints of God teaches us that anyone whom God would choose for this sort of task would be committed to a life of prayer.

Peter stood up and said, “One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So the company of believers proposed two qualified candidates: Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.

“What if God picks me?” Matthias must have thought to himself. What if I am the one whom God chooses? What if I am the one to take Judas’ place? What if I am the one who is to be reckoned among the other disciples—great men of God like Peter, James, John, and Bartholomew? Will I be worthy? Will I be faithful? Will I have the courage to face the struggles that are ahead? Will I accept gracefully the death that Jesus said awaits us all? How can I possibly embody the life of holiness that Jesus demands of his followers when I am just an ordinary person? What if I fail him? What if I disappoint him? What if I let him down?

“But what if God doesn’t pick me?” Matthias must have also wondered. What I if I am not worthy enough to be called Jesus’ disciple? What if I have devoted my life to following him only to discover that I am not good enough to follow him all the way? Maybe Justus would be a better choice. Maybe he’s better than I am, holier than I am, more faithful than I am. Maybe it’s foolish for me to think even for a second that I could be counted among Jesus’ disciples. Who am I fooling? Not God, for sure. 

The time came for the crowd of believers to pray together, “Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

For three years, Matthias followed Jesus everywhere he went, but his name was never mentioned a single time in any of the gospel accounts, and still God chose him. After this moment, when the lot fell on Matthias and he was added to the eleven apostles, his name was never again mentioned in the whole New Testament, and still God chose him. Although the tradition teaches us that, after his selection, Matthias either went to Cappadocia or Colchis or Ethiopia, or that he stayed put in Jerusalem, there is no convincing evidence that Matthias was anything more or anything less than a faithful follower of Jesus, and still God chose him. 

What made Matthias so special? What did God see in his heart that led God to choose him to become one of the twelve apostles? The Bible only identifies one characteristic that made Matthias worthy of this sacred calling, and that is his willingness to show up. “One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us…one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” No one debated his eloquence. No one asked about his intelligence. No one inquired whether Matthias was the sort of person whom Jesus would have picked to replace Judas. The only thing that mattered was that Matthias had been with them from the beginning—through thick and thin—and that alone qualified him to serve God in this way.

You are not chosen by God because you are extraordinary. You are made extraordinary by God because you are chosen. All you have to do is show up and keep showing up, and God will use you to do amazing things. Prayer is the means by which we offer ourselves to God each day. When we pray, we make ourselves available to God. Our prayer is not a gesture of pretense or arrogance but an expression of confidence in God—confidence that God can and will use us—even us—to do the wonderful, marvelous, miraculous things that make God’s love more fully manifest in this world. You have been chosen for that holy work. Yes, you. And, because God is the one who has chosen you, you cannot fail.


Monday, April 29, 2024

Faithfulness Comes First

 

April 28, 2024 – The 5th Sunday of Easter, Year B

© 2024 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video can be seen here.

In his letter to the Philippian church, written in the first part of the second century, Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, wrote, “I also rejoice because the firm root of your faith, famous from the earliest times, still abides and bears fruit for our Lord Jesus Christ” (1.2). Those words must have been a source of deep encouragement for the Philippians because if anyone knew what it meant to bear fruit for Jesus it was Polycarp. 

A disciple of John the Apostle, Polycarp was made Bishop of Smyrna by the apostle before John’s death. Although not a very learned man, Polycarp used his first-hand experience and knowledge of the apostles to help the early church remember what Jesus had taught. He was counted on to identify with authority what teachings should be followed and which ones should be thrown away. But that doesn’t mean that everyone always listened to him.

A year or two before his death, Polycarp made a trip to Rome to consult with Pope Anicetus over a controversy that had begun to spread throughout the church. Quartodecimanism, from the Latin for “fourteenth,” was the practice of observing Jesus’ death on the day of Passover—the fourteenth day of the Jewish month of Nisan—regardless of what day of the week on which it fell. Polycarp, like John the Apostle, was a Quartodeciman, but the Western practice of commemorating the crucifixion on Good Friday, after the tradition of Peter and Paul, had become widespread. 

Records of their conference suggest that neither Polycarp nor Anicetus was willing to budge, but Polycarp, the Fourteener, through his deep faithfulness, succeeded in showing the pope that this was not a matter worth breaking fellowship over. As a sign of deep respect for his philosophical opponent, Anicetus invited Polycarp to celebrate the Eucharist in his own church. It was moments like that which made Polycarp’s name ring true. Historians are not sure when Polycarp was given his name—a name that literally means “much fruit”—but it is clear that he came by it honestly, reminding even those who disagreed with him that to remain rooted in Christ is the means by which Jesus’ disciples bear much fruit. [1]

“Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” I wonder how many times Polycarp heard John say those words, which he, in turn, had heard Jesus say. The concept of abiding in God by abiding in Jesus is central to the John’s understanding of the Chrisitan faith. This is the third week in a row in which our lessons from John’s gospel account and his first letter have reminded us of the importance of abiding in him. And next week we will hear it again.

As the Way of Jesus spread across the globe and different leaders brought different traditions to different communities, which then took those traditions and made them their own, it was hard to know which way of being a Christian was the right way. One of the ways that the apostles and their successors used to measure the validity of a particular tradition was the fruit being born by its followers. Is a community of Christians bearing fruit for God, or has it lost its way—lost its connection with Jesus? And we would do well to use that same measurement for Christian communities today.

“I am the true vine,” Jesus said, “and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” As Christians, Jesus calls on us to bear fruit for God—the kind of fruit that makes a difference in the world, the kind of fruit that makes the reign of God clearer and more fully manifest in the community around us. And what does that mean? It means making sure that everyone has enough to eat. It means ensuring access to quality healthcare and education regardless of economic or immigration status. It means adopting housing policies that allow everyone to have a decent place to call their home. And it means helping other people know about God’s love in Jesus Christ—the kind of love that has the power to transform lives and communities. 

But what if we’re not doing enough? What if we aren’t bearing enough fruit? The needs around us always seem greater than the fruit we bear. No matter how many meals we serve, there are still hungry people in Fayetteville. No matter how many Quorum Court meetings we attend, the housing crisis isn’t going away. Jesus says we’re supposed to bear more fruit—that God will remove the branches that aren’t fruitful and prune back the ones that are so that they bear even more fruit. Only then is the Father glorified, Jesus said, when we bear much fruit and so become his disciples.

But that’s exhausting. I’m exhausted just thinking about it, and I had a three-month sabbatical less than a year ago. We live in a world that is never satisfied—in which what you’ve got is never enough—and that culture is as strong in the Christian community as anywhere else. If you’re staying put, you’re falling behind, and the good Lord knows that we can’t afford to fall behind. As churches like ours vie for more members, more volunteers, and more money, we’ve got to add more programs, more outreach projects, and more trendy opportunities for community life if we want to stay relevant. 

The insatiable hunger for more is overwhelming, and it’s sickening all of us. Unless we’re the best church in Fayetteville, we’re not good enough. Unless I’m the best priest, the best teacher, the best preacher, and the best pastor, I feel like I’m failing at my job. And I’m sure you feel it, too. If you’re not the best mom, the best dad, the best coach, the best teacher, the best grandparent, the best Christian, then why do you even bother? How do you hold your head up when you pick your child up from school, knowing that you haven’t done absolutely everything you can and then some?

But none of that has anything to do with bearing fruit for God. And you know how we know that? Because that sort of obsession with being better than others doesn’t fill us with life; it leaves us empty. Being a disciple of Jesus may cost you everything you’ve got, but it will always fill you with abundant life—even to overflowing. That’s the difference between bearing fruit for God and bearing fruit for ourselves. It’s like the difference between eating a green apple and eating green-apple flavored candy. Just because something looks good and tastes sweet doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Just because the fruit you bear looks godly and seems righteous doesn’t mean you’re bearing fruit for God.

Notice that in this gospel passage Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples to bear fruit—not even once. Instead, he tells them to abide in him. And he promises them that those who abide in him will bear much fruit. So, if we want to be the best church, the best parent, the best person that God has made us to be, our focus should be on abiding in Jesus Christ and on trusting that, when we abide fully in him, God will use us to bear the kind of fruit we want to see in our lives. 

That can feel like a risky strategy. In a world that expects results and in relationships that are measured in outcomes, a relentless focus on the process, the foundation, the root of our relationship with God instead of focusing on today’s action items can feel out of touch or, worse, negligent. But Jesus himself says it—the only way we can bear fruit worth bearing is if we abide in Christ. 

So what does abiding in him look like as a congregation or as individuals? It looks like daily prayer every morning and every evening. It looks like reading and studying and meditating on God’s holy word. It looks like worship as individuals and as families throughout the week and as a congregation every Sunday. It looks like fasting in times of turmoil and celebrating in times of joy. It looks like sitting and listening for God’s voice and learning to quieten our minds long enough to hear it. It looks like spending time together in each other’s homes and invoking Jesus’ name whenever we’re together. It looks like giving thanks for the bounty God has given us and sharing it with those in need. It looks like all of those things that keep us rooted in Jesus Christ because, when that is our focus, the fruit will come.

Polycarp knew that, although bearing fruit is the measure of discipleship, staying rooted in faith is the disciple’s first call. I want to be a part of a church that would rather seek to be faithful than fruitful because only when we are deeply rooted in the faith of Jesus Christ will we bear much fruit. 

__________________________________

1. Early Christian Fathers. Richardson, Cyril C., translator & editor. Macmillan; New York: 1970, p. 123.