Sunday, October 10, 2021

What's Keeping You Out Of God's Kingdom?


October 10, 2021 – The 20th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 23B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 21:00.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” asked the man who knelt before Jesus. “You lack one thing,” Jesus said lovingly in reply. Just one thing. And so do you. And so do I. We all do. We all lack just one thing. If Jesus told you what that one thing is, where would you find the strength and courage to pursue it?

What is that one thing that is keeping you out of God’s kingdom—preventing you from entering fully into God’s reign? Over the last several weeks, Jesus has pointed out a number of possibilities. Are we willing to take up our cross and follow him even if it costs us our life? Are we willing to be last of all and servant of all even if it means giving up our status in society? Are we willing to cut off our hand or our foot or pluck out our eye if they are causing us to sin? Are we willing to cling to God’s kingdom in the way that the story of creation asks us to cling to marriage—wholeheartedly and without compromise? And today, in his encounter with the rich man, Jesus asks us, are we willing to sell everything we have and give it away to the poor in order to have treasure in heaven?

Some of the things—the vices, the sins—that Jesus points out as barriers to God’s promise of eternal life require a bit of cultural translation. Wrestling concepts of divorce and marriage, personhood and gender, away from their ancient contexts and bringing them forward into contemporary life in order to make sense of Jesus’ words is hard but important work. But, when it comes to wealth—riches, possessions—we don’t need any help understanding what Jesus meant. In fact, our experience of wealth—both collectively and individually—is so enormous that, if anything, Jesus’s words aren’t sharp enough.

The man who knelt before Jesus is described by Mark as having many possessions, but what does that mean? Is that rich like Jeff Bezos or rich like you and me? The words translated for us as “many possessions” can imply that the man owned a lot of property or land, but it can also simply mean “a lot of stuff.” Know anybody who has too much stuff? We get a sense of how broad Jesus’s target audience is when, after the man had gone away, he explained to his disciples that the call to radical dispossession applied not only to that particular man but to all who have wealth and to anyone who is rich. But those words that are translated as “wealth” and “rich” don’t imply the piles of money into which Scrooge McDuck might dive headfirst but merely the stuff we use and having enough of it to meet our needs. The biblical model for being rich is one of being fully resourced—of having everything we need.

It is to those of us who have our needs met that Jesus says, “You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come follow me.” So radical, so painful, so challenging are those words that even before the disciples can object and ask Jesus to clarify what he means, Jesus tells them that it would be easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for people who have all their needs met to enter the kingdom of God. This might be hyperbole, and, as R. T. France puts it, “The nature and degree of renunciation of wealth which the gospel requires may be something which will be worked out differently in different times and circumstances, but, if we lose sight of the principle that affluence is a barrier to the kingdom of God, we are parting company with Jesus at a point which seems to have been fundamental to his teaching as all three synoptic writers understood it.” 

As someone who meets both the biblical and contemporary worldwide definitions for what it means to be rich, I know that my possessions get in the way of my place in God’s great and glorious reign. That’s because I cannot own anything without feeling in some measure the pull away from complete devotion and dependence on God and toward confidence in my own self and wealth. In that way, the problem of riches parallels the problem of idolatry. The biblical prohibition against graven images is absolute. The ancients understood that any painting or statue or image that depicts God will inevitably become itself an object of worship, replacing the unseen deity with the image right in front of us. In very much the same way, whenever I have food in my pantry and clothes in my closet and money in my bank account, I will always begin to believe that those things are my own doing—the sustenance and safety net of my own creation—instead of the gifts from God that they always are.

All of our possessions—no matter how magnificent or modest—are obstacles to our entrance into the kingdom of God. Anyone who owns anything is in trouble. If you don’t go to bed hungry tonight, sleeping out under the stars, you have the kind of wealth that prevents you from being a full participant in God’s reign. “Then who can be saved?” we rightly ask along with Peter and the other disciples. Our hope is found in Jesus’ reply: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Our hope—our only hope—is clinging to the mercies of the God who loves us more than we can imagine. That is our hope no matter how rich or poor we are. But it’s a lot easier to cling to God and God’s goodness when your fists aren’t full of dollar bills and your arms aren’t wrapped around your retirement fund and your focus isn’t on making sure that you have enough money to take care of yourself. How will we ever learn to depend on God when we have so much other stuff to depend on?

This is a spiritual problem with practical implications. Although we cannot sell enough of what we own to buy ourselves a place in heaven, we can adopt financial practices that teach us how to put our trust in God instead of in our wealth. If our possessions are what lure us away from trusting in God completely, we need to find ways to let go of them. If God’s grace and mercy are what bring us into eternal life, we need to pursue whatever habits have the power to multiply those precious things in our lives. We need more of God and less of us, and getting that balance right begins with giving away more and keeping less for ourselves. 

When the man came to Jesus and asked what he needed to do in order to inherit eternal life, Jesus reminded him of the commandments. When the man responded that he had kept all these since his youth, Jesus looked at him and loved him. Literally, he “agape-ed” him. “You only lack one thing,” Jesus said. Only one thing stands between you and the kingdom of God. Only one thing is getting in the way of your complete and total participation in God’s rule in your life. And that thing is you. 

We get in the way. All we need is to trust in God, but our instinctive need to trust in ourselves—our wealth, our status, our ego, our wisdom, our happiness—prevents us from giving our lives over to the reign of God. How does that change? Where do we find the strength and courage to let go of our attachment to this life and cling instead to the mercies of God? That strength comes from not from us but from God. In Jesus Christ, God has loved us so fully, so completely, so perfectly that we have been set free from the need for self-sufficiency. Because God’s love for us has no limits, we can afford to depend on God alone. 

Being loved like that gives us the courage to give more of ourselves away, and the more of ourselves we give away the more we come to know and depend on God’s love. It is a virtuous cycle, and, by loving us from the beginning, God has taken the first step. How will you respond to that love? By holding on to what you have or by trusting God and letting it go?

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Children Know


October 3, 2021 – The 19th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 22B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Video of this service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 24:30.

Jesus says, “Truly, I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” What does that mean? What does it mean to receive God’s kingdom like a little child? I want to be a part of God’s reign. I want to live in the kingdom of God. Don’t you? Don’t all of us? Today, Jesus challenges those of us who want to be a part of God’s great and glorious reign to receive it as if we were little children. Today, we ask what little children can teach us about belonging to God and God’s kingdom.

How does a child receive the kingdom of God? Eagerly. Whole-heartedly. With clarity. Without compromise. A child knows instinctively what is of God and what is not. A child knows that you cannot come to church and promise to love your neighbor as yourself and then get in your car and yell obscenities at the driver who cuts you off on the way home. A child knows that you cannot boast of putting a big check in the alms basin and then grumble about the blight that “street people” have become on this town. A child knows that you cannot promise to love your spouse for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until you are parted by death and then wake up one morning and decide you don’t love them anymore. 

Preachers like me are rightly cautioned not to oversimplify Jesus’s teaching on marriage and divorce. Jesus, for one, never knew what it meant to balance the demands of work, children, and marriage. And surely the church can do better than to shame couples who are trapped in lifeless unions or, worse, yoked to abusive partners. There is nothing holy or godly about clinging to a relationship in which your safety or dignity is threatened. But, by appealing to the perspective of children, Jesus applies a standard for marriage as an image of God’s love for the world that is remarkably simple and effective. A child knows the difference between a marriage that unravels because their parents just don’t want to try anymore and one that was over and gone long before anyone said a word to them. And part of what it means for us to receive the kingdom of God is to recognize the difference for ourselves.

This gospel passage isn’t actually about divorce. This isn’t Jesus’s way of defining under what circumstances a marriage is justifiably terminated, which, if it were, is basically never. Instead, this is yet another piece of Jesus’s teaching about the nature of God’s kingdom, and, in this case, Jesus appeals to the institution of marriage as a way to explain what it means to prioritize our place in the reign of God. In short, Jesus shows us that getting our hearts right about marriage helps us understand what it means to get our hearts right about God.

Admittedly, this isn’t a straightforward theological argument that Jesus makes. He uses an unusual approach that takes some careful consideration. Before we break it down, though, it may help to remember what he did back in Mark 7, when he was refuting the religious authorities, who questioned why he allowed his disciples to eat with unwashed hands. Do you remember how that argument went? The Pharisees asked why Jesus ignored all the traditions about handwashing and the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles, and he turned their accusation back upon them, quoting not the relevant passages from Leviticus but the prophet Isaiah, who wrote, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Instead of appealing to a direct discussion of the legal texts, Jesus proposed a sideways move, effectively dismissing the norms for ritual purity by prioritizing the content of one’s heart over the content of one’s actions.

Again, the Pharisees come to test Jesus, this time asking whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. That they would ask about divorce reveals to us that this was as challenging a topic in Jesus’ day as it is in ours. As before, Jesus chooses not to engage in a straight exploration of the relevant text, which would be Deuteronomy 24—a passage about divorce—but instead he appeals to Genesis 2—a passage that conveys not the limitations of marriage but its unfathomable power: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

What happens when we start not with the circumstances under which a marriage can be dissolved but with the beautiful, unbreakable bond that exists between two persons who have committed themselves to a holy, lifelong, monogamous union? For starters, it challenges gender stereotypes, even back in Jesus’s day. When Jesus explained to his disciples that a man who remarries after divorcing his wife commits adultery against her, he was again challenging the theological assumptions of his time. Back then, rabbinical teaching held that men couldn’t commit adultery against women. Instead, only a man, whose honor and claim upon his wife were besmirched by infidelity, could be the victim. Because a man was allowed to divorce his wife for practically any reason, including disappointment in their love life, it made no sense to hold a man responsible for his actions as long as his indiscretion did not threaten another man’s marriage. But that isn’t true if we understand that marriage isn’t simply a contractual arrangement between two people but a mutual, mystical, spiritual union as fundamental to our identity as our personhood. 

Jesus wants people to remember that marriage, as an institution that embodies the power of unconditional, indissoluble love, is such an overwhelming and important good that human beings cannot approach it as something that can be unraveled or dismissed but as something that must be embraced even in the face of adversity—just like the kingdom of God. When we commit to love like that, even and especially when staying committed is hard, we give ourselves over to something that has the power to change us—even to soften the hardheartedness within us that otherwise might pull us apart. When we are immersed in unconditional love, we are set free from all the insecurities that cause us to tighten up and close down and shut ourselves off. 

But love like that isn’t easy. It draws out and quells our self-interestedness. In order to take hold within us, it exposes our vulnerabilities and anxieties so that they might be healed. Sometimes the process of dying to self is too much for us to bear. Sometimes the change we face is so painful that we would rather fold up and quit. But those who want to enter the kingdom of God must receive it like a little child. And the little child within us knows that having something that good is worth giving up everything else we have. 

Lots of marriages have been under incredible strain because of the pandemic. Although the last nineteen months have made being together especially difficult, the pandemic has brought to the surface the reasons why marriage is always hard. It is hard to give up ourselves for the sake of another. It is hard to let go of our own needs and wants in order to be a part of something bigger. It is hard to be vulnerable especially when it scares us to death. But the life-giving power of marriage isn’t realized when everything is going well but when love rescues us even when things are falling apart. Isn’t that also what it means to belong to the kingdom of God?

Friday, October 1, 2021

The Authority of the Servant Christ

September 29, 2021 – The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels
The Ordination of a Deacon

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Video of this service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 23:45.

It took a hard-fought fight to get us here. God wants us to be here. God has gathered us here together. And, anytime God’s people gather together in God’s name, there is power among them—a holy force of righteousness that radiates throughout the assembly and out into the world. The forces of evil that seek to undermine God’s goodness in the world are always fighting to keep us apart, and God’s angels are fighting back in order to give us safe passage—in order to allow us to come together and receive those edifying, life-giving experiences of God’s grace that we need so very much.

In a plane of existence beyond what we can see—absolutely real yet surprisingly close to us—a spiritual battle is taking place. Angels are protecting God’s people from the demons who want to deceive them, cause them to stumble, and lead them astray. For most of human history, those battles took place up in heaven, where archangels would lead companies of angelic principalities and rulers into war against the forces of darkness. According to the angelology of post-exilic Judaism, upon which the Christian faith is built, whatever happened up in the heavenly realm became manifest here on the earth. If God’s celestial armies beat back the armies of God’s enemies up there, then down here the terrestrial soldiers who fought for God’s people would win their fight against the Assyrians or Egyptians or whomever they were locked in battle against. The affairs of individuals, tribes, and even entire nations were understood to be a reflection of a great unseen spiritual war taking place beyond our sight.

But, with the death and resurrection of Jesus, everything changed. As we read in Revelation 12, when Jesus won the ultimate victory over evil and death, there was no place left for the ancient serpent and his angels in heaven. The great dragon who had been defeated was thrown down, sent to the earth where he could unleash his wrath. We often think that the Book of Revelation is written about future events that will take place at the end of the world, but most of the strange insights it offers are about life here and now, in that time in between Christ’s victory and the consummation of God’s reign at the end of time. We, the saints of God who live in that in-between time, are beset on all sides by the forces of wickedness, but thanks be to God that St. Michael and all the angels are fighting for us.

In ways we cannot see and cannot know, it took a hard-fought spiritual battle to bring us together tonight. And the victory we claim is nothing less than “the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God.” But, because that is our victory, because, as the loud heavenly voice proclaims, we have conquered Satan “by the blood of the Lamb,” the nature of the fight to which we pledge ourselves requires of us something of inestimable cost. If we are to conqueror with Christ, then we must die with Christ. Our testimony, given with our lips and with our lives, must reveal the cruciform nature of Christ’s victory. If the Lamb has defeated the great Satan by the shedding of his blood, we who follow the Lamb must give our lives as well. That is the only way real victory can be won—by the giving up of ourselves for Christ’s sake. And one of the principal ways that we see that other-worldly, counterintuitive victory-through-death manifest in our lives is in the ministry of deacons. No wonder I don’t like deacons very much.

One of the first things I said to Kathy when I arrived in Fayetteville more than three years ago was how much I don’t like deacons. I said that not to dissuade her from continuing her formation as one called to this sacred ministry but to let her know how hard it would be to see this journey to its end and embrace the strange and challenging ministry that awaited her. People in positions of authority, especially those in the church, whose power reflects the powers of the world—things like wealth, position, access, and voice—are always challenged by deacons. When deacons carry out their “special ministry of servanthood,” serving particularly “the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely,” they inevitably confront those whose power and privilege have widened the gap between the church and the needs of the world. They expose the hypocrisy of Christians who claim to follow Jesus but are not quite willing to follow him as far as he would lead. They remind us that we can only stand victorious with Jesus and all the angels if we, too, lay down our life.

Appropriately, therefore, deacons serve in the church with almost no real authority. They go and work wherever the bishop tells them to. They are not paid for their ministry. While bishops are told to guard the faith and priests are told to take their share in the councils of the church, deacons are told to assist the other clergy. In the liturgy, their most visible roles are to read the gospel and set the table, which the congregation tends to interpret as servant’s work. But that service, as Christ himself has shown us, is impregnated with incredible power. The one whose duty it is to serve is given the responsibility of revealing to us the nature of Christ in our midst. By their words and actions—both within the liturgy and beyond the walls of the church—deacons teach the rest of us that we can only serve Christ when we serve the helpless among us. They say without compunction to those whose ministry begins at the altar that the church is too focused on itself and not enough on the world. And that is a challenging word that all of us need to hear.

All Christians, the ordinal reminds us, are called to follow Jesus by serving God through the power of the Spirit. Deacons remind us that we serve God by serving the least among us in Christ’s name. “Who is greater,” Jesus asks us, “the one at the table or the one who serves?” Of course it is the one at the table, he admits. We all know where the one in charge is to be found. But Christ did not come into the world to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. The life he gives to us and the victory over sin and death that he wins for us are not attained through force or through the securing of or protection of power. Christ’s victory for us is won through the cross—through the total and complete emptying of himself for the sake of the world. If we are going to be a part of that victory, we, too, must be emptied, and those who accept the call to serve as deacons help us know how.

Kathy, for many years, you have embraced the holy work of caring for the least among us—those whose needs are overlooked and whose voices are usually ignored. Now, you are accepting the call to bring that work into the very heart of the Christian community not only to invite the church to join in that work but also to challenge us to be shaped by it until we are conformed to the image of the servant Christ. As you may have noticed throughout this arduous process, the church tends to resist that. At diaconal ordinations, we often say that the work of the new deacon is largely a continuation of what has come before, but that is only halfway right. The other half—the ministry of bringing the authority of the servant Christ back into the church—is much more difficult but no less important. And that is why we seek the Holy Spirit and pray that it will come upon you with grace and power to equip you for this work. For when you carry out your ministry, it is not you who will do it but Christ working through you. And, when you help us see that, when you help us recognize how Christ is truly at work among us, you help us follow Jesus.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Wisdom From Above


September 19, 2021 – The 17th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 20B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 19:00.

“Who is wise and understanding among you?” When James wrote those words, it seems he had a particular criticism in mind, but for a moment, let’s take him at face value. Who are the wise and understanding people in your life? Who is the wisest person you have ever known? Think about it. Think about who that person is. Picture them in your mind. Who is it? What is it that makes that person so wise? What is it about them that you admire most? What part of them would you most hope to emulate?

I wonder. If we all took time to share stories about the wisest person we have ever known and describe what it was about them that we admire so much, I wonder how many of our answers would sound the same and how many would highlight different sorts of wisdom. What is wisdom? In almost every circumstance, the answer is contextual. A wise boss has different skills than a wise grandparent. A wise physician is praised for different things than a wise soldier. A wise hedge fund manager can probably make you a lot of money, but a wise friend is the one who can help you spend it well. 

If you were putting together a team of people to lead a church—a vestry, perhaps—what kind of wisdom would you look for? Financial wisdom? Legal wisdom? Creative wisdom? Strategic wisdom? Conventional wisdom suggests that a balanced approach might be best—picking the wisest people from a number of disciplines, all of whom would work together to lead a church into its full potential. That sounds like a winning team. But how could you be sure that such a diverse pool of talent would come together and set aside their individual egos in order to accomplish the common good? How would the brightest and best ever figure out how to work together? Whose particular wisdom would be subjected to the wisdom of others in order to get anything done?

When James wrote to the Jewish-Christian community, he recognized that there were two competing wisdoms at work within the church and that they threatened to rip the Body of Christ apart. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” he asked. But, more than asking them to identify the people who they considered to be wise, he asked them to consider what kind of wisdom belongs in the church. In every generation, there are many people who are wise and who have gifts and talents to offer the Christian community, but, as James explained, there is only one wisdom that leads to the building up of Christ’s body.

If someone is truly wise, James wrote, that person must show by their good life that their works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. That is what wisdom from above looks like—wisdom that is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” That kind of godly wisdom produces a harvest of righteousness—a bounty of deep and abiding goodness that resonates throughout the community and beyond. Because we belong to God in Jesus Christ, the one who gave himself up to death for the sake of the world, we measure fruitfulness and the wisdom that produces it in ways that don’t compute in earthly terms.

So often, though, the church forgets how to look for and rely on the wisdom that comes from above and falls into the trap of celebrating the sort of wisdom that carries weight in the boardroom and in the courtroom, in the state house and in the White House. It is to that kind of wisdom, James writes, that those who have “bitter envy and selfish ambition” in their hearts have revealed their true allegiance. Their wisdom is nothing less than earthly, unspiritual, and even demonic, and it always produces disorder and wickedness of every kind. 

The word James uses to convey what is translated for us as “selfish ambition” is an important word in this passage. It’s a peculiar word that the apostle Paul also uses several times to describe the forces that tend to fracture the Christian community. It is derived from the Greek word that literally means “work for hire” or “mercenary activity.” But the best way to understand what James and Paul have in mind when they use that word is to look at the only pre-New-Testament example of its use that historians and archeologists have discovered. In his work Politics, Aristotle used that word to describe “the narrow partisan zeal of factional, greedy politicians in his own day.”  Imagine that: leaders in the church, acting like greedy politicians, seeking their own interests at the expense of the community as a whole. 

I find it strangely comforting to know that the church has struggled with these forces since its very beginning. As Benedict de Spinoza, a seventeenth-century philosopher wrote, “I have often wondered, that persons who make a boast of professing the Christian religion, namely, love, joy, peace, temperance, and charity to all men, should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily towards one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues they claim, is the readiest criterion of their faith.”  

What is the readiest criterion of our faith in the twenty-first century? As you read the news, look at social media, and listen to popular culture, what behaviors do you think most readily describe contemporary Christianity? In a healthy, balanced, peaceable congregation like ours, we like to pretend that we are immune from such rancor and hatred—that what fringe radicals do in the name of Jesus has nothing to do with us—but no branch of the Jesus Movement is isolated completely from all of the rest. And, as far as I can tell, the Christians who are getting the most attention—the ones with the microphones—are sowing the exact opposite of peace. As members of the Body of Christ, as participants in the wider Christian community, that isn’t someone else’s issue to address. It’s ours.

I find the church’s continual struggle with selfish ambition and worldly wisdom strangely comforting because that means the remedy for us is more or less the same as it was in James’ day. “Those conflicts and disputes among you,” James wrote, “where do they come from?” Not from the hearts of other people but even from within us. “Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?” James asked. Each of us—all of us—are subject within our hearts to that conflict between the wisdom from above and the wisdom of the world. As long as we are in this life, that war will take place within us. But God working through us has the power to put to death that selfish ambition that is as natural and familiar as every breath we take.

In the end, the answer is beautifully familiar to us. “Submit yourselves therefore to God,” James wrote. Subject yourselves, realign yourselves, reorient yourselves to your proper relationship with God. That is the principal act of worship. We worship God in order to situate ourselves where God can get through to us and shape our lives and lead us into true blessing. To get to that place, we have to let go of our own selfish ambition and cling to the wisdom of God. When we come to worship, we do this not only with our minds and hearts but with our bodies, too, every time we kneel. 

By submitting ourselves to God—by bowing before the Almighty—we are also resisting the devil. The word translated as “resist” is a word that literally means “withstand”—as in to take our stand against the one who would deceive us. When we “draw near” to God—when we worship God—we take our stand by refusing to bow to the one whose devilish wisdom brings disorder and wickedness into this world and into the church. 

True worship, therefore, is our real hope. This is where God’s people find their egos dissolved and their selfish tendencies replaced by the will of God. That happens every time we come together as long as we come together to worship—to submit ourselves to God. I don’t know what you came here today expecting to take away with you. But, if you’ll start instead with what you can give—with letting go of that part of yourself that gets in the way of what God is doing in your life—God will take it from you and will leave you something even better in its place.

Monday, September 13, 2021

What Kind Of Messiah Is Jesus?


September 12, 2021 – The 16th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 19B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 18:45.

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. Has that question ever been more important for the church to answer? Who do you say that I am? Not who am I? Not what do the scriptures say about me? But you—my followers, my disciples—who do you say that I am?

Some of us say that Jesus is the one who cares about the poor and the vulnerable. Some of us say that he is the one who welcomes outcasts and sinners back into God’s fold. Some of us say that he is the one who protects the unborn. And some of us say that he is the one who protects the women whose bodies have become a political battleground. Some of us say that Jesus is the one who promotes freedom and liberty and self-determination. And some of us say that he is the one who demands sacrifice and surrender and selflessness. Some of us say that Jesus is the one who came to make his followers rich beyond measure. And some of us say that he came to teach them to embrace a life of destitute poverty. 

Who among us gets to decide who Jesus really is? We all claim to be Christians. We claim to be his followers, his disciples. In all our various churches, we read the same Bible and pray to the same God. But we talk about Jesus in radically different ways. We make him the centerpiece of competing platforms and conflicting lifestyles. As Christians, all of us call Jesus, “Savior, Lord, Christ, Messiah,” but do any of us remember what any of that means?

By the time we get to Mark 8, we have been asking the question, “Who is Jesus really?” for a long time. The gospel writer lets us know in the very first verse of his account that this is the “good news of Jesus the Christ,” but, except for that editorial introduction, we haven’t gotten a clear answer yet. The demons in chapter 1 recognized Jesus, but he silenced them before they had a chance to tell anyone about “the holy one of God.” After Jesus stilled the storm in chapter 4, the disciples wondered aloud, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” but still no answer was given. In chapter 6, people from his hometown expressed their confusion and derision that this carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon, a man whom they knew well, could teach with such unfamiliar authority and power. 

Every miracle, every teaching, every encounter up to this point had been a way to make the case for Jesus’ real identity, and, just when things were starting to become clear, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they replied, Moses or Elijah or one of the prophets. But then he turned the question back onto them and asked, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Christ.” It’s the answer we’ve been waiting for. It’s the first time since the first verse of Mark that we’ve heard that word, Christ. It’s the first time anyone has acknowledged fully who Jesus really is, but it turns out, as our own continued disagreement over Jesus’ identity reveals, calling Jesus the Messiah is only half of the job.

The other half is deciding what Messiah means and what it means for us to give Jesus that title. We more often use the Greek version, Christ, of that Semitic word, Messiah, but they mean the same thing—anointed. To call Jesus the Messiah or Christ is to call him the anointed one of God—the one chosen and equipped by God to do whatever it is that God has entrusted him to do. To someone like Peter, it seems, the label “Messiah” evoked a connection with David, the great king, who was also described as God’s anointed. There are several first-century Jewish texts that let us know that many of Jesus’ contemporaries expected God to send a messiah to come and defeat the Romans and claim the throne of the Davidic king. When Peter called Jesus the Messiah, he was articulating his belief that Jesus was the one to come and restore the kingdom to God’s people, but, in the exchange that followed, we discover that Peter didn’t really understand what that meant.

As soon as Peter identified Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone about him. Why? Perhaps we find the answer in how quickly Jesus substituted for the label Peter had given him a less familiar, less provocative, though no less consequential label, “Son of Man.” In first-century Judaism, the Son of Man was not understood as the one would come and claim the earthly throne but the one who would come at the end of time and vindicate God’s people once and for all from the earthly powers who oppressed them. Peter, it seems, wanted Jesus to reign in power here and now, but Jesus had been anointed by God to usher in the that reign which will not be complete until the last days.

And how do we know this? Because of the way Jesus described his God-appointed mission: “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.” That didn’t sound like the messianic figure Peter and his contemporaries were hoping for, and it’s not the Messiah or Christ that we hear most Christians talking about today. Jesus suffered and died and was raised from the dead not so that he and his followers could seize earthly power and reign in glory here and now. He gave himself up to death and God raised him from the dead so that those who follow him through the path of sacrifice, suffering, and death might be raised with him into the new life of God’s perfect reign. Christians agree that Jesus has opened for us the way that leads to eternal life, but we forget that cannot enter that life unless we suffer and die for his sake.

When Peter heard Jesus describe his own death, he took Jesus aside and rebuked him, as if the role of master and disciple had been swapped. All too often, we Christians do the very same thing. We rebuke Jesus every time we tell him, “No, Lord, not your way but my way.” When he tells us that we must deny ourselves, that we must take up our cross, that we must lose our life in order to save it, we pull him aside and say, “Not today, Jesus. I don’t want to give up my life. I don’t want to deny myself—my wants, my needs, my freedom, my family, my body. I don’t want to carry that cross. It’s heavy and hard and frightening.” And to that Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

To accept the beam of the cross upon our own shoulders and walk the heavy-laden path of self-denial and suffering is to accept for ourselves the same disgrace that was heaped upon Jesus. To be his follower costs us dearly in this life. There is no way to walk the path of Christ—of God’s anointed—and escape the shame of rejection and denial. And yet, when we avoid that path in this life, when we are ashamed of Jesus and his words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of us when he appears in glory.

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks us. In the end, of course, Peter was right. Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. But, if he is our Messiah, we must accept for ourselves the pattern that he has given to us. We must pray that the Holy Spirit will give us strength not to win the battles ahead of us but to lose them with humility and dignity. We must ask God to put to death within us that tendency to seek our own needs instead of others’. When it comes to claiming Jesus for our side and using him as the justification for our agenda, it is those who do so who fail most profoundly to grasp the nature of Jesus’ messiahship. We must instead ask God to grant us the wisdom of setting our minds on divine things in order that we might lose our lives for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of the gospel.  

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Our Inevitable Hypocrisy, God's Unfailing Love


August 29, 2021 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 17B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 17:30.

We face an interpretive challenge this morning as we read about Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and scribes in Mark 7. It’s easy for us to know whose side we’re supposed to be on, and that leads us to assume the worst of Jesus’ opponents and to think of them only as a Christianized caricature of who they really were. But the problem with that is two-fold. Not only do we fail to recognize the full humanity and faithfulness of the Pharisees, but we also fail to appreciate the power of Jesus’ teaching because it’s just too easy to write off what he says as intended for someone else—hypocrites of biblical proportions—and not for us. 

So today I’d like you to forget just about everything you know about the Pharisees and give them a second chance. You likely have heard preachers and Sunday school teachers explain that the Pharisees were among the most faithful, observant Jews of their day. But you may not have heard that they prayed and fasted and tithed not only for themselves but on behalf of their less-fastidious compatriots. They considered it part of their religious duty to go the extra mile and do the extra thing in order to give everyone—even the relatively unreligious in their community—a good start with God. In a very real way, the Pharisees were not the exclusive hardliners of their day but the generous progressives.

The Pharisaic movement in Judaism began as a reaction to the concentration of power among the religious elites. During the Babylonian exile, after Solomon’s temple had been destroyed and God’s people were removed from their land, worship needed to take on a different shape. There was no temple in which sacrifices could be offered, so faithful Jews began gathering on the sabbath wherever they could to read the holy scriptures, to celebrate the domestic traditions of their people like circumcision and keeping kosher, and to lift up their prayers and praises and laments. In order to maintain the traditions that defined them as a people, they had to improvise and find new ways of doing ancient things so that, even without the priests to help them, they could be a holy people in God’s sight.

After the exile was over and the people were allowed to return to their homeland, a controversy arose. Some wanted to go back to the old ways and rebuild the temple and forget everything that had happened during the exile, but others recognized that Judaism itself had changed and that what it meant to be faithful to God had changed. So, when the priests became the central authority in Jerusalem and insisted that everything revert to its pre-exilic pattern, a group of separatists, known as the Pharisees, refused to go along with their plan. Their faith had grown during the hardship of exile. Their newfound relationship with God was real, and they believed that all people—not just the priests—were called to a life of peculiar holiness.

When Jesus preached the nearness of God’s salvation in the synagogues and on the hillsides and along the shore, the Pharisees must have thought that they had found an ally. His populist approach would have reminded them of their own priorities—that a relationship with God was secured not primarily through temple worship but through individual holiness. But, when they saw him eating with tax collectors and sinners and touching unclean lepers and teaching disciples that they could pluck grain on the sabbath or eat with unwashed hands, they knew that they had a problem on their hands. They had spent centuries interpreting the Jewish customs in expansive ways that gave everyone access to a life of holiness, but, instead of furthering their work, this radical rabbi seemed to be throwing it all away.

“Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” they asked Jesus. When we think of the Pharisees as narrow-minded religious conservatives, we hear that question as if they looked down on those who weren’t holy enough. But there’s another, deeper issue at stake. In the Law of Moses, the only regulations about handwashing apply to priests in the temple. There are no rules about ordinary people washing hands or cups or pots or kettles. But, when they were without a temple, the God’s people had looked for ways that they could maintain their religious identity, and ceremonial handwashing became a universal practice—a simple pietistic way to remember that, as the people of God, all Jews were called to a life of holiness. “What’s wrong with that?” the Pharisees asked Jesus. “What’s wrong with the traditions that have helped our people remember that they belong to God?”

The problem, Jesus says, isn’t the handwashing but the distorted motivation behind it. “You hypocrites!” Jesus calls them. Quoting Isaiah, he says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” The issue isn’t the Pharisees’ desire to make their religion accessible to everyone. It’s their tendency to confuse their methods for the thing they were intended to instill. In their attempt to democratize faithfulness, by defining in their own terms what it means to belong to God and insisting that others accept that vision, their progressivism calcified into its own version of reactionary exclusivism. Instead of making holiness available to everyone, they ended up denying that holiness to anyone who didn’t agree with them. When they could no longer tell the difference between their traditions and God’s commandments, the very ones who stood for allowing everyone in ironically became the ones who pushed others out.

Sound familiar? No matter how idyllic they are in the beginning, our attempts to mandate inclusion always result in the unintended consequences of judgment, condemnation, and hypocrisy. As Episcopalians, we are celebrated for our tolerance of everyone except those we perceive as intolerant. What does that say about our faithfulness? The way of Jesus will always expose the hypocrisy of our judgments because the way of Jesus is always more open and inclusive than we are. That way is built not on the holiness of the holiest among us but upon God’s own sacrifice and death for the sake of the world. Jesus Christ did not die for those whose lives reflect the perfect love of God but for sinners like you and me, whose best attempt is always doomed to fail. Our hope, therefore, is not that we would ever create a church or a religion or a community or a government that embodies the radical love and inclusion of God but that we would allow our vain belief that we could ever build it to die on the cross with Christ.

In times like this, when church and society are being pulled apart by the evil forces that deceive us and make us assume the worst in other people and the best in ourselves, our hope is found in Jesus. He helps us see our own hypocrisy for what it really is. And he helps us know that God’s love for us is not a reflection of our best efforts or even our best intentions but of God’s great and abiding love for the whole world. We can build no kingdom that supplants the reign of God, but thanks be to God that we don’t have to. We already belong to the one whose death and resurrection open the gates wide enough for all to walk in.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Fed By Christ


August 15, 2021 – The 12th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 15B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 12:30.

What do you do well on an empty stomach? I am fairly productive first thing in the morning, when there’s nothing in my tank except a few cups of black coffee, but, by the early afternoon, if I have not eaten anything, things begin to go sideways. I get distracted. I get irritable. I get “hangry”—that particular kind of angry that accompanies a lack of food. I can’t say that I am at my best when my stomach is full, but, when it’s empty, I have my limits. Just ask my family or my colleagues.

As the academic year begins, our local schools are providing free breakfast and free lunch for all students through the end of the year. That’s good news for everyone. During the pandemic, our schools have looked for ways to feed hungry children, whose families normally depend on free or reduced meals at school for their children’s nourishment, but it hasn’t been easy with many children learning from home. No matter where you are, it’s hard to learn when your stomach is growling. It’s hard to stay focused when the pain of not eating demands your attention. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs puts physiological things like food, water, clothing, and shelter at the very bottom—the first need that must be met if a person is going to grow and develop—and an empty stomach leaves someone a long way from self-actualization—from being able to want to become the person you have been created to be. Just ask a kindergarten teacher.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus’ teaching on the Bread of Life takes a bit of a regression—from lofty metaphor to basic reality, from philosophical aspiration to physiological necessity. What had been a provocative image for spiritual salvation now becomes an even more provocative image for physical sustenance. At the beginning of this teaching, Jesus likened the Bread of Life to manna in the wilderness, but now Jesus wants to compare it with his flesh—the literal “meat” of his body—in ways that would eventually become fuel for the cannibalistic accusations that were levied against the early Christians. But for us it offers the hope that in Christ God is concerned not only with our spiritual welfare but also with the most basic needs of humanity—with the hunger that so often seems to get in the way of our spiritual growth.

In Jesus’ time, manna was often used as an image for divine revelation. Wisdom and truth from above were likened to the flaky white substance that God gave the ancient Israelites on their journey through the wilderness. We, too, describe unexpected gifts as “manna from heaven,” acknowledging that something good has come to us from an unexpected source. When Jesus described himself and his teachings as “the bread that came down from heaven,” the religious authorities grumbled against him because they saw nothing otherworldly about him. “We know Jesus,” they scoffed. “We know his parents and his siblings. He didn’t come from heaven. He came from Nazareth!” Jesus may have grown up in Galilee, but we know that the wisdom and truth he brought to the earth had indeed come from above.

We have the advantage of two thousand years of theological interpretation and instruction. Back then, the religious authorities were struggling to see beyond the reality they knew. Jesus had offered the crowd a challenging message: that he was the one who had come to sustain God’s people not only for a wilderness journey but for all time. He was the one who could feed them in a way that could give them eternal life. But it’s hard to wrap your mind around that lofty truth when the spiritual equivalent of your stomach is grumbling. It’s hard to believe that Jesus can give us spiritual fulfillment when our faith in God is in its infancy. We need basic nourishment first.

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus said. “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” If you thought spiritual bread was hard to digest, just wait until you try to tackle the body and blood of Jesus. Like a precipitating agent that causes a substance to fall out of solution in a chemical reaction, Jesus’ identification of the bread from heaven with his body pushes those who hear this message in opposite directions. 

Those who take issue with his claims about having a heavenly origin find this latest assertion impossible to swallow. No one eats human flesh. We don’t need a divine teacher to tell us that. And, according to Jewish law, blood can never be consumed because, as the life of a creature, it belongs to God. When Jesus begins to speak of his flesh and blood as if they are food for God’s people, the religious authorities need no more reason to write him off. That is sacrilegious nonsense.

But, to those who are hungry for the salvation that Jesus offers, who are looking to him to meet their most basic needs, this invitation to feast on his flesh and blood becomes not a gruesome, unholy practice but a way to meet God through the most basic of human pursuits. In Christ, we find God in something as ordinary and essential as bread. In him, we discover that God wants to feed us first in order that that nourishment might grow into something much more substantial.

Traditionally, we approach life as if there is a tension between the spiritual world and the physical world—between the soul and the body. But in Christ we discover that they are inseparable. By giving us his body, his flesh, Jesus invites us to receive him not through some rigorous spiritual practice but in something we can touch and smell and taste and chew and swallow. In case we missed it—in case we think that this is just another strange philosophical metaphor—halfway through this gospel lesson Jesus stops using the generic word for eating (φάγω) and replaces it with the word that means munching, gnawing, or chewing (τρώγω). When we feast on the flesh of Jesus, therefore, we do so not only in our hearts and minds but with our mouths and stomachs, too.

The Holy Eucharist, which we gather to celebrate today, is a strange and beautiful thing. We eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus not only to remember his death and resurrection but to partake in his life-giving body and blood. This is how we make our Communion with Almighty God—not by elevating our minds to the heavenly places but by receiving the corporeal Christ here in our hands and mouths and stomachs. How freeing it is to know that we encounter God not because we have molded our spiritual selves into the right shape but because God has taken on our flesh and given that flesh up for our sake! We meet God not only when our minds are perfectly attuned to spiritual realities but even when our stomachs are rumbling and the distractions of our physical needs press in upon our prayers. How is that possible? Because Jesus gave us not only wisdom and truth, which feed our spirits, but his flesh and blood, which nourish our whole selves.

This means that Holy Communion is not only a foretaste of the banquet that awaits us but also sustenance for the journey we are on in this world. It is how we carry the power of God with us into the world where God’s presence can sometimes be hard to discern. As John Chrysostom said of the Eucharist, “Christ has given to those who desire Him not only to see Him, but even to touch, and eat Him, and fix their teeth in His flesh, and to embrace Him, and satisfy all their love. Let us then return from that table like lions breathing fire, having become terrible to the devil; thinking on our Head [meaning Jesus], and on the love which He has shown for us.” [1] We return from that table and go out into the world like lions breathing fire not because we have ascended to the heights of spiritual contemplation but because Jesus Christ has descended to us and filled us with real food, his own flesh and blood, the Bread of Life. 

1.   Chrysostom, John. “Homily 46 on the Gospel of John.” Accessed 13 August 2021.