Monday, September 19, 2022

How To Make Friends In Heaven

September 18, 2022 – The 15th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 20C

© 2022 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 22:25.

Are you a Christian or an Arkansan? An Episcopalian or an American? Do you pledge allegiance to the flag or to God? I hope the answer can be both. Usually, we are able to hold onto both parts of our identity as citizens of this country and children of God’s kingdom without experiencing much conflict between them. One aspect informs the other. We can be both. Just as I am a priest and a husband, a father and a son, an uncle and a sibling, we all experience dual identities that we hold together without even thinking about it—until we have to. Do I cheer for Arkansas or Alabama? Usually, it’s both, but, once a year, I have to choose. Once a year, I must decide where my true allegiance lies.

Today’s gospel lesson is hard to hear in any age, but I think that understanding and applying the parable of the dishonest manager to life in the twenty-first century is even harder than it was back when Jesus first said these words. “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.” In the strange story that follows, Jesus describes a manager who cuts backroom deals with his master’s debtors in order to curry favor with them so that they will take care of him after he is fired. In the end, the owner actually praises the dishonest employee for his shrewdness, and then Jesus offers an even more astounding summary by encouraging his followers to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that, when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” What does any of that mean?

Before I try to pull apart the parable and make sense of it, let me remind you that this passage comes right on the heels of three other parables—those of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the two lost sons, also known as the parable of the prodigal son. If you can’t remember the details of those parables, don’t worry. Suffice it to say that Jesus wanted his audience of religious leaders to understand why he always ate with tax collectors and sinners, so he told them three parables of lostness. God is the one who seeks after and finds those who have gone astray. God is the one who always welcomes the lost back into the fold. But, at the beginning of this parable, the audience changes. Instead of speaking to the scribes and the Pharisees, who didn’t like the fact that Jesus’ ministry was a model of this seeking out the lost, Jesus tells this story to his disciples—his followers—as if to remind us what it means to belong to the one who has come and found us.

So what is life as one of Jesus’ disciples supposed to look like—like a dishonest manager, quickly and quietly telling his master’s debtors to cancel large portions of what they owe in order to benefit from that malfeasance down the road? Well, sort of. This isn’t a parable that is supposed to teach us how to run a business or how to cheat and get ahead. But it is supposed to teach us that we should approach our place in God’s kingdom with the same focus, intensity, and urgency that someone who belongs fully to the ways of the world would approach the news that they were about to lose their job. But making sense of this parable requires us to separate the dishonest wealth, which is the currency of this world, from the shrewdness of the manager, which has a place both in this world and in the kingdom to which we belong.

Let’s look more closely at the story Jesus tells. The owner of a large agricultural business has heard that his chief manager is squandering his property. As soon as the manager learns that he must turn in his books and that he will lose his job, he hatches a plan. He tells one of his master’s debtors to change his bill from 100 baths of oil to 50 and another to change what he owes from 100 kors of wheat and make it 80. Those weren’t small amounts but hundreds of gallons and hundreds of bushels, worth tens of thousands of dollars in today’s money. And, because he was his master’s legal agent, those decisions were final. The manager’s dishonesty would surely be discovered, but there was no way for the owner to get his money back.

Part of what makes this parable so hard to understand is how Jesus seems to celebrate that deception. Plenty of scholars have tried to relieve that awkwardness by suggesting that the manager was simply foregoing his commission or eliminating the interest and, thus, making his master look better, but the debts that were cancelled were too large to be an interest charge or a commission. But, if we look carefully at the text, we see that Jesus isn’t actually praising the man’s dishonesty. The owner in the parable commends his manager’s shrewdness, and Jesus likewise encourages his followers to be shrewd as they deal with the dishonest wealth of this world, but the deception isn’t what’s celebrated here. The thing that is being held up for us to emulate is shrewdness—the ability to use the resources at hand to accomplish our goals. The question for us is whose goals are we trying to accomplish with the resources we have been given.

The children of this age, Jesus explains, know exactly how to get what they want with what they have. They know how to use money to manipulate a situation. They know how to make sure that, when the bill comes due, they aren’t standing there emptyhanded. And the tax collectors and sinners who were Jesus’ disciples would have been very familiar with that way of life. They all knew what it meant to belong to this world and to be good at it. It came naturally.

But the children of light—the ones who belong not to this age but to the kingdom of God—aren’t very good at using what resources they have to attain what God envisions for the world. And we aren’t good at it because using the currency of dishonest wealth to achieve godly results doesn’t come naturally at all. Shrewdness and sainthood don’t usually go together, but Jesus wants us to realize that, in fact, they do. For those of us who belong to God and God’s reign, we must—like the manager—use anything and everything at our disposal to accomplish our true purpose, and, because our true home is not in this world but in the world to come, our true purpose can only be to serve God.

We cannot serve God and wealth. We have to choose. Will we try to make enough room for God amidst our financial priorities, or will we trust that there is enough room for us and our flourishing in the kingdom of God to which we must devote all our wealth? If we belong to God—to the one who seeks us out and finds us—all our riches, our relationships, our positions, our power—everything we have in this life must be devoted to God as clearly and cleverly as the manager, who used his position to secure a comfortable place for himself when he was dismissed from his management. 

Because we belong to God, we are not waiting for someone to welcome us into an earthly home. We wait for God to welcome us into the eternal habitations. In this life, our wealth—the inherently dishonest currency of this world—is an opportunity to make friends for ourselves among those whom we know to be seated at God’s table—the poor, the outcast, and the disenfranchised. They are the ones who can welcome us into the eternal homes. So, when you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends, your relatives, or your rich neighbors in case they may invite you in return, and then you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid [when they welcome you] at the resurrection of the righteous.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

The Strange Love of the Cross


September 14, 2022 - Holy Cross Day
Isaiah 45:21-25; Galatians 6:14-18; John 12:31-36a

You know those moments from your past that fill you with embarrassment and shame? Things you said or did that you now look back on and wish you could go back and undo them? I don't dwell on any of them very often, but, every once in a while, when I'm in a particular setting or my mind wanders back through the past until it lands in an uncomfortable spot, I am overwhelmed by that sense of regret. Where do those memories live when they aren't at the front of our mind? What sort of baggage are we carrying around? Why do we keep reburying those things when they pop back up? In the end, when this life is over and we set our burdens down, what do we think happens to them?

Today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Cross. One legend has it that the original cross, the True Cross, on which Jesus was crucified, was discovered by Helena, the mother of Constantine during a missionary journey to found churches and relief agencies in fourth-century Palestine. When taken to the spot on which Jesus was said to have suffered, died, and been buried, Helena saw that a pagan temple stood in on the site. She ordered it to be destroyed and the earth under it to be dug out and carted away. As they dug away the dirt, they discovered three buried crosses, one of which must have belonged to Jesus and the other two to the thieves who hung on either side of him. To determine which once was the True Cross, they brought out a noble woman of the city who had suffered from an illness for many years and caused her to touch each cross. Finally, when she touched the True Cross, her illness was miraculously healed. Helena and her associates established that cross as an object of devotion in what would be come the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but she took with her the Holy Nails and a few fragments of wood back to Constantinople, where this devoted mother ordered that some of nails be melted down and incorporated into the emperor's helmet and the bridle of his horse for added protection.

I'm not sure that I believe any of that legend, but I am sure that the legend points us to a remarkable and, perhaps, even more important discovery--the transformation of the cross from something we would bury in the ground as a reminder of a shameful death into to something we would venerate as a symbol of our new and everlasting life. We may take it for granted, but that discovery took a little time.

In the first century, the Apostle Paul wrote boldly of the cross of Christ as something in which he boasted--the source of his own transformation--but that wasn't something his readers would have taken for granted. First-century Christians largely did not know what to do with the cross. The earliest iconography and symbology that Christians used omitted the reminder of Jesus' execution. Paul instinctively used the shame of the cross to highlight the glory of God, but a fuller appreciation for how the instrument of shame and death could become a sign of life and hope took a hundred years or so to develop. By the end of the second century, mosaics begin to depict the cross as a reality to celebrate, but the first disciples of Jesus and the generation or two that followed them were so traumatized by the execution of Jesus that they preferred to bury that memory and all signs of it literally in the ground.

To me, that sounds familiar. My instinct is to hide away the reminders of my shame because, on the surface, they represent for me my greatest failures. Those are moments from my past that I would just assume leave behind. And yet a part of me knows that they have to come out--out of the dark, out of the ground, of out me--in order that I might be healed. And the cross of Christ is how they come out without the sting of shame and death.

"When I am lifted up from the earth," Jesus proclaimed, "I will draw all people to myself." This, John tells us, was to indicate the kind of death that we was to die. The confusing, strange, beautiful, counter-intuitive truth of the cross is that, by dying for us, Jesus lifts from us the shame of our own little, painful deaths. If the cross of Christ is the consequence of humanity's brokenness, then the empty tomb shows us that the death of Jesus is also the death of our own death--our own brokenness, our sin. We find salvation, therefore, not in running away from the cross or our own shame that belongs there but by turning toward it, uncovering it, looking at it, and giving it over to the saving power of God.

Because of Jesus, we believe that even our very worst has no power to defeat God and God's forgiving love. Because of Jesus, we believe that the things we most want to hide have already been confronted and defeated by God. We celebrate the cross not because it is an instrument of shame and death but because, though such an instrument, God has redeemed us and healed us and made us whole. Jesus Christ stretched out his arms upon the hard wood of the cross so that all people might come within his saving embrace. 

Which One Of You?


September 11, 2022 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 19C

© 2022 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 22:00.

Jesus sure did spend a lot of time with sinners. Of all the details in the gospel accounts, Jesus’ preference for spending time with social outcasts and notorious ne’er-do-wells is among the most well-known and reliable. Jesus loved hanging out with troublemakers, and all four gospel writers make a big deal about it. I wonder why Jesus liked spending time with sinners so much. Maybe it’s because they were more fun to be with than the religious leaders of his day. (I can believe that.) Or maybe it’s because Jesus knew that they were the ones who needed saving the most. (I don’t believe that.) Or maybe it’s because Jesus wanted to teach religious folks like you and me something about who God is and how God saves us.

If you think about it, Jesus’s decision to spend all that time with tax collectors and sinners doesn’t make a lot of sense. God is holy. God is faithful. God is righteous. The people at Jesus’ table were the exact opposite of that. Why would the Son of God, the Incarnate Word, the Holy One choose to hang out with people whose lives made it harder for God’s people to recognize God in their midst? God is always for God’s people, but these tax collectors worked for the enemy of God, the Roman Empire. By collecting taxes on behalf of the empire, they helped keep God’s people in its imperial shackles. We tend to dismiss the Pharisees and scribes because we know that members of their religious group were opposed Jesus, but it’s hard to fault them for grumbling about the company Jesus kept. 

If you were trying to build a following of people whom God could use to manifest God’s triumphant power in the world, why would you surround yourself with imperial sympathizers and faithless degenerates? Why? Because those notorious sinners are exactly the ones through whom God’s reign becomes manifest on the earth. Jesus wasn’t eating night after night with people whom polite society had rejected simply because he had sympathy on them. He surrounded himself with outcasts because God’s power comes into this world when those who are lost are found and recovered. And Jesus told some parables about that to make his point. 

“Which one of you,” Jesus began, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” There is some debate over whether Jesus’ depiction of the shepherd’s willingness to leave behind the ninety-nine is realistic. We even discussed it in staff meeting this week. Would Jesus’ audience have been surprised to hear that a shepherd would risk losing some or all of the ninety-nine just to search for the one that was lost? By presenting an unrealistic shepherd, is Jesus trying to tell us something shocking about the radical compassion of God? Surely he is, but I’m not convinced that’s the way he wanted to make his point. 

Historians have found secondary sources that describe under what conditions a shepherd would be justified—and thus be held blameless—for leaving an entire flock behind to search for a single lost sheep. As long as the temporary caretaker wasn’t blind or drunk or foolish, the action Jesus describes was considered reasonable and justified. Luke, however, doesn’t elaborate on the circumstances surrounding the shepherd’s decision to leave them behind except to say that he left them in the wilderness. That’s a less-than-comforting description, which may indicate a truly reckless act, but the fact that there were established rules for leaving the sheep behind makes me think that the point of this parable is more nuanced than that and that Luke decided to skip over those details because they weren’t as important.

I am more interested in the way that Jesus presents his parable—with a question that pulls his audience into the heart of his illustration. “Which one of you,” he asked, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Which one of you? Even though the way that Jesus posed his question assumes that anyone who heard it would answer in the affirmative, in this case, the short answer was none of them…because none of the religious leaders he was addressing would have ever imagined themselves as a shepherd.

Shepherds weren’t good people. They were smelly, shady, and poorly behaved. There’s a reason they worked out in the fields, away from everyone else. An ancient proverb says that all shepherds are thieves because they always let their sheep graze on grass that didn’t belong to them. We know that David, before he became Israel’s king, was a shepherd, and we know that the psalmist and some of the prophets dared to liken our God to a keeper of sheep, but those were exceptions that proved the rule. No Pharisee or scribe would have ever deigned to think of himself as a lowly shepherd, and for Jesus to suggest it was the shocking part. That’s the part of the story that no one saw coming—that these good, faithful, religious types would be forced to imagine themselves crawling up and down a hillside, calling out in a most undignified manner for a single lost sheep.

I dare say the same is true for us. I only know one or two parishioners who have any sheep to lose, but, in our case, I don’t think this parable is about sheep. How many of us, having a hundred children in the Head Start program and having one fall behind, would not leave the ninety-nine to learn by themselves in order to get the one that was lost back on track? How many of us, supervising a hundred people on probation and losing one of them, would not stop calling to check on the ninety-nine and go after the one that was lost until we found them? How many of us, having a hundred children in foster care and losing contact with one of them, would not ignore the ninety-nine until we found the one that was lost? 

We belong to a God who searches diligently for each one of us and who rejoices when we have been found, but, even more amazing than that, we belong to a God whose salvation is manifest in this world only when the entire hundred are back together again. This parable isn’t about God seeking out and welcoming a stranger who didn’t belong among the other ninety-nine in the first place. This is about God showing the ninety-nine that they cannot be complete until the one who is missing—the one who has belonged in their midst the entire time but who has been lost to them—has been brought back into the fold. 

How often do we regularly and routinely identify our place in society as one that is linked inextricably to the welfare, inclusion, and prosperity of everyone else around us, especially those who live on the margins of life? How often do we think of God’s saving work not as something that elevates the individual out of whatever spiritual, economic, or physical crisis they endure but as something that brings the one who has been estranged by hardship back into a community that cares for them? If this sounds like a different way of imagining what Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished, it is.

Jesus came among us and lived and died and was raised from the dead to set us free from the power of sin and death. The work of evil in this world is something that would try to convince us that the community of God’s children can be complete even while some of us are still missing. The isolating power of sin would hide from us the fact that all our lives are fully linked with one another and with God. But thanks be to God that Jesus has defeated those powers that would seek to pull us apart.

If you are here in this church or watching online but feel that you don’t really belong in this place among God’s people—if you feel like a lost sheep hiding in plain sight—then know that Jesus has come to seek you out and find you and bring you back home. And know that we cannot experience God’s saving love without you. And, if you’re here and already know that you belong in this place, then don’t forget that your place among God’s people cannot be complete until everyone is here beside us. Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until you find it? “Which one of you?” Jesus asks. 

Sunday, August 28, 2022

A Different Sort of Dinner Party


August 28, 2022 – The 12th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 17C

© 2022 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 21:15.

Jesus says, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor…but go and sit down at the lowest place.” Jesus also says, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, don’t invite your friends or relatives or rich neighbors…but invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Those are pretty clear instructions. And they probably made his hearers uncomfortable, given that Jesus offered them while being entertained at a formal sabbath dinner by a local religious authority. 

But today I wonder whether Jesus meant those words as an earthly teaching or as heavenly advice. Is he telling us how to behave at a dinner party or how to get ready for God’s eternal banquet? Sometimes our knowledge of God shapes the way we live our lives, but sometimes it’s the way we live that shapes what we know about God.

It was, again, the sabbath. This probably wasn’t the same sabbath or the same synagogue that we heard about in last week’s gospel lesson, when Jesus called the leader of the synagogue a hypocrite and invoked the law of Moses in ways that made him look pretentious and foolish. I doubt Jesus hung around that place long enough to go over to that man’s house for Shabbat dinner. But the setting isn’t all that different. In the opening verse of today’s reading, Luke tells us not only that Jesus was headed to the home of a leader of the Pharisees for dinner on the sabbath, but he also tells us that everyone in the place was watching him closely—scrutinizing his every move and every word.

But then our gospel lessons skips over five verses. Perhaps that’s because, in those five verses, Jesus does, more or less, the same thing he did last week: he heals on the sabbath someone who was sick. I think the committee that put together the lectionary wanted to spare you from hearing the same sermon two weeks in a row. But I think it’s helpful to know that, when all the eyes were fixed on him, Jesus again stepped out beyond the traditions of his people and their faith. By healing a man with edema-swollen limbs on the day when no work was supposed to be done, Jesus was claiming for himself an authority to reinterpret the heart of the Jewish faith. “If on the sabbath you would waste no time pulling out a child or an ox that had fallen into a well,” Jesus said, using logic strikingly similar to that of last week’s encounter, “surely it is within God’s good and gracious will that we heal someone in need on the sabbath day.”

No one uttered a word in reply. Their silence said everything. And now that Jesus had demonstrated his authority as one who could apply the ancient teachings of God’s people in ways that impacted their contemporary lives, he turned his gaze back upon those around him. It was his turn to scrutinize their actions—those of his host and the other guests. When Jesus noticed how everyone found their place at the dinner table, he offered some practical-sounding advice: “When you are invited to a wedding banquet,” he began, swapping their current setting for an encounter even more tightly governed by societal norms, “don’t sit in the place of honor, or else someone more important than you might come and the host would be forced to ask you to move down while everyone in the room looked on at your shame.” Instead, he offered, you should sit at the lowest place so that your host might come and invite you to move up higher, and you would then be held in high esteem by all the guests.

At first, this feels like good, reasonable party etiquette. If you went to the wedding of a family friend whom you hadn’t seen in years, would you choose the spot at the head table beside the wedding party? Of course not! We all know better than that. And so, too, did the people listening to Jesus. In fact, they knew those social conventions even better than 21st-century Episcopalians. In the ancient near-eastern world, a formal dinner was a highly prescribed exercise in honor culture. You wouldn’t need to find your place card at the table where your host wanted you to sit. You already knew before you walked in the door where you belonged. Rich, powerful, important people sat up front, close to the action, while less well-connected, less affluent people filled in further down. Knowing your place was as obvious and familiar as knowing your own name.

But a closer look makes this teaching feel less grounded in reality and more like a vision of something else. You might be bold enough to stretch from your station just a little bit, hoping that you might earn some status points in the eyes of your peers by moving a few places closer to the host, but no one was naïve enough to presume to take the place of honor, which surely belonged to someone else. And how often does a host, who is busy hobnobbing with people to the left and right, stop and notice that someone on the other side of the room should be brought up higher? Would someone really take the lowest place just to give the host a chance to show everyone how important they really were? It sounds to me like Jesus is beginning to mix earthly advice with heavenly instruction.

The second part of what Jesus says seems to confirm that: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, don’t invite your family, friends, or rich neighbors or else they might invite you over to their house in return. Then you won’t have any reward in heaven. But, when you throw a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind—people who could never pay you back—and then you will be rewarded at the resurrection of the righteous.” In that culture, honor dictated that everyone return an invitation with a reciprocal invite. I may not invite you to my party just so you can invite me over to yours, but it is nearly impossible to imagine a circumstance in which you would not return the favor. That’s just what polite people did back then—unless you didn’t have the means to throw a party in the first place. 

Normally, a host would never invite someone who couldn’t return the favor—not only because the host wouldn’t get the pleasure of the reciprocity but because the demand on reciprocation was so great that it was rude or shameful to place that social burden upon someone who couldn’t invite you back. To invite the poor and disabled was, in a real way, more callous and insensitive than leaving them off the guest list. Yet Jesus tells us that those are exactly people whom we must invite—those who could never pay us back. That’s because he knows something about God’s great banqueting table that doesn’t fit into the dinner party analogies that his contemporaries understood so well.

What if God’s great and final banquet with all of humanity is the sort of place where you don’t have to stretch to a higher station in order to receive the host’s honor? What if your place at God’s table doesn’t depend upon your status in the world’s eyes? And what if an invitation to God’s triumphant wedding feast is one you would never be expected to repay? What if God loves the world and everyone in it without expecting anything in return? How wonderful and magnificent are those truths about God, but, given how unfamiliar they are in this world, how are we ever supposed to know them?

Sometimes what we know about God shapes our lives in ways that reflect God’s reign. But other times we change the way we do ordinary things because doing them differently has the power to teach us something about who God is and what God sees in us. Why do we gather at this table every week, using the words of invitation we know and love? Why do we come to this Sunday banquet, where everyone is welcome and everyone is given a seat of honor regardless of what they have to give back? 

This holy table is not only a reflection of what we believe about God—the one who welcomes us all and honors us all, never expecting anything in return. It is also the place where we learn how to believe those things. We need help learning those divine truths that sound too big, too amazing, too radical to be true. And that is why we practice in this place every week. This table can never become a place where only some of God’s people are welcome and where worldly status determines who is most important. Not only would this altar then fail to reflect the heavenly banquet that it must always represent, but then all who gather around it would lose the chance to learn just how much God loves them. Don’t we all need more of that?

Sunday, August 21, 2022

When They Stand Up Straight


August 21, 2022 – The 11th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 16C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 19:10.

She appeared out of nowhere. This woman, whose gaze had been bent down toward the ground for eighteen years, shuffled toward the assembly well after the service had begun. She knew that she did not belong in that place. No one needed to remind her of that. A woman in her condition was, to her peers, the embodiment of humanity’s brokenness, the inherited sinfulness of a people. No one wanted to see her, especially in a holy place on a holy day, so she made a habit of sneaking up to a door or a window to catch a few words of the rabbi’s teaching—a brief chance to feel normal, like she belonged among the children of Abraham, before returning to the reality of her downcast life.

But this sabbath day was different. Jesus saw her. He noticed her. Before she could slip away, right in the middle of his sermon, he saw the woman who for eighteen years had lived an invisible life, and he called her over. From beyond the edge of the assembly, where no one would notice her, Jesus invited the woman to come and stand beside him in the center of attention, where the scrutinous and critical stares of the congregation beheld her. There, before God and everyone in the synagogue, Jesus laid his hands upon her and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 

Immediately, the woman stood up straight and began praising God. Her voice, which had been silenced by those who believed that a woman such as her would never have anything worth uttering to the divine, was lifted up in song and praise. This child of God looked up toward heaven, reaching toward her Creator with both body and soul, and spoke words of healing and wholeness for everyone to hear. And the ruler of the synagogue was furious.

Indignant, enraged, grieved, and pained, the man who was in charge of maintaining order within the religious assembly immediately lashed out at the entire crowd: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” He knew well what would happen if this sort of renegade action took hold within the community, so he did what any good religious leader would do: he reasserted his authority over the congregation and called into question the legitimacy of the visiting rabbi who had done this unholy thing. Invoking the law of Moses, he reminded the people of their sacred obligations. Only if a life were in danger should the sabbath be broken. This woman had carried this infirmity with her for nearly two decades. Why couldn’t she wait one more day and honor God by coming to be healed after the sabbath was over?

But what if the healing she sought—the restoration she needed—wasn’t available after the sun had set and the sabbath was over? What if her salvation had as much to do with confronting the religious leader as with having her spine straightened out?

Two thousand years later, in a thoroughly Gentile Christian community that is largely unfamiliar with sabbath observance, we have hard time recognizing just how right the leader of the synagogue was. Five times in this passage of only eight verses, Luke mentions that it was the sabbath, drawing even a Gentile reader into the heart of the matter. Apart from being one of the ten commandments, why was keeping the sabbath so important? A few centuries before Jesus came to that synagogue, after the first temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, God’s people looked for ways to remain faithful even when they were unable to worship on God’s holy mountain. During the Babylonian exile, household practices like circumcision, keeping kosher, and observing the sabbath became the principal ways that a people remained connected with God and their ancestors. Even though by the first century, when Jesus lived, another temple had been built, gatherings like this one—synagogues in which the community came together in faith on the Lord’s Day—were the primary way that Jewish people lived out their faith. Anyone who threatened that, including an eloquent rabbi from out of town, threatened the very core of Jewish identity.

Are our reactions any different than that of the leader of the synagogue when it’s our identity under threat? What would happen if we allowed religious leaders to bend our sacred traditions until they started to break? What would become of our religion if preachers and teachers, theologians and seminary professors, bishops and convention deputies started to question the very core of our faith—the central practices that we have inherited from our spiritual ancestors? Won’t everything we hold dear start to fall apart? 

If we listen to people like Jesus, how long will it be before we no longer recognize the church we hold dear? How long until this place is filled with formerly bent-over people who now stand up straight? How long until we let women speak in this sacred assembly—even let them preach or preside at the Lord’s Table? How long will it be before women’s voices and stories and experiences and bodies are as valuable as a man’s? What will happen to these sacred walls or the foundation upon which they are built if trans voices were ever lifted up to the heavens in praise of their Creator? What will come of us if we allow the people whom religious society has kept bent down toward the ground for generations to stand beside us and praise the same God who has made us all? Would those who come together in this place still be called children of God? Could we have a church like that and still call ourselves holy?

What if the bent-over woman needed the sort of healing that only a radical, institution-questioning, tradition-shattering rabbi could provide? What if the very spirit that had bound her for eighteen long years—the satanic weight that had pressed her down, bowing her entire existence further and further from God—what if that spirit was precisely the sort of religious oppression that only the Son of God could cast off?

To be clear, the institution that Jesus confronts in this controversial healing is not Second Temple Judaism, the faith of his people handed down from their ancestors. What he confronts is humanity’s inexorable drive to restrict and restrain the unconditional love of God until it conforms to the image of their best intentions. When Jesus rebukes the leader of the synagogue, notice that he does not discard the law of Moses but uses it to expose the hypocrisy of his opponents: if you would loose your livestock every few hours on the sabbath in order to let them drink, he explains, how much more should we loose this daughter of Abraham from the spiritual bond that has imprisoned her for eighteen long years? The problem Jesus identifies is not sabbath observance but the ways in which people use religion to bind others and prevent them from receiving God’s grace. The danger Jesus exposes is how easily good and faithful people like us confuse the liberating work of God with the threatening work of the devil.

If the relationship with God that Jesus offered the world was as universally popular and inviting as we like to make it out to be, the religious and political leaders of his day would not have crucified him. The ways that Jesus spoke about God and God’s reign were that threatening. To people in positions of religious authority today—even and especially those who call themselves Christians—the way of Jesus remains just as threatening. But, in his death and resurrection, Jesus does something that reorients us—that recalibrates the way we know God and God’s will for the world. 

Because God has come among us in the flesh and because in Christ God has suffered and died for the sake of the world, there can be no rule or tradition or best intention that stands in the way of God’s love. Because God responded to humanity’s rejection of God upon the cross by raising Jesus Christ from the dead, we know that nothing has the power to restrict or retrain God’s unconditional love, and we know that anything or anyone that tries to cannot be of God. Although human beings continue to try to twist God’s will and invoke it in ways that bend other people down to the ground, those who look for Christ will always find him raising those people up in our midst.

In his book, The Meaning in the Miracles, Jeffrey John quotes a YWCA Bible study that captures the meaning of this miracle for today:

What is the kingdom of God like? It’s like more and more Bent-Over Women standing up. How can we know if the kingdom of God is actually coming? Why not look around and see if there are any formerly Bent-Over Women standing up? …Brother, if you ever see a Bent-Over Woman beginning to unbend and straighten herself, at the very least you had better give her a little standing room, because that isn’t just another Bent-Over Woman standing up. That’s your sister rising to her full stature—and that’s God’s kingdom cranking up! And sister, if for whatever reason you are still bent over and weighed down, and you think that’s the way it was intended to be or must always be, then know that you have been given divine permission to straighten yourself fully and to stand up. And know too that since it is Satan who wants you to be a slave, only the Devil himself would say that now is not the time or this is not the place. If your spirit is bent over, you are free to rise up! Let it be so, brothers and sisters! Again and again and again, let it be so! [1]

1. Through the Eyes of a Woman, ed. W. S. Robins, YWCA, 1986, p 190, quoted in J. John, The Meaning in the Miracles, Canterbury Press, 2001, p 212-13.


Sunday, July 31, 2022

Learning To Be Rich Toward God


July 31, 2022 – The 8th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 13C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Video of this service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 17:15.  

If I were a rich man,
Ya ba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dum,
All day long, I'd biddy biddy bum,
If I were a wealthy man.
I wouldn't have to work hard,
Ya ba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dibba dum,
If I were a biddy biddy rich idle-deeddle-daidle-daidle man. [1] 

In the 1971 film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevya the dairyman sings those words at first while shoveling hay for his lame horse but later while dancing around his barn, triumphantly waving his arms about as he imagines what his life would be like if he only had more money. “If I were a rich man…” Who among us doesn’t sing some form of those words in their heart? If I were a rich man…if I had a little bit more money…if I got paid what I’m really worth…if I won the Mega Millions jackpot…then my life would be better…all my problems would go away. But would they?

Twenty-one years ago this summer, I sat in the small home office of farmer in the middle of Illinois as he looked at soybean and corn futures on a computer monitor and tried to decide what to do. A faithful man, who made buckwheat pancakes every morning of his children’s lives whether they wanted them or not, this farmer explained to me that commodity prices had been depressed for several years. Instead of selling his entire harvest each year, he had put much of it into silos, hoping that the prices would increase, but they hadn’t. Now his barns were full. He had no place to store his crops. And he didn’t know what to do.

“I know what I will do!” the rich fool in Jesus’ parable said to himself. “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all of my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”

In the parable Jesus tells the crowd, the rich man did not get rich by accident. He might have been a fool in God’s eyes, but everyone in the town knew him to be a shrewd businessman. He knew that when the land produced abundantly—a bumper crop—the price of grain would fall. Rather than sell his harvest at a discounted price, the man decided to use his capital to tear down his barns and build larger ones, increasing his capacity to wait out the glut. Maybe next year there would be a drought. Maybe global supply chains would be interrupted and geopolitical instability on the heels of a global pandemic would send prices through the roof. This rich man could afford to wait. And the longer he waited the richer he would become.

Except that he forgot one thing: “You fool!” God said to him. “This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” The man who excelled in agribusiness somehow forgot that his life was on loan and that the owner of that debt could call it in at any minute. There is no barn big enough to store enough grain that we could ransom our own lives.

But Jesus wasn’t giving advice to rich farmers in ancient Palestine, nor was he speaking to middle-class farmers in modern-day Illinois. He was speaking to a crowd of ordinary people in response to a man whose brother had refused to divide his father’s estate and share it with him. “Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me,” the scorned sibling had said to Jesus. And the parable of the rich fool was Jesus’ way of teaching all of us how to be rich toward God.

Notice that the brother—not unlike the rich farmer—assumed that he was in the right. Instead of asking Jesus for an interpretation of the Jewish laws of inheritance governing his particular situation, he jumped to the end and asked Jesus to tell his brother to split the estate between them. “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity,” Jesus might have responded, quoting Psalm 133. Although there were rules that determined how much of an estate should be given to each brother, scripture makes it clear that it is better—even ideal—when siblings can live together on the family estate and share their inheritance rather than liquidate the property and divide the proceeds among them. But this angry brother was already beyond that. They were past the point of negotiations. He wanted his check, and he wanted it now.

But how will an inheritance check make everything better? How will all that money help a man feel his parents’ love when he cannot even sit down and break bread with his sibling? Like fences and neighbors, careful estate plans make for better sibling relationships, but the key to maintaining a healthy family isn’t making sure that everyone gets the right amount of money. It’s remembering that a parent’s love cannot be measured in real estate or an investment account. It’s making sure that material things do not take the place of what really matters. It’s remembering that one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.

We all want to be the rich farmer. We want to have enough grain stored in our barns that we can say to our souls, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” Tevye’s song becomes our retirement plan. If I were a rich man, I wouldn’t have to work hard. If I had enough money, I wouldn’t have to worry about anything. If I save enough, I won’t need anything else. Everything will be taken care of. But our lives do not consist in the abundance of possessions. Our true security does not come from a retirement account or a pension or an inheritance check. That is vanity.

If the most important question in our life—the one we ask the most—is, “When will I have enough,” then we are not being rich toward God. We cannot belong to God if our bank accounts make us feel like we belong to ourselves. Everything we have belongs to God, and we must give it all back. The rich farmer didn’t produce anything. The land did. The angry brother didn’t earn his inheritance. His parents did. You are not responsible for your own success. God is. And learning that truth is the first step to becoming rich toward God.

But that truth runs contrary to everything our economy, our nation, and our lives were built upon. There is no truth more difficult for us to apply to our own lives, yet no truth is more central to our salvation. Your entire life is one big loan from God. It is an obligation you can never repay. And you don’t even have to try. 

In fact, until you stop pretending that the sum total of your life’s accomplishments is anything other than a gift from God, you’re going to have a pretty hard time figuring out that God’s love is the only thing that can save you. Not your money, not your career, not your family, not your perfect plans, not even your best success—the only thing that can save you is God’s gift of love that is Jesus Christ. And God has already poured that love out upon you in lavish measure. If you want to experience that love—if you want to know the freedom from anxiety that comes from that love—if you want to be rich toward God—stop storing up treasures for yourself and start giving it all away.

[1] Lyrics from “If I Were a Rich Man” by Chaim Topol from Fiddler on the Roof. Connection with this parable made by Klyne Snodgrass in Stories with Intent, 2008, p. 400.

Monday, July 18, 2022

There Is Another Way


July 17, 2022 – The 6th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 11C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon starting around 18:50.

Mary and Martha—paragons of contemplative practice and faithful service—which sort of disciple do you wish you were? And which one are you actually more alike? Before you start beating yourself up for not “having a Mary heart in a Martha world,” let me offer a word of caution: be wary of preachers or authors or gurus who would take this gospel lesson and turn it into a prescription for intimacy with God in an age when busyness always seems to get in the way. That isn’t what this gospel lesson is about. 

This story isn’t about Jesus choosing between two disciples, praising the one who sets aside the physical tasks associated with hospitality while shaming the one who neglects the higher calling of sitting at his feet. This story isn’t at all about what sort of disciple you should be. It’s a story about two women—sisters who encounter Jesus—one who encounters him as a faithful disciple and one who entertains him as a curious host. The preference we are invited to choose isn’t contemplation over action but devotion over fascination. The point of this passage is for us to leave it not merely interested in knowing more about Jesus but committed to following him wherever he may go.

A deep dive into the biblical text helps us hear from this story what Jesus would teach us. Set aside for a moment what you might remember about the other Mary and Martha duo we encounter in the gospel according to John. Those women, sisters of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, were both faithful followers of Jesus. Luke’s version of the sisters may come from the same household, but Luke remembers them differently—not only omitting their brother’s role in the story but introducing the women as merely minor characters—not as known disciples but as women whom Jesus encounters along the way. Luke never mentions them again. So all we have to go on is the text in front of us—a text that describes one woman as if she were a faithful disciple and the other as if she were a faithful host.

Imagine, if you can, what it felt like to watch this scene unfold in the home of a first-century Palestinian Jewish woman. A famous rabbi and his travelling companions have come into your town, and Martha, a woman of some standing in the community, has welcomed them into her home. Normally, a woman would not have occasion to invite strange men under her roof, so we can only assume that Martha was unusually wealthy and well-connected.

The word that Luke uses to describe the welcome that Martha offered Jesus (ὑποδέχομαι) is a technical term for one who accepts full responsibility for the welfare of one’s guest. It is the highest form of hospitality that one can provide. Luke is the only biblical author who uses that word, a word he also uses to describe how Zacchaeus received Jesus after climbing down from the sycamore tree (Luke 19:6). When this noble woman welcomed Jesus and his disciples under her roof, she was duty-bound to provide for their every need, so she could use all the help she could get. 

Imagine, then, looking across the room and seeing the host’s sister, not busy setting the table or refilling cups, but sitting, lounging, longingly and lavishly at the feet of Jesus. Who does she think she is—one of his disciples? Back then, women couldn’t afford to be disciples. Sure, they were offered their fair share of gender-specific teaching from the religious authorities, but women had too much work to do to sit around and study at the feet of a rabbi. They had to help with the family business and take care of the family home. In many households, not much has changed. 

To the onlookers in that house, Mary didn’t belong at the feet of Jesus. She belonged at her sister’s side, faithfully and dutifully serving their guests. Everyone in the room, when they heard Martha tell Jesus to send Mary into the kitchen to help, knew that the rabbi would set everything straight. A faithful teacher and custodian of the Jewish way of life would surely reinforce the sacred traditions of their people. But, when Jesus opened his mouth to offer his opinion on the matter, he didn’t send Mary away but instead invited Martha to join her.

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled by many things,” he said to her. “Only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Watching Martha try to serve all the guests by herself, you couldn’t help but notice how frenzied the host had become. Luke tells us that she was “distracted by her many tasks,” and the word translated as “distracted” (περισπάω) has as its root a word that means “to be drawn about” or “to be dragged around.” Martha was literally spinning around the room, bouncing from one concern to another, unable to stay ahead of the demands placed upon her. 

Pushed to her limits and infuriated by her sister’s neglect, Martha asked Jesus, an arbiter of morality, to reinforce societal expectations. Apparently, she didn’t know whom she was dealing with. “You are worried and disturbed by many things,” Jesus said back to her. Martha’s distractions had escalated into full-on anxiety. Literally, Jesus’ words meant that Martha’s being drawn about (περισπάω) had caused her to be pulled apart (μεριμνάω). We might say that Martha had “gone to pieces,” implying that she had lost not only her composure but also her sense of herself. In fact, the word that Jesus used to identify Martha’s worry is the same word he would later use to teach his disciples that they should not worry about their life, what they will eat, or what they will wear (Luke 12:22). That sort of worry causes us to forget who we are and whose we are.

All the while, Mary, on the other hand, seemed completely oblivious to the chaos that was swallowing her sister. Pressing the noise and distraction out of her mind, she sat, listening to every word Jesus spoke. How different these sisters were! As if to make the distinction between the sisters even clearer, Luke records the last word Jesus said about Martha’s behavior as “many” and the first word he used to describe Mary’s as “one.” Although, in order to make sense of the text, translators need to rearrange the words, those who heard Jesus’ assessment of the sisters would have felt sharply the way Jesus turned from the many concerns of Martha to the singular focus of Mary.

Now that he has Martha’s attention, he invites her to consider an alternative. “It doesn’t have to be this way,” Jesus seems to be saying to his overwhelmed host. “Don’t focus on what the world expects of you. That doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter what our spiritual ancestors would expect of you. Only one thing really matters, and your sister Mary has found that one thing—a better path—and nothing can take that away from her.”

This passage isn’t about leaving behind the servant’s heart of Martha in order to attain the meditative heart of Mary. It’s an invitation to discipleship that cuts through all the societal, familial, religious, and cultural barriers that get in the way of our following Jesus. This isn’t a rejection of being busy; it’s a rejection of being busy for the wrong reasons. Jesus isn’t critical of Martha’s efforts at hospitality but of the way she gets pulled apart by all the demands on her—pulled apart until anxiety causes her to lose touch with what really matters. There is another way, Jesus tells her.

Sometimes we are called to sit at Jesus’ feet until time itself stops and all the concerns of life melt away. And sometimes we are called to prepare a banquet for Jesus so wonderful that nothing could distract us from the one who comes to be our guest. Sometimes we follow Jesus with our minds, and sometimes we follow him with our hands, but those who belong to God in Christ must always follow Jesus with their whole hearts. The invitation to discipleship is an invitation to a way of life in which God is our only priority. All other ways of being and belonging—all our identities and our allegiances—become subject to the will of God.

I hear in this passage a profound and gracious invitation to those of us who feel pulled apart by all the demands that distract us from what really matters. We are children of God who belong to God because we belong to Jesus Christ. Nothing can take that away from us. Whenever we feel the chaos and anxiety of trying to serve two masters or experience the frustration and emptiness of being told that we don’t have enough time to be a true disciple, Jesus gently reminds us that only one thing matters. When we follow Jesus and give our whole selves to God, every moment, every action, every decision of our lives take on the clarity of our deepest identity as God’s children. That is the better way, and no one can take that away from us.