Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Good News?


The word "gospel" literally means "good news." In English, that word comes from a combination of "good" and "spel," which means "news." Of course, in English "good" and "God" share the same root, so it's both "good news" and "God's news." In Greek, however, the word is εὐαγγέλιον, which is the combination of "eu," which means good, and "angelon," which means message. You can also tell that the word for "angel," which is a messenger, is part of that word. In English, we don't call the gospel the "evangelon," but we do call people "evangelists" or "evangelicals," both of which come from the word for gospel or good news.

Except in the introductory citation of each of the four gospel accounts, most translators render the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον as "good news." This Sunday, at the end of the gospel lesson (Luke 3:7-18), we hear Luke offer his editorial assessment of what John the Baptist had been proclaiming: "So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people." But, when we hear John's message, do we hear good news?

"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"

"Bear fruits worthy of repentance."

"Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

Good news? Really? Is this "good news" as in "the gospel," or is this really supposed to be "good news" as in "glad tidings," which is another way to translate the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον? Who is glad to hear this?

Luke isn't the only one who identifies this as good news. Those who heard John also thought of this message as good news. How do we know? Look at their response: "The crowds asked him, 'What then should we do?'" Instead of being pushed away by his sharp call to repentance, those who had come out into the wilderness to hear John and be baptized by him wanted to know how they might bear that repentance-worthy fruit. John then explained to them that they must give up their extra coats and extra food so that everyone could have enough. They must stop their dishonest practices and be content with what they have. In other words, the fruit of repentance is a change of lifestyle enacted in anticipation of the coming of God's reign.

After hearing all of this, how did the crowd react? "As the people were filled with expectation...all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah." Such good news was this that the crowds began to believe that John might be the anointed one whom God would send to rescue God's people. This was, indeed, good news. John's vision for their lives was God's vision for their lives, and they recognized it as such. The hard, sharp, scary invitation to repentance had been received as a way for the people to see the coming of God's messiah. That is good news in any generation.

This Sunday, as I prepare to preach, I'm trying to balance our need for comfort and joy, which comes in the first and second readings, and the good news of repentance. In fact, as John and Luke and the crowds understood, they are one and the same, but I live in a culture where the good news of repentance has been hijacked by religious figures who associate repentance with fear and guilt and shame. In John's day, the religious leaders offered a similar call. They used fear and guilt and shame to manipulate people into adopting a religious system that benefited them and underscored their own goodness. John's message in the wilderness was one of true repentance--a re-turning to God instead of a returning to religion. There is good news in returning to God, and this week's preachers have to find a way to offer it despite representing the sort of religious institution that John the Baptist (and Jesus) came to reject.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Stack 'Em and Rack 'Em


Yesterday, we heard Luke introduce John the Baptist's ministry (Luke 3:1-6) by listing the political and religious authorities who were exercising power in that day before declaring that the word of God came to John in the wilderness. Luke likens his work to Isaiah's vision of a voice crying in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." His "baptism of repentance" was a preparation for the one to come. This Sunday, as we continue in Luke 3, we see what that preparation looks like.

First, John taunts those who came out to be baptized: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" That's an interesting approach to building a ministry--insulting those who come out to see you, and mocking their motivation. But John understands an urgency to his work that requires him to sift through all the B.S. and get to the real issue: "Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor.'" Given contemporary approaches to ministry, the response is surprising: "What should we do?" John berates them for being unfaithful, and they set aside their own pretense and ask what real repentance and faithfulness look like.

In Luke's account of this interaction, John gives them a clear image of what repentance looks like: "If you have two coats, you must share one with someone who doesn't have one. The same is true for those who have more than enough food to eat. If you're a tax collector, take only what is prescribed, and, if you're a soldier, be satisfied with your wages, and don't extort anything from anyone." Although his method may be a little startling, the message should not surprise us. Luke identifies John as a counter-image of power, and his message of repentance is exactly that: turn away from the concentration of power and privilege you possess and redistribute it in the community. Rubber, meet road.

But this image of material repentance is not an end in itself, and I think that's the real point of this passage: "As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, 'I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming.'" John's proclamation led people to think that he might be the one on whom they had been waiting. The people knew the various messianic expectations that filled the culture of Second Temple Judaism. They heard John's counter-cultural, outside-the-temple, outside-the-authorities message of economic equality and wondered whether this might be the messiah who would come to usher in God's reign. But John was just getting them ready. Likewise, our response to John's invitation to repentance is just getting us ready.

When I was in high school, I worked in a hospital pharmacy. There was one day every six months when everyone was scheduled to be at work, and no one was allowed to miss for any reason: inventory day. Every box, every bag, every pill, every ounce had to be counted and inventoried. "Rack 'em and stack 'em," we'd say, as we lined up box after box, bottle after bottle, of endless pills. It was an impressive display of organization. One person would arrange every item in a particular category and call out numbers for another person who would record it on a sheet. But, before that count could be taken, everything had to be in its proper place, returned to its bin, lined up. Sunday's gospel lesson reminds me of that.

John's work is to line everything up--to get all things and all people in order--so that we can receive the one who is coming. Repentance, as Suzanne Stoner preached yesterday, is a return to our true created selves--the goodness, the image of God, with which we were made. Sin is a distortion of that identity, and it manifests itself in economic disparity, dishonesty, extortion, and scarcity. The Christ is coming to save God's people, and repentance is how God's people turn around to see it. Yes, it involves a change in heart and mind, but those squishy, hard-to-define emotional components have easy-to-see manifestations in how we live. Advent is about getting ready, and John reminds us that's more than a wishful thought.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Daily Reminder of Hope


Earlier this week, my friend and colleague Steve Pankey acknowledged in a post that when Canticle 16, The Song of Zechariah, comes up in Morning Prayer, that part of him that is still only half-awake wishes we could skip the rehearsal of Old Testament prophecy and begin with the good stuff: "You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High." I sympathize with that. Often, if the canticles are long (Te Deum, anyone?), I skip them entirely and offer a moment of silent reflection as a response to the readings. But, when it comes to Zechariah's Song, I have a different experience.

The Principal of the seminary where I was for two years insisted that The Song of Zechariah be read every day in Morning Prayer. The only acceptable exception was the one day when that passage of scripture was appointed as the second lesson. That was his thing. I don't know exactly where that motivation came from, but I think it was a liturgically-minded evangelical's reaction to the anglo-catholic's insistence that Mary's Song never be omitted from Evening Prayer. If you've been to Evensong or say Evening Prayer, you'll notice that, even in our twentieth-century prayer book, the expectation is that you will say the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis every evening. Sure, the rubrics allow another selection, but those are the only two printed within the text of the office. And my Principal was right: the history of Anglican worship expected that the Benedictus would be the second canticle in Morning Prayer. (See 1662 BCP: "Then shall be read in like manner the Second Lesson, taken out of the New Testament. And after that, the Hymn following; except when that shall happen to be read in the Chapter for the day, or for the Gospel on Saint John Baptist’s Day.)

If you were leading Morning Prayer and dared to skip it, by the time you had made your way to your study and opened your e-mail, you'd have a missive from the Principal reminding you that such an omission was not allowed. In part because of his Benedictus fastidiousness and in part because we read it every single day, Morning Prayer doesn't feel right to me when we don't read it. I also use an online format to provide Morning Prayer, and I haven't found one that allows me to indicate my preference for Zechariah's Song every day. Because of that, whenever it happens to come up, I delight in saying the whole thing. I'll gladly skip the Song of Moses or the Benedicite, but I relish in the words that Zechariah proclaims.

Listen to the way John the Baptist's father understood the story of salvation unfolding in the ministry of his son: "This was the oath [God] swore to our father Abraham, to set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life." What good news that is! Hear his confidence that God is coming to God's people: "The dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace." Remember, Luke doesn't locate this canticle after John the Baptist had matured in his ministry. And he doesn't place it as a retrospective on Jesus' resurrection. This is given to us right at the beginning. (Luke doesn't tell us how old JBap was when his daddy sang this song, but the implication is that it happened right after the child was named.) This is a statement of faith--of confidence in the future God was bringing to God's people. Isn't that something we need to hear every day?

Faith isn't a backward looking proposition. What has happened in the past is the foundation of our faith, but we aren't asked to believe in the past. We're asked to believe in the future. We are asked not to have faith that the tomb is empty. We're asked to have faith that God will rescue us and that the empty tomb is our sign, our proof, that God will keep God's promise. Each day, we wake up not to wrestle with the doctrines of our religion but to wrestle with the doubts about what each day will bring. Will I be ok? Will my family be ok? Will my church be ok? Will our country be ok? The answer in God is yes. Faith is seeing each day as another day when the dawn from on high will break upon us and bring salvation to those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Clement's Gift


The church has always had a bit of a public relations problem: "Jesus said, 'Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me'" (from John 5:57-63). Accusations of cannibalism, while not the only criticisms levied against the followers of Jesus, were common in the first century or so of Christianity. Those who ate the bread and drank the wine in memory of Jesus' death and resurrection insisted that they did more than share a memorial meal. "This is the Body of Christ," they insisted, and we insist it still. Many years ago, as a friend knelt at the altar rail, I teased her before giving her the bread: "I didn't think vegans were supposed to eat flesh." Of course, it was a silly comment that conveyed no real confusion or concern, but I wonder... Without appealing to explanatory doctrines or attempting to define an undefinable mystery, how do we navigate that strange way of taking Jesus at his word without losing our grip on reality?

Who decides what passages of the Bible are read figuratively and which ones are literal truth? What great council of the church officially declared which verses are hyperbolic, which ones are parabolic, and which ones are to be taken straight from the page? I take it for granted that the truth in Jesus' words does not always depend on their factual accuracy, but who gives me permission to read the gospel that way? How do we know we're doing it right?

Clement of Alexandria lived in the second and third centuries, which is to say a long, long time ago. A well-educated philosopher, he became the head of the catechetical school in Alexandria and was Origen's teacher. His gift to the church of his day was to straddle the worlds of pagan intellectualism and the Christian faith, and he did so in a way that remains a gift to us today. Back then, many so-called Christians believed that the teachings of Jesus were too strange, too other-worldly, too intellectual for ordinary people. The knowledge (gnosis) of truth was revealed only to the select few who could comprehend it. Salvation was for those who were able to set aside the burdens of this life and this world in order to escape to the divine life. The knowledge (gnosis) was, therefore, a secret that not only should not be shared with everyone but could not be shared with them. But that wasn't God's vision for salvation, and, despite having some resonances in the teachings of Jesus, it wasn't indicative of his ministry.

It would have been easy for the Christian faith to become a primitive, anti-intellectual faith. "Just read what's on the page, and believe it with your heart, and you will be saved," one might imagine the Sunday-school teachers of the day saying. But Clement knew there was more to the way of Jesus. Bringing his philosophical education to his work, he encourage the leaders of the church to teach the saving knowledge and truth of Jesus that is salvation for the world not from the world. He opened the scriptures to allegorical and metaphorical interpretation that had somehow been lost between the rabbinical tradition of the apostles and the Greek influence of the growing church. He invited us to trust that the words of Jesus are true in ways that transcend our simple experience of this life yet that reflect powerful our embodied, created existence. He became a voice for Christianity that is still very much needed today.

There is nothing wrong with a simple faith. There is deep value in a literal reading of all of scripture. It can make a mess of lots of things, but it can be deeply formative to read Jesus' parables as real history. But we cannot stop there. If those who preach and teach the way of Jesus cannot leave behind the need for only literal biblical exegesis, the faith of the church fails to reflect the experience of the faithful. People turn away from the truth because it isn't true anymore. Yet the instinct to remove the way of Jesus from the way of humanity is an equally fruitless pursuit. The gospel cannot save us from the world because the world God made itself is good. Our brokennesses do not need forsaking but redeeming.

Clement invites us to heard the words of Jesus again through the voice of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit's guidance does not lead each of us to her own truth but leads all of us to God's truth, which, although everlasting, is not static. Being faithful to God means being faithful to scripture and faithful to the one who guides us as we read it. Clement knew that. May we know it and share it, too.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Our Rural God


Some people are city folks, and some people are born for the country. I grew up in a built-up community within a rural county, and I encountered on the high school football field some of the tension and conflict between those who worked in buildings and those who worked in the open. We did not have a weekly livestock auction in my hometown, but you only needed to drive fifteen minutes away to the "downtown" of one of our rivals to find one. As the world shrinks and more small and mid-sized farms are either industrialized or developed as subdivisions, rural life is fading. I'm glad to live in a place where cattle and sheep are only ten minutes away, but those farms, which have existed much longer than the urban sprawl that threatens them, now feel out of place.

Perhaps that loss of rural identity helps us understand what God is doing in Luke 3:1-6, which we will hear this Sunday: "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness." The distinction could not be clearer. Luke names for us emperors, governors, and tetrarchs. He identifies the high priests. And then he tells us that the word of God found John out in the wilderness. The contrast between the powers of this world, which seem concentrated in the cities of Rome and Caesarea Maritima and Jerusalem, and the power of God, which came to John way out in the undeveloped, virtually uninhabited wilderness, is striking. And it is striking for many of the same reasons that the conflict between rural and urban identity still exists today.

The city is a place of power and strength. People are presumed to be wealthier and better educated. They control the flow of money through the community. Their social graces are refined. Their libraries are centers of learning. Their hospitals offer advanced techniques. And their religion is highly polished, too. The finest preachers and musicians are called to the big urban congregations. They are the model for how worship might look if every community of faith was well-resourced.

The country is a place of diffused resources. Individual landowners may have great resources, but those who live and work among them likely do not. In fact, many of the owners prefer to reside in the comforts of the city while the work is done out on the farm. Independence is valued so much that social graces are sometimes frowned upon as unnecessary capitulation to someone else's expectations. The books in the libraries have been read and loved until the pages are worn. In the community health clinic, everyone knows you by name, but they'll quickly send you to town if anything serious is wrong. Religion in the country is real and powerful but not at all polished. The piano has been out of tune longer than anyone can remember, but it still plays the old favorites. Everyone recalls when the preacher was really in his prime, but his sermons now have the season appropriate for someone of his experience. You can't find a congregation more loving or committed anywhere else, but newcomers aren't seen often.

And where does God show up? To whom does God reveal God's word? Where will the real, Spirit-filled prophet be found? Who can call God's people to repentance in preparation for the coming Day of the Lord?

God shows up outside the presumed power-structure of the day. The baptism of repentance that John proclaimed was not merely a change in moral behavior but a change in resource, in power, in priority. It is a turning-around from human-produced reliance and an embrace of the lean and hard life of depending only on God. That means a change in our understanding what and who is important, and the rich city preacher like me has a hard time proclaiming that message with any integrity.

This Sunday, as I sit in what has become the well-resourced city church, I'll notice the plain yet beautiful wooden walls that remind me of the rural heritage of our congregation. I'll listen for the message of the gospel transmitted to us from its country roots. And I'll ask God to help me see what has become difficult to see: God's work beginning in the wilderness so that the earthly powers might be transformed.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Powers Are Shaking


December 2, 2018 – The First Sunday of Advent, Year C

© 2018 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be found here.

In a community like ours, children are allowed to wander around at the ball park while their older siblings play baseball. Parents keep an eye on their children, of course, but they also know that everyone else—friends, other parents and grandparents, and most anyone at the field—will help them watch out for danger. One of the understood duties that everyone shares is to yell out “Heads up!” whenever a player fouls off a pitch, sending it over the backstop fence. When you think about it, however, “Heads up!” isn’t always the best thing to say. Last spring, I joined a field full of spectators as we watched in horror as a ball sailed back into the stands toward a three-year-old, who had stopped bounding down the sidewalk to innocently and obediently look up at the sky when everyone cried out, “Heads up!” There was nothing any of us could do. No one had time to get to the ball or the child, and we all exhaled with great relief when the ball bounced off the sidewalk a foot from the vulnerable child. Maybe yelling “Duck!” or “Take cover!” would be better.

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,” Jesus said. “There will be distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world for the powers of heaven will be shaken…[But] when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is coming near.” It really doesn’t make sense. Disaster and destruction, confusion and chaos, are on the way, and Jesus wants us to lift up our heads and stare what is coming in the face? What does he mean? There’s nothing more natural than hunkering down when danger approaches. How is Jesus’ invitation to resist that instinct and hold up our heads an invitation to faithfulness?

Well, for starters, it seems that he’s not really talking to us. We come to church in the daylight. We park our cars on the street and walk right in the front door. We wear crosses around our necks and share religious social media posts because we want people to know that we are Christians. To be a Christian in northwest Arkansas is to belong to a community of power. We are the majority. We have generational influence. We aren’t making a case for ourselves and our religion under threat of persecution like the first Christians had to. They came to church under the cover of darkness because they didn’t want to be killed. They snuck around from house to house, staggering their arrivals the way a group of spies might plan a clandestine rendezvous. They exchanged signs of their faith in secret and used coded messages to communicate with one another. When Jesus told his followers that the powers of the heavens would be shaken, to a group of believers that constantly feared what those powers-that-be might do to them, that was undoubtedly good news.

The central theology of Christianity, like that of its Judaic ancestor, is built on a belief that God will come and rescue those who have no power of their own. When God’s people were enslaved in Egypt, God came to deliver them. When God’s people were scattered in the Babylonian exile, God remembered them and brought them home. When Jesus preached up and down the countryside of first-century Palestine, he offered the familiar message of rescue for the lost and salvation for the oppressed, and he identified it with his own ministry. In him, the reign of God had come near, and that reign meant an end to the tyranny of Rome. But the Empire wasn’t the only object of Jesus’ prophecy of power-reversal. Jesus preached that the reign of God meant riches for the poor and security for the widow and orphan. In Christ, God’s way of justice and righteousness had come to those whom the religious elites had held in the bondage of hypocrisy. Those who had been pushed to the margins of religious society—the tax collectors, the lepers, the prostitutes, and other notorious sinners—were welcomed by the one who came to reveal the great reversal of power that God’s reign represents.

Who in today’s world would hear the news that the nations are in an uproar and the powers of the heavens are being shaken as good news? To whom does that message come as a proclamation of hope? Is it not the victim of abuse who for years had been silenced by men in positions of power over her and her family? Is it not the person among us who suffers from mental illness whose care was long ago abdicated by a society that would rather spend its tax dollars in celebration of its own prosperity than caring for the least among them? Is it not the incarcerated African-American who followed the path from school to prison that was appointed for him by those who refuse to see beyond the labels that our dominant society affixes to young men of color? Is it not the caravan of migrant men and women and children, who fled their homeland because the evil powers of the drug trade threatened their lives and whose hope for resettlement has been met with tear gas at the United States border?

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint with fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken…[And] when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” If you are like me—a well-educated, white, middle-class man with access to all the comforts and protections that our society can provide—the thought of God’s great reversal of power probably makes you want to duck for cover. And it’s easy to think that these words of Jesus aren’t intended for us—that the message of the coming of God’s reign is meant for another people in another place or culture or time. But, of course, these words aren’t just good news for someone else. They’re the good news we need to hear as well.

As Suzanne mentioned when we discussed this gospel lesson in staff meeting this week, the thought of God coming to level everything out is good news both for those whom God will raise up and for those whom God will bring down. Why? Because we are prisoners of our own success. We have built ourselves up in order to insulate ourselves from the nightmares that life can bring. But how long will it last? Can we really create a security for ourselves that will carry us all the way through this world and into the next? The hairline cracks in the veneer of our manufactured perfection eventually catch up with all of us. None of us can enter the reign of God on our own merits, and we need God’s righteousness and justice, which are made manifest in the limitless love God gives the world in Christ Jesus, to set us straight—to help us see that we, like everyone else, have no power to save ourselves, but, in fact, God already has.

“Be on your guard,” Jesus says, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” It is easy, in a life of comfort and plenty, to forget that the coming of God’s reign is something for all of us to anticipate with urgency. Until the powers of this world give way to the power of God, none of us can dwell in God’s reign. But Jesus tells us that that reign is very near: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.” Jesus wasn’t wrong. He wasn’t mistaken about God’s timing. We just have to see and interpret the signs that are all around us. Jesus tells us that they are as easy to see as the budding leaves on a fig tree, as familiar to us as another day’s news. The powers of the heavens are being shaken. They are being shaken all around us. “Stand up,” Jesus says, “and raise your heads.” Will we understand the reversals of power that unfold in the world around us as signs of God’s reign—as evidence of our own salvation—or will we keep our heads down and let God’s reign pass us by?

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Sheep and Goats, Kings and Queens


What's the only state flag in the United States that incorporates the Union Flag of Great Britain into its design? Hawaii. I suppose the thirteen colonies were still too upset about taxation without representation to include evidence of their former identity in their state standards. Hawaii, on the other hand, became a state in 1959, sixty or so years after representatives of the United States had helped orchestrate the overthrow of Hawaii's ruling queen, which led to annexation. Almost two hundred years earlier, British explorer James Cook had landed on Hawaii, bringing to the islands both the unrelenting attention of Europeans and their deadly diseases. Still, the link between Hawaii and England was fashioned and preserved for generations.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, when the man who would become King Kamehameha IV was a fifteen-year-old prince, he took a government sponsored trip to England, where he experienced the richness of the Anglican tradition. Five years after his trip, his uncle died, and Kamehameha became king at a time when American political and economic influence in his nation was growing rapidly. As much a political decision as a religious one, Kamehameha petitioned the Bishop of Oxford to send missionaries from the Church of England to Hawaii to moderate the other American Christian influences that had taken hold on the island. Within a month of the arrival of missionary bishop Thomas Staley and two priests, the Kamehameha and Emma, the queen, were confirmed, and Kamehameha began translating the Book of Common Prayer and hymnal from English into Hawaiian.

Anglicanism may have been a politically expedient affiliation, but Kamehameha and Emma's devotion to the Christian faith were unquestioned. They traveled through the islands, listening to the needs of their people. Smallpox had ravaged the kingdom, and they personally solicited money from the entire population--rich and poor--to raise funds to build a hospital, which to this day remains the largest civilian hospital in Hawaii. One year after their four-year-old son died tragically of chronic asthma, Kamehameha died, reportedly of grief. Emma was unsuccessful in her attempt to retain the throne, but her role in public life did not diminish. She continued to build schools, particularly for girls, and support the charitable efforts that she and her husband had founded. She died at the age of 49, after suffering several strokes.

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory...all nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats...Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world...' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink...?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."

Today, as we celebrate the feast of Kamehameha and Emma and use their lives to help us understand what it means to be a chosen vessel through which the Holy Spirit acts, I am drawn into the sense of timing and surprise contained in Jesus' parable about judgment. Notice how the king introduces the inheritance to the righteous ones: "the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." It is as if the appointed place has been appointed and preserved long before those to whom it will be given were born or did anything to deserve it. The inheritance itself was determined before the inheritors were around. And notice how surprised the righteous ones are when they hear that they have cared for the king personally--"When was it...," they ask. I wonder whether Kamehameha and Emma, when they stand before the Son of Man, will be surprised when he says to them, "When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat." I sense that they might reply, "Lord, we were just doing our jobs. We were caring for our people."

The parable Jesus uses hinges on that sense of timing and surprise. The message isn't simply, "Go out and try harder to do nice things for all people because, in so doing, you will care for me." It's nice to do nice things in the name of Jesus, but that isn't what separates the sheep from the goats. All are surprised to discover the connection between their actions and their identity. The righteous ones do the right thing because it is who they are. It is their identity. It is not an act of the will but a reflection of their very being. Likewise, the unrighteous, whose fate we skip in the reading for today, are equally surprised. Of course they would have cared for the king if they had only known. But that's the point. It's not about knowing or seeing or choosing. The parable's sense of surprise shows us that it's deeper than that. It portrays righteous (or unrighteous) acts as a reflection of an identity, and it's that identity that we celebrate in the lives of all the saints, including Kamehameha and Emma.

You are one of God's sheep, a righteous one, a saint, not because of the good things you've done but because that's who God has made you, that's how God has formed you. The righteous acts will flow from that identity whether we are conscious of them or not. You can't charity your way into righteousness. You can't earn your way into being one of the sheep. That's already decided. It's been decided since the foundation of the world. Your job is to celebrate it. Your calling is to become conscious of it. You are to become a fuller and fuller vehicle through which the Holy Spirit, which already dwells within you, acts in this broken world--not so that you can be a child of God but because you already are a child of God. Our first turn, therefore, is not outward but inward. We look within to discover God's truth about who we are so that then we can look outward and see beyond ourselves and become God's hands and feet in the world.