Sunday, July 18, 2021

Sharing Hope

July 18, 2021 – The 8th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 11B

 © 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 22:35.

Three weeks ago, I walked down Dickson Street with a group from St. Paul’s, and I listened as the crowd cheered wildly and joyfully at the sight of our church’s banner. The whole event was a joyful, hopeful celebration, but I felt something special when thousands of people, who have no real connection with our church, lifted their voices in shouts of appreciation because, as I interpret their enthusiasm, they were delighted to see a group of Christians walking in the Pride parade. Although I know that St. Paul’s has long been a symbol of love and acceptance in our community, until that moment, I did not appreciate what it means to be a part of a church that is willing to show up and stand up for Pride.

Ever since then, I have been wondering what comes next. Over the years, we have done a lot of good in this community. When the crowd sees us walking down Dickson, they aren’t cheering simply because we showed up this year but because of all that we have come to represent in this town. But, when the parade is over, we roll up our banner and pack up our feather boas and put away our rainbow hats and look forward to next year, when the crowd will cheer us on again. One or two from the crowd may come through those doors because they are bold enough to come and look for something more, but many others are content to say to themselves what each of us has heard many times before: “I don’t go to church, but, if I ever did, I would go to St. Paul’s.” Today’s readings from Jeremiah and Mark make me wonder whether it’s time for us to do something more.

Back then, they probably weren’t wearing as much face paint, but the crowds we read about in Mark 6 were no less enthusiastic. The disciples had returned from the journey on which Jesus had sent them out two by two. They had taught and healed and cast out demons in Jesus’ name, and they were wildly successful. Jesus and his disciples had become so famous that they couldn’t even get a few minutes by themselves to eat. So Jesus bid his disciples to come away to a deserted place by themselves. They got into a boat and sailed to a desolate spot on the shore, but the crowd saw where they were headed, and they ran along the shore to meet them. As the eager crowd passed through one village after another, more and more people left their homes and hurried to meet them. By the time Jesus and the disciples came ashore, there were more than 5,000 people waiting for them.

By the end of the gospel reading, Jesus and the disciples left that place in the boat and sailed to the other side of the sea, but, again, a great crowd met them there. So eager were the people to be healed by Jesus that they pressed in on him as close as they could. They knew that if they could only touch the fringe of his cloak everything would be alright—that all that was amiss within them would be healed. Even though he must have been exhausted, Jesus, we are told, had compassion on them. When he looked out at the crowd, he saw beloved children of God who were like sheep without a shepherd.

There are a few times in the Bible when God’s people are described as sheep without a shepherd. When Moses asked the Lord to raise up a successor who would lead Israel into the land of Canaan, he begged God not to leave God’s sheep without a shepherd (Numbers 27:17). When Micaiah the prophet foretold the death of the wicked king Ahab, he said that he could see the soldiers of Israel scattered on the mountains like sheep that have no shepherd (1 Kings 22:17). When Zechariah the prophet described the worthlessness of the spiritual leaders of his day, he lamented how the people of Judah suffered for lack of a shepherd (Zechariah 10:2). But perhaps worst of all was the condemnation uttered by the prophet Jeremiah, which we heard in our first reading. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.” In this instance, the leaders of God’s people had not only failed to keep track of their vulnerable sheep, but, like wolves in sheep’s clothing, they had actually scattered the flock, driving them away.

I wonder how often someone who was desperate for healing tried to approach God only to be driven away by worthless shepherds. I wonder how often in the name of religion someone with authority has refused to acknowledge the needs of the vulnerable who come to them for help. I wonder how often we, in the name of Jesus, have taken a stand with oppression not because we believe that it’s right but because we are afraid of admitting that we might have been wrong all this time. In every generation, there are so-called religious leaders who, instead of shepherding God’s people to spiritual safety, scatter them and chase them away, coming between them and God.

The truth is that we’re all desperate for healing. We’re all standing in our own crowd, of our own particular identity, hoping that we will be found, that our needs can be met, that our brokenness can be made whole. Some of us, like me, have the benefit of belonging to a crowd that hasn’t ever had to fight hard to be accepted or to be taken seriously. While our needs are just as real as anyone else’s, we aren’t as vulnerable as others, and we haven’t known what it means to come to the church house door only to find that we aren’t welcome—that the shepherds are determined to drive us away. But there are lots of other people who have felt that kind of rejection and exclusion by the church. And it shouldn’t surprise us that many of them have given up on religion. It shouldn’t surprise us that, when Christians show up and grab the microphone, people who have been wounded by the church expect something other than love and acceptance to come out.

The crowd on Dickson Street, when they see us, knows that we represent a different kind of Christian, but I wonder whether showing up every year is enough. In every biblical example of sheep without a shepherd, including the one from Jeremiah, God promises to raise up new, faithful shepherds who will care for God’s people. Moses was succeeded by Joshua. Ahab and the rest of the Omri dynasty were eventually overthrown by Jehu. Zechariah and Jeremiah both promised that the self-interested shepherds who had led God’s people astray would be replaced by a righteous Branch, who would bring justice and righteousness to the land. Jesus came and offered healing to those who needed it most—those who had no where else to turn, those who had no spiritual leaders to help them find the healing promises of God.

Are we willing to do more to help people who have given up on God because they have been driven away by worthless shepherds find the healing that God still promises them? I don’t mean a campaign to get disaffected people to fill the pews and the offering plate. And I’m not just talking about the crowds at a Pride parade. I think we are in a unique position to offer a message of hope to people who haven’t heard words of hope from Christians in a long time. We have spent years building a deep reputation of genuine love and concern throughout the community. People see that the members of this parish are committed to the transformational power of unconditional love. They literally cheer when they see us. Over and over, they say that, if they ever went to a church, it would be here with us.

You’re already here, so you already know the healing power of hope and love that we share in this place—not by reputation but from within. You know how good it is to be a part of this community of faith. Think of how many other people would enjoy being a part of what we do here. Might you do something more to share it with others? Jesus is sending us out, just like the disciples, to offer healing in his name. Whom will you invite to come and find it with us?

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Good News That's Hard To Hear


July 4, 2021 – The 6th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 9B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 16:15.

Why do people have such a hard time hearing certain things from those closest to them? Why do our children ignore us when we tell them that the person they have a crush on is nothing but trouble, but, when they hear it from their friends at school, they take it as gospel truth? Why do our parents refuse to listen to us when we tell them that they can’t say those things about women or immigrants or people of color, but, when the man who works in their yard invites them to recognize the full humanity of all people, it’s as if the scales have fallen from their eyes? Why are congregations eager to hear challenging, prophetic sermons from visiting preachers but take offense whenever the rector says something even remotely controversial?

Whatever it is, it’s not new. By the time we get to Mark 6, Jesus has done some pretty amazing things. He’s healed the sick. He’s cast out demons. He’s stilled the wind and the waves. He’s even brought the dead back to life. And now he’s come back home—back to his hometown, to the synagogue where he grew up. He’s been invited to preach, and, when he does, the people are offended.

Listen how Mark conveys to us how quickly their admiration turned to disgust: “‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him.” It’s as if they were captivated by his wisdom and power until they remembered where he was from and who his mother and siblings are. “Wait a minute!” they said to themselves. “This is Jesus—the boy who grew up down just around the corner. Who does he think he is, coming back home and talking to us as if we didn’t remember him crawling around in diapers?”

When Mark tells us that they were offended at him, he uses a word that literally means “scandalized.” They weren’t merely put off by his words. They were tripped up, snared, stumbling-blocked because of them. But why? Because there was something incongruous about knowing a man since he was a boy and hearing that man proclaim the coming reign of God. They couldn’t hear this person they knew talk about the kingdom they didn’t. As Jesus declared, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” 

The closer you are to a prophet, the harder it is for you to hear what a prophet declares. And why? Because a prophet never tells you what you want to hear. The prophet brings the sharp, painful truth of God that is almost impossible to hear from someone you already know well—from someone who is a part of the life you already enjoy. What the people of Nazareth wanted was the sweet, smart, articulate boy whom they had celebrated as he grew up. What they got was a firebrand rabbi who came to turn their world upside down. And they weren’t having it. Jesus, we are told, was essentially ineffective in their midst—robbed of any power by their hardheartedness and unbelief. 

Is our response any different? The Jesus we know and love has been living in our homes and in our town and in our country for a long, long time. We’re familiar with him. He’s an intimate part of our lives. We even think of him as a friend. He’s loving and gentle and kind. He heals the sick and cares for the poor and welcomes the outcast. We love that Jesus. We admire his benevolent power and seek his life-giving ways. We appreciate the way he gently chastises us just enough to make us uncomfortable before quickly reminding us that he loves us just the way we are. He helps us see the world a little more like the kingdom of God but also permits us to take a piece of that vision back home free of charge—back to the families and jobs and lives we enjoy. He invites us to dream with him of a better place without asking us to give up on the place we already have.

But the Jesus we have welcomed into our hearts and homes isn’t the Jesus we read about in the gospel but the domesticated version whose spirit we have broken and whose power we have tamed. Jesus didn’t come to heal the sick. There were doctors back then who could take care of that. Jesus came to heal those who couldn’t find healing among the physicians of their day. He came to bring healthcare to those who fill up our emergency rooms and urgent care clinics because they can’t afford to go to a doctor until they’re desperate. 

Jesus didn’t come to cast out evil spirits in order that people like you and me could live a tranquil life. He came to overthrow the forces of Satan and the chains of the devil, which bind people to low-paying jobs and inhumane working conditions—the kind of jobs where people get Covid and then lose their jobs and then their homes because they can’t show up to butcher that chicken we buy for $1.89/pound so that the company that sells it can make a few more pennies and the stock price in our portfolios will go up.

Jesus didn’t come to still the storms that ruin our Fourth of July cookouts or quiet the winds that rock our fancy boats. He came to summon the primal forces of creation and subdue the destructive chaos of evil that is rampant in our world. He came to do battle with the hurricanes that devastate already-impoverished communities. He came to condemn the sinking apartment buildings that threaten to collapse. He came to stand up to the wildfires that our greed and ecological abuse are fueling. He came to save those whose lives are threatened by the sweltering heat that we have caused.

When Jesus came to the earth, he came not to bring the dead back to more of this life but so that those who die to this life—to this way of being, to the kingdoms that dominate our world—might be given a new and flourishing existence. We like to think that the heaven that awaits us is more of “Your Best Life Now,” but the unending reign of God into which Jesus Christ calls us is only found when we die to this world and the forces that have corrupted it—when we see that those forces are at work in our own lives—in our politics, our economics, our schools and hospitals, our cars and trucks, our consumption and waste—and recognize our need for repentance.

People look at me funny when I say that Jesus would have made a terrible rector. And that says as much about you and me as it does about him. There’s a reason he never stayed long in one place. There’s a reason that crowds cheered for him and disciples followed him yet the people who knew him his whole life rejected him. It’s hard to have the kingdom of God come nearby, and it’s especially hard when it moves in and takes up residence in your comfortable life. God’s reign displaces all of the powers and principalities in our lives. It will not share authority with any of the institutions we hold dear. Its demands are total and totally new. 

The kingdom of God that Jesus brings to the earth is most definitely good news for all people, including you and me, but it’s the kind of good news that challenges us to our very core. It promises us new and unending life, but we must first die to the life we know and enjoy if we are going to receive the one that God has promised us. Are we willing to die—to give up all of this—in order to be a part of God’s unending reign, or do we just want a Jesus who pats us on the back and makes us feel good about the life we already have?

Monday, June 28, 2021

Salvation on Aisle 8A


June 27, 2021 – The 5th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 8B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here, with the sermon beginning around 19:15..

Though as a child I was forbidden from watching Bevis and Butthead, the show that made its creator, Mike Judge, famous, as a teen and young adult, I found his second great satirical work, King of the Hill, irresistible. Set in the fictional town of Arlen, Texas, King of the Hill uses exaggerated portrayals of southern America to poke fun at many of the institutions that had shaped my childhood. Judge’s knowledge of sports-obsessed, religion-obsessed, meat-obsessed, masculinity-obsessed culture enabled him to offer insights so subtle that the audience couldn’t always tell whether he was building those institutions up or cutting them down.

One of those episodes, which for the most part still holds up, is entitled “Aisle 8A.” In the episode, the main character, Hank Hill, and his wife Peggy are babysitting their neighbors’ daughter, Connie, while her parents are out of town in Hawaii on a business trip. One morning, after Peggy rushes out the door to her substitute teaching job, Hank learns that Connie has gotten her first period. He panics, of course, at one point asking the equally panicked girl, “Do you know how to tie a tourniquet?”

As the episode unfolds, we see how the show challenges all the stereotypes around menstruation. Faced with what he has termed a crisis, Hank musters all the “manly” courage he can and takes Connie to the Mega Lo Mart to get the necessary supplies. When it comes to teaching her how to use those supplies, however, he gives up. Unable to call his wife on the phone while she is teaching, he instead calls the police, who whisk Peggy away from the school and bring her home. After Hank euphemistically explains what was going on to his spouse, who had assumed that someone must have died, Peggy says, “Oh Lord! Oh, poor Connie!” to which Hank replies, “Poor Connie? Poor me! I had to learn about ‘Megalobsorbancy!’ Shocked, Peggy says, “You went down Aisle 8A? We have been married for twenty years, and I can’t get you past Aisle 5,” to which Hank retorts, “I wasn’t joy riding, Peggy. It was a medical emergency.” Mike Judge wants us to recognize that, when it comes to menstruation, twenty-first-century America isn’t all that different from first-century Palestine.

In Mark chapter 5, Jesus encounters two desperate people—a father who would give anything for his daughter to be healed and a woman who would give anything for her own healing. Both are humbled by their condition. Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, a powerful man by any measure, throws himself down at Jesus’ feet, begging him repeatedly to come and save his twelve-year-old daughter from death. The woman, whose menstrual bleeding has continued for twelve long years and who has exhausted all of her resources in search of a cure, slips unnoticed through the crowd in order to get close enough to touch Jesus’ cloak, trusting that even contact with his clothes will heal her of her ostracizing condition.

Both are desperate. Both are humbled. Both have no other hope other than Jesus. Yet that is where their similarities end. Jairus is the cultural embodiment of power. As the leader of the synagogue, he was rich enough to be its patron, holy enough to be its figurehead, and connected enough to be its advocate. How strange it must have been for the crowd to see this symbol of authority and control—the man who could have gotten anything he wanted, whose favor in God’s eyes should have granted him the miracle he sought—fall helplessly at Jesus’ feet and beg for his charity. The woman, on the other hand, is not even worthy enough to have a name—at least not one worth remembering. Isolated from her family, banned from the synagogue, shunned by the community as a woman scorned by God, she had spent all that she had in search of a cure that would allow her to rejoin society—to find once more her place in the family of God. She could not afford to make herself known to Jesus because she could not risk him refusing her request.

It is no accident that the nameless woman interrupts Jesus on his way to heal Jairus’ daughter. As the local religious authority, he is the one responsible for making sure that unclean women like her are not permitted in the synagogue—that they dare not get in the way of God’s presence among God’s people. It is no accident that her interruption delays Jesus long enough that Jairus’ daughter dies. Imagine what he felt when he saw Jesus stop in the middle of the crowd. Imagine his anxiety as he wondered whether this, his last hope, would make it to his house in time. Imagine the grief and rage he felt when he learned that his daughter had died and recognized who it was that had gotten in the way of his daughter’s healing. 

But why should his need for a miracle be more important, more valuable than hers? This was that nameless woman’s only chance for healing, too. Mark begins this story as if there is only enough time for one of them to be healed—as if Jesus will only be able to help one of them. And by sandwiching together these two desperate needs, Mark forces us to wonder why anyone would presume that the woman’s opportunity for healing wasn’t as important as Jairus’—why a religious outcast wouldn’t have as much of a claim on God’s saving love as the leader of the synagogue, why anyone would ever believe that a woman’s ritual impurity could get in the way of God’s salvation.

In the end, of course, it wasn’t too late. “The child is not dead but sleeping,” Jesus said to the mourners who had gathered and who laughed at his ridiculous assertion. Putting everyone but the child’s parents and his closest disciples out of the house, Jesus took the dead girl by the hand and spoke tenderly to her in Aramaic and brought her back to life. Nothing—not even millennia of religious tradition—could stand in the way of God’s healing love.

In the end, Jesus shows us that both Jairus and the nameless woman have an equal claim on God’s salvation. At twelve years old, Jairus’ daughter was on the cusp of womanhood, and, after suffering for twelve long years, the woman’s womanhood itself was broken. Jesus touched and healed them both. Both are called daughter. Both are restored. 

In Jesus Christ, God’s salvation comes to all people regardless of what the world would say about who deserves it. In fact, that salvation comes in ways that reject and defeat and destroy any attempt by others to restrict it—especially attempts by those who presume to speak on behalf of God. In Jesus Christ, we see that all people have a claim on God’s saving love. He has the power not only to heal all who are wounded, suffering, and broken but also to heal the brokenness that separates us from each other. You cannot know the saving power of God’s love and deny that love to anyone else. You cannot receive the healing touch of our savior and decide that someone else does not deserve that touch. God’s love has no limits. Who are we to stand in God’s way?

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Salvation in a Cedar or a Shrub?


June 13, 2021 – The 3rd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 6B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon, which is substantially different from the text below, is available here. Video of the service can be seen here.

Where is your home? Where are you at home? Not necessarily the place you sleep at night, though for many of us that is our home. Where in this world do you belong in a way that no one could ever take that from you? As Robert Frost wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Where is that home for you?

Three years ago, when Elizabeth and I drove for the first time to Northwest Arkansas, we noticed how dramatically the land changed as we moved from the rice patties of the Mississippi Delta through the Arkansas River Valley and on into the Boston Mountains. We grew up in places where pine trees lined every interstate and highway so thick you can only see a few feet into the woods as you drive by. We were trying to imagine what it would be like to live in a place where the roads are dotted by cedars that are spread out far enough that you can see the undulations of the rocky ground between them. 

Last week, I had coffee with Jacob Adler, the former rabbi at Temple Shalom, and we spoke about the ways in which where you live and where you’re from shape the way you read the Bible. A while back, he told me, he had been asked to translate a series of novels set in the Ozarks into Hebrew. One problem he encountered was the word “cedar.” Around here, he explained, we all know what cedar trees are—those scrubby, evergreen trees on the side of the road that, if you try to hang Christmas ornaments on them, the branches bend down to the ground. To someone who lives in the Levant, however, a cedar tree is something quite different.

In fact, to a botanist or arborist, the cedars of Arkansas and the cedars of Lebanon have very little in common except their fragrant, reddish wood. Rabbi Jacob explained that our cedar trees aren’t really cedars at all. They’re a form of juniper (Juniperus virginiana), which have narrow trunks and reach heights of maybe 50 or 60 feet. The cedars of Lebanon (Cedrus libani), however, are, as the scriptures suggest, magnificent trees with massive trunks and branches that stretch upwards of 130 feet or more. When the prophet Ezekiel asks us to imagine a “noble cedar,” under which “every kind of bird will live” and in whose branches “winged creatures of every kind” will find shade, he isn’t asking us to picture the floppy cedars we know made cartoonishly large but the giant legends of the Levantine forest, big and strong enough to make a home for all of God’s people.

“I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar,” God declares, “I will set it out…I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain.” The good news we hear in today’s reading from Ezekiel comes from the end of chapter 17, but that good news of a secure home for all people is actually the second half of a parable, which doesn’t begin so positively. At the beginning of the chapter, the prophet tells of a great and colorful eagle that came and snapped off the top of another cedar tree. That sprig, which represents King Jehoiakim of Judah, was taken off into exile by the eagle, who represents king of Babylon. When the sprig was planted in the city of merchants, a name for Babylonia, however, it died. That particular monarchical line was not to grow. 

In his place, we are told, the eagle-king of Babylon took another seed, Jehoiakim’s uncle, Zedekiah, and planted it back in Jerusalem as vassal king, allowing it to grow and prosper as long as he kept the peace and paid tribute to his master. But this seed, which had been planted by the Babylonian king, did not grow into a mighty cedar but into a vine more like a willow. At first, the vine showed promise for God’s people—a luscious, green, flowering vine that spread out beside the river. Soon, however, those shoots reached out toward a second eagle, this time representative of Egypt, with whom Zedekiah tried to establish a secret alliance that would lend military support for a rebellion against the Babylonian overlords. Yet, when the time for rebellion came, no help from Egypt was to be found. And, like the vine that he was, Zedekiah was pulled up from the ground with very little effort, and the city of Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, and God’s people were left without a home.

When the time comes, God declares, “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar…I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain…in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.” The parable of the cedar tree and the willow vine teaches us that our hope for salvation—our need for a secure home that is big enough to house all people and strong enough never to be shaken—is answered not by the kingdoms of this world but by the kingdom of God. The hope we wait for comes from God.

No matter how good our intentions are, we cannot vote for a candidate who will make God’s reign come to the earth. No matter how pure our motives are, we cannot support a legislative agenda that will establish God’s rule in our land. No matter how enlightened our dreams are, we cannot build a church that will bring the fullness of God’s kingdom to this community. Yes, our prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” should affect the way we use our vote and our voice as much as it affects the way we build our church. But, no matter how good it may feel to see our preferred candidate win an election, we cannot confuse the kingdoms of our own creation with the reign of God. 

Jesus said, “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.” Jesus said, “[The kingdom of God] is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of seeds on the earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

In every generation, God’s people wait and watch for God to come and establish his perfect reign on the earth. In order to help us see it, Jesus borrows from Ezekiel’s parable and adds new layers of understanding to it. Instead of following the prophetic pattern that God’s people expect, Jesus invites us to see that the kingdom of God sprouts forth from the earth in ways that transcend human understanding. Instead of a mighty cedar, which grows up from the sprig that God has planted, Jesus asks us to think of God’s reign as if it were a mustard plant—something that starts as small as the smallest seed on the earth yet still grows big enough for the birds of the air to nest in its branches.

Don’t you want a place to call home? Don’t you want to be secure in ways that carry you all the way through this life and even into the next? Don’t you want to belong in a way that is so deep and so true that nothing could ever take that away from you? That is God’s promise to us, in the kingdom that God establishes here on the earth. God’s reign is the one in which all the birds of the air—all the peoples of the earth—can build their nests in its protective shade. We find that place of belonging in the one who unites the peoples of the world through his own sacrificial love. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Cedar Trees and Mustard Seeds


This Sunday, regardless of whether your congregation is reading the RCL Track 2 lesson from Ezekiel, do yourself a favor and read all of Ezekiel 17 before you get to church on Sunday. I recommend that you read the CEB, which helps clarify some of the pronouns that get confusing. Here's a side-by-side comparison of the NRSV and CEB that you can read in 3-5 minutes.

It's the end of the chapter--verses 22-24--that are the reading for Sunday, but the rest of the chapter not only adds context to those verses but helps us understand what Jesus means when he talks about a mustard plant becoming big enough for birds of the air to nest in its shade. And, more than that, the first part of the chapter helps us understand why Jesus may have told the first parable in the gospel lesson--that of the farmer who scatters seed and does not know how it grows--and, perhaps most importantly, why Mark sandwiches the two parables together.

The first parable portrays the kingdom of God as something that comes up from the ground despite the farmer's lack of understanding. God is the one who gives the growth. The second parable portrays the kingdom of God as something that starts small yet becomes big enough to provide shelter for the birds of the air. And Ezekiel 17 portrays God's salvation as something that will not come through human intervention but through divine intervention--like a God-planted cedar sprig that will grow up into a mighty tree that is big enough for all the birds of the air to make nests in its branches.

In other words, not only is God's kingdom surprisingly big enough to shelter all, but it's also God's work, not ours. We don't make the kingdom happen. Our hope is in God. 

Read the bits in Ezekiel about the Jerusalem king who was taken off into Babylon, who made an oath with his captor yet sent ambassadors to Egypt to ask for help. His efforts are described by the prophet not as a mighty cedar but as a vine that can be plucked up without much effort. God is the one who plants the cedar. God is the one who provides real security. 

Sunday's parables give us glimpses of God's kingdom as Jesus understood it. Reading Ezekiel 17 helps us understand those glimpses even more fully. 

Monday, June 7, 2021

Trying to Stop God


June 6, 2021 – The 2nd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 5B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service is available here with the sermon beginning around 18:00.

If you got word that your grown-up child was in trouble, what kind of trouble would it be that would make you go and get that child to save them from themselves? Not what would make you want to go and rescue your child. Parents of children from 2 to 52 often feel that protective instinct. I mean what kind of trouble would it take for you to actually get up and go after your grown child in order to save them? Legal trouble? Marital trouble? Financial trouble? A trip to the hospital? A trip to jail?

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus’ family comes to save him from himself. Back at home in Nazareth, they’ve heard what kind of trouble he’d been getting up to. It started as a few whispers accompanied by concerned looks, but it quickly got worse. People were beginning to talk openly about that firebrand rabbi. “He’s lost his mind,” they said, “a good boy like that, causing all that trouble.” Friends with connections throughout the region had told Jesus’ family that he had been saying and doing some really controversial stuff. He had managed to enrage the local authorities more than once, and those friends had heard that they had even sent for the religious leaders down in Jerusalem. If they got ahold of him first, it might be too late. Mary and her family had better hurry down to Capernaum, where Jesus and his followers were camped out. If they went quickly, they might be able to stop him before it really got out of hand—before the real trouble started.

But they didn’t make it in time. When the religious officials from the capital city arrived in Capernaum, they pronounced their official judgment upon Jesus: “He has Beelzelbul, and by the ruler of demons he cast out demons.” That’s a strong accusation—not merely that Jesus was making outlandish claims but that Satan himself was operating through this controversial rabbi. By the time a theological disputation devolves into calling one’s opponent an agent of Satan, there really isn’t much room left for dialogue. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had labeled him a prince of the devil, which meant that anything he did or said was automatically evil and that any claim he made about God was tantamount to blasphemy and worthy of execution by stoning. For most preachers in any tradition, that’s not a recipe for vocational advancement.

So what was it that Jesus did and said that got him in so much trouble? Why were the local and national religious leaders determined to sabotage his ministry? In the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus gets himself in trouble right from the very beginning. As soon as he was baptized, he was led by the Holy Spirit out into the wilderness, where he was confronted by Satan. When he got back into town, he found that Satan was waiting for him there as well. After calling a few disciples, Jesus’ first two miracles were to cast out a demon in a synagogue on the sabbath and the next day heal a leper, daring to touch the man in order to make him clean. Quickly, the compassionate rabbi, who was willing to flaunt the established rules, made a name for himself throughout the region. 

Then, Jesus healed a paralytic man, but, before he did, he pronounced that the man’s sins had been forgiven—a claim that was likened by some to blasphemy. He followed that up by spending time eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners, which only made the religious community more upset. Then, at the beginning of Mark 3, Jesus again entered a synagogue on the sabbath, but this time the authorities were watching to see what he would do. When a man with a withered hand came to him in order to be healed, Jesus turned their own expectations back on them, asking, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath—to save life or kill?” But, when the authorities refused to answer his question, he was grieved at their hardness of heart and healed the man anyway. From that moment on, Mark tells us, the authorities went out and conspired to destroy him.

That’s more or less where today’s gospel lesson picks up—with reports of that meddlesome behavior reaching both his family and the religious leaders in Jerusalem, both of whom come to find him. One group comes to stop him before he gets into even more trouble, and the other comes to bring the full weight of that trouble upon him. And Mark sandwiches those two pursuits together into one episode to help us understand that, whether we’re coming to save Jesus from himself or coming to label him as an agent of Satan, we’re guilty of the same thing. We can’t stand in the way of the gospel’s work without standing in the way of God. A house divided against itself, Jesus tells us, cannot stand.

This isn’t easy work, but it’s important work. People who confront institutions of power are always vilified in the most extreme terms. When religious institutions are challenged, the challengers are called demonic. When economic institutions are challenged, they are called communist. When national institutions are challenged, they are called unpatriotic. When familial institutions are challenged, they are called traitorous. And labels like that make it hard to get anywhere in this world. It’s hard to get a job or a friend or a spouse or a loan or a or a pulpit if people who matter in this world have called you evil. 

And if my child was doing or saying something that brought heat like that upon them, I would want to get up and run after them and grab them by the shoulders and shake some sense into them. I’d want to pick them up and put them in the back seat of my car and race away from danger. Wouldn’t all of us want to restrain our loved one before something bad happened to them? But what happens if that person we love is under fire because they are standing on the side of justice? What is the right thing to do if that person we are so worried about has put their life on the line for the sake of the gospel?

Jesus came to love those whom the world knew to be unlovable. He told sinners that they were forgiven. He invited outcasts to sit at his table. He gave healing and wholeness to those whom the religious traditions had been unable to help. And, when he did all of that, the people who had been in charge of the religious rules for generations were furious. They were angry enough to conspire in order to have him killed. And all Mary and her family wanted to do was rescue him and take him away from all of that.

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” Jesus asked when told that his family was standing outside. “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus’ work was to make sure that everyone had a place in God’s family. And those of us who are committed to that work discover that our true home—our true family—is the one we have in Jesus Christ. 

We belong to a God who loves us not because we’re good enough, religious enough, or holy enough. We belong to a God who loves us just because. Believing that—believing that all people matter to God not because of what they have or think or say or do, where they’re from, or who they love—is threatening to those people and institutions that for generations have been in control of who gets a seat at the table. To some, it is even so threatening that they would respond by trying to kill those who talk about God and the world like that. What will we do in the face of a threat like that? Will we try to restrain the ones we love who face such danger? Or will we ask God to give us the strength to lend our voice and our bodies and our lives to stand with them?

Monday, May 24, 2021

Can These Bones Live?


May 23, 2021 – The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday, Year B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service is available here with the sermon starting around 19:10.

Can these bones live? Can these dry bones, the scattered remains of God’s people, the symbol of their abandoned hopes and unfulfilled dreams, come back to life?

The hand of the Lord came upon the prophet Ezekiel and brought him to the middle of a valley that was full of bones. God led him up and down that valley among all those bones—an exhausting tour of death and destruction. And the voice of God said to the prophet, “Mortal, can these bones live?” And the prophet replied, “O Lord God, you are the one who knows.”

These bones were very dry. Not the bones of those killed these last few weeks in Palestine or even the bones of those tortured and murdered in Syria over the last several years. These bones had been dead so long that there was no tissue still clinging to them. These were the kind of bones you find in unmarked graves in Tulsa or Elaine. These were the scattered, abandoned bones of those whose lives had been forgotten and whose deaths hardly anyone remembered. Life had long ago deserted these bones, and now the prophet was asked to imagine whether they might live again: “Mortal, can these bones live?” And the prophet replied, “O Lord God, you are the one who knows.”

In the time of the prophet Ezekiel, God’s people had suffered great loss. Their nation had been defeated. Their cities had been destroyed. Their homes had been demolished. Their people had been carted off in exile. Their God, as far as anyone could tell, had abandoned them and forsaken their name. There was no life in them. Their future was as good as dead. Could these bones live?

God said to the prophet, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live.” 

And when the prophet opened his mouth and proclaimed what God had told him, there came a noise—a rustling and rattling—as the bones came together, bone to its bone. What a terrifying sound that must have been! As the prophet looked on, sinews came upon them, holding the bones together, and then muscle tissue and then skin. A multitude—a legion—of Israel standing there, reembodied but breathless until the prophet prophesied to the breath that came from the four corners of the earth and blew new life into those once-dead bodies. What an incredible and terrifying sight that must have been!

Standing there, looking out at the great multitude of God’s resuscitated people, the prophet heard the Lord explain that those dry bones were the whole house of Israel—all of God’s people—who had suffered so long that their “bones were dried up, and [their] hope was lost; [they were] cut off completely.” That’s all they knew. That’s all they could see. They were as hopeless as skeletal remains in a hastily dug mass grave. But not to God. God was not through with them yet. In God, their dry, lifeless hopes found new breath, new life. God was going to do something exciting and terrifying and totally unexpected. God was going to bring them back to life.

God’s Spirit is the breath that breathes life into old, dry bones. And Pentecost is the day when we celebrate that breath coming to breathe God’s new life into the broken, dry bones of this world not just in a moment two thousand years ago but each and every day. 

The Spirit’s work in our own day is the same as it was back then. On the night he was arrested, Jesus promised his disciples in John 16, that he would send the Holy Spirit or Advocate, as he called it, to come and prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. That’s a fancy way of saying that the work of the Holy Spirit is to turn the world’s expectations about Jesus and his ministry and God’s plan for the world on their head. The powers of this world thought that they could defeat the one who came to rescue the lost and lift up the downtrodden by nailing him to a cross. They thought that by killing him in that shameful way they would prove his ministry had run its course. But they were wrong.

At Easter, God reversed their judgment, and at Pentecost God reverses it yet again. The powers of this world think that they have won whenever they convince the brokenhearted and despondent that the world will always be this way—that their hopes and dreams are as lifeless as a valley full of dry bones. But they are the ones in whom God’s Spirit breathes new life—not only at Pentecost but ever since. 

These are the last days, Peter tells us, when God’s Spirit is poured out upon all flesh—male and female, young and old, slave and free. In his own vision of God’s saving work, the prophet Joel imagined a day when God’s Spirit would flow so freely that no one would be excluded from its power, and Peter understood that day to have been ushered in at Pentecost. That was two thousand years ago, yet we still live in those last days. God’s work of bringing new life to the broken world is still unfolding. God’s rejection of those who would rob others of hope continues. 

The arrival of God’s Spirit was not simply a moment in the past but the inauguration of a new era of God’s ongoing activity in the world. And, as recipients of that Holy Spirit, we are the ones who bear the good news of that new life and new hope to the world. We are the ones empowered for that sacred work. Those who are baptized into this community of faith are those whom God calls and equips to carry the good news of salvation to the ends of the earth.

Whose bones lie scattered in the valleys of today—sometimes even literally? Whose lives have become so hopeless that they cannot see beyond the death and destruction piled around them? What is God’s Spirit saying to them? What are we saying on God’s behalf?

This is the work of the Holy Spirit—to give hope to the hopeless, direction to the lost, and strength to the weary. Even more than that, God’s Spirit is what brings new life to the dead. The Spirit is what brings the promise of resurrection to the ends of the earth. It is the power of God which stands in direct opposition to the powers of this world. It is more than tongues of fire and spontaneous translation. Those strange phenomena must have been exciting to behold, but they were merely signs of this new thing that God is doing. God is breathing new life into long-dead, long-forgotten, long-ignored people and places and institutions. What signs of new life will God show the world through us? Can these dry bones live? God is the one who knows, and we are the ones who are called to make it known.