Sunday, February 28, 2021

Road to Hell and Best Intentions

 

February 28, 2021 – Lent 2B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 22:50.

When it comes to calling someone a bad name, it doesn’t get much worse than Satan. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus says to Peter, rebuking him in front of the other disciples. Actually, when it comes to calling someone Satan, there’s no parallel for it in Jewish or Christian literature until this moment in Mark’s gospel account. Jesus does something new here—something powerful and unequivocally critical. But why now? Why was Jesus so angry with Peter that he would use this previously unused term to castigate his most loyal follower?

Maybe a better question is what led Jesus to understand this encounter as the moment when the personified forces of evil crossed over from the realm of pure spirit in order to take shape in the physical world. In the Old Testament, Satan is only mentioned in three places, and all of them are found in relatively late-written texts that focus on dramatized spiritual encounters. In the Book of Job, Satan comes to challenge God’s assertion that the title character’s mythical faithfulness is strong enough to withstand extreme hardship. Similarly, the prophet Zechariah envisions a heavenly court-room-like scene in which Satan comes to accuse Joshua the high priest of being unworthy of God’s favor. The other example comes from 1 Chronicles, when Satan is said to have tempted David into relying on the might of his army instead of trusting in God. But nowhere in the Hebrew scriptures is Satan depicted in bodily form—as one whose physical presence is manifest in this world.

By the time Jesus confronts Peter in this gospel episode, Satan has become more prominent in Jewish thought and theology, but, still, nowhere in the New Testament, not even in the apocalyptic Book of Revelation, is Satan identified as having taken on flesh—nowhere, that is, except in this moment, when Jesus looks at his disciple and says, “Get behind me, Satan!” Everywhere else in the Bible, Satan is a spiritual force confined to a spiritual realm. Yes, his power and influence are manifest on the earth, but no one else in scripture suggests that the great opponent of God could be found walking among us in human form. 

There are moments when Jesus’ opponents accuse him of being on the side of the devil. And, in last week’s gospel reading, we were told that, while Jesus was out in the wilderness, he was tempted by Satan. But, in all of scripture, only Peter is described as if he were Satan incarnate—and by Jesus himself, no less! Why in this moment—why in this heated exchange—do we see for the first time someone described as if he were the personification of evil itself? Because, without even realizing it, Peter’s objection was not merely a rejection of Jesus’ teaching but a rejection of the power of God in this world.

Although mostly foreign to our way of thinking, Jewish theology in and around Jesus’ time understood that there were multiple planes of existence, in which the cosmic forces of good and evil were constantly doing battle. While the children of God struggled with their opponents here on the earth, up in heaven, beyond our sight, angelic forces were locked in battle with demonic powers. Whoever prevailed in the spiritual realm would also be victorious on the earth. It was as if our outcome here in this world were actually the result of another struggle taking place in heaven. If you read the last few chapters of the Book of Daniel, you get a glimpse at this kind of spiritual warfare and how it then becomes manifest on the earth. But, in this exchange between Jesus and Peter, those heavenly forces were not only influencing human history but becoming fully realized in it.

When “Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again,” he wasn’t merely predicting his own death. He was revealing to them the nature of God’s victory that had come to the earth in himself. For the first seven and a half chapters of Mark’s gospel account, Jesus’ true identity as the Christ—the anointed leader of God’s people—had remained hidden. All of Jesus’ miracles were signs of his true power breaking through into this world, but no one except the demons that Jesus cast out recognized them for what they were. 

Then, in the middle of chapter 8, Peter, for the first time, acknowledged who Jesus really was—the Christ, the one in whom that great heavenly battle would finally be won here on the earth. And, in response to Peter’s great confession, Jesus did two things: he ordered the disciples to keep the truth a secret, and he explained to them that winning that battle would mean suffering and being killed before being raised again on the third day.

But Peter couldn’t handle it. By correctly identifying Jesus as the Christ, Peter had identified the one through whom God’s great spiritual triumph over evil would be brought to the earth. But, instead of foretelling his victory over the earthly embodiments of the forces of evil, Jesus had predicted his own earthly defeat. And Peter wasn’t willing to accept it. Taking Jesus aside so as not to challenge his master’s authority in front of the other disciples, Peter began to rebuke Jesus. By doing so, Peter began to reject Jesus’ depiction of the power of God manifest on the earth. So Jesus named it for what it was—Satan himself, in the form of a committed but confused disciple, trying to defeat God here on the earth.

I believe in the existence of Satan. By that, I don’t just mean the absence of good or the privation theory of evil. I mean the actual, positive, and at times physical embodiment of all that is opposed to the will of God. I think that popular culture, by depicting Satan in highly stylized ways, has only advanced the cause of the one whose presence among us is much harder to single out than a pitch-fork wielding demon with horns and a malevolent stare. Who is Satan? Where is Satan to be found? All around us, and especially in those who, like Peter, confuse the ways of the world for the ways of God.

When he rejected his master’s prediction, Peter didn’t think he was siding with Satan. He wanted to protect his teacher and preserve the opportunity for Jesus to triumph over evil once and for all. But what Peter couldn’t understand is that the instinct for self-preservation and the drive to obtain his heart’s desire were fundamentally vulnerable to the influence of evil—to manipulation by Satan himself. If God’s power is principally manifest in the one who suffers and dies for the sake of the world, how can any of us strive for that which is of God until we ourselves have died with Christ? How can we fight for that which is the rejection of earthly power until we, too, have experienced that power’s defeat within us?

Until we understand the cross as the path to our own fulfillment, we will always be vulnerable to Satan’s influence. So often the way of Jesus has been perverted by those who use his holy name, who wield the Bible, and who weaponize the cross in order to further their own agenda. Of course, they cannot tell that they are standing on the side of Satan, for Satan does not openly recruit disciples to his cause. Instead, well-meaning disciples begin to believe that what they want must be what God wants—that the advancement of their interests in Jesus’ name is, in fact, the advancement of Jesus’ name. But none of us can set our minds completely on the things of God until that part of us that belongs only to this world has been crucified with Christ. 

If we want to be followers of Jesus, we must deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him not to our own glory—no matter how saturated it may be in Christian symbolism—but to God’s glory, which is only revealed in humble sacrifice. As old-fashioned as it may sound, if we want to live with Christ, we must first die with Christ. Only in that death will we find abundant life. Only in that death does God’s power triumph over the evil in our world. For what will it profit us to gain the whole world but forfeit our lives?


Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Assemble to Remember

 

February 17, 2020 – Ash Wednesday

© 2021 Evan D. Garner


A video of our Ash Wednesday service, including sermon, can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 15:45. 

Jesus and Joel have very different approaches to Lent. Jesus says go hide by yourself in your bedroom, shut the door, and don’t let anyone see your fasting. Joel says blow the trumpet, call a solemn assembly, and make sure everyone shows up—from the old folks to the little babies and everyone in between. I wonder which one of them was right.

Of course, those two prophets were addressing very different situations, both of which have parallels with our contemporary religious life. Jesus spoke at a time when the gap between the religious zealots and the ordinary faithful had widened. Some sects of first-century Judaism emphasized the importance of going above and beyond what was required, like fasting multiple times every week and tithing not only on one’s income but also on everything that one purchased just in case the seller forgot to do their part. The only problem with heightened religiosity is that it is hard to sit up on that high horse without looking down on everyone else. Pretty soon, what starts as a desire to get closer to God becomes a desire to get closer to God than other people. Genuine piety becomes a superficial performance. Show replaces substance. We lose touch with what religion was all about in the first place. Hypocrisy sets in.

We have a history of that in our own culture. Church is a place to see and be seen. We feel good when people notice our pious acts. We like wearing our faithfulness where other people can see it. But not right now. Not today. Sure, there’s still more than enough religious hypocrisy to go around, even in a pandemic, but this Ash Wednesday there is no see and be seen. There is no need to shut the door and wash our face and hide our fasting from others. There is no solemn assembly, no trumpets, no ashen cross. We are already utterly alone, shut up, in secret, with no one but our heavenly Father to see us.

Because of that, I think Joel has more to say to us this year. Joel wasn’t speaking to a religious culture in which the goody-goodies were too proud of themselves to care about the needs of others. He was speaking to a community that was so overwhelmed by a crisis that they had forgotten that religion even mattered. 

“Blow the trumpet in Zion,” he cried out. “Sound the alarm on my holy mountain!” Joel’s words were a call upon the national defense in anticipation of a looming attack. But what sort of army was bearing down upon God’s people? Not traditional soldiers and warriors but an all-consuming plague of locusts, which promised to devour everything in their path. Already, like a raging fire, they had burned through the land, and now they were closing in on the capital city. 

“Like warriors they charge,” Joel wrote, “like soldiers they scale the wall. Each keeps to its own course, they do not swerve from their paths.” In horrifying detail, the prophet explained that traditional defenses would be no match for this innumerable army: “They burst through the weapons and are not halted. They leap upon the city, they run upon the walls; they climb into the houses, they enter through the windows like a thief.” Like a cloud that blotted out the sun, the airborne swarms descended upon every field, leaving absolutely nothing behind. Even the stubble was consumed. Really, there was nothing that could be done—nothing except to pray.

Joel’s answer to the national crisis was a universal call to prayer. “Blow the trumpet in Zion,” he repeated, but this time, instead of rallying the troops, he was rallying the faithful. “Sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people…assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast; let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.” Why? Because, in the face of an enemy that none of them had the strength or skill to defeat, the people had to turn to God.

But what does God have to do with a swarm of locusts? What does religion have to do with a natural phenomenon? Ancient prophets and contemporary crackpots might associate a natural disaster with the angry hand of God, but we know better. We know that, in drought conditions, grasshoppers begin to squeeze together in smaller and smaller spaces in search of food and that the close proximity and scarce resources begin to change how the grasshoppers’ brains work, releasing massive amounts of serotonin and transforming the normally docile insects into a destructive swarm of locusts. [1] Like Joel’s contemporaries, we may prefer to dissociate natural occurrences from our religious practices, but we don’t need to blame God or ourselves for the pandemic in order to turn to God and seek God’s help.

Why does Joel call upon the people to sanctify a fast and gather a solemn assembly? Because “even now,” the Lord says, “return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Our pain, our grief, our loss are honored as prayers to God. 

None of us is immune to the struggle and suffering around us. We face an enemy so pervasive that no army can repel it. We are assaulted by a foe so subtle that it turns the very comfort we find in one another against us. What does God have to do with all of that? Everything—absolutely everything.

God matters in this moment not because God is punishing us but because God loves us when we need it most. Our collective religious response is not to convince God to forgive us but to convince ourselves that, even in the face of great struggle and tremendous loss, God is with us, that we are not abandoned, that we are not forgotten. That is what our Lenten renewal is all about—returning to the truth that, in the face of our frailty, God’s strength is with us. We need our faith now as much as we ever have—not as a substitute for taking necessary precautions and getting vaccinated when it is our turn but as a proclamation that God will triumph over everything that threatens us.

Normally, Ash Wednesday is a time to come together and hear the stark reminder that we will all die someday: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This year, most of us don’t need to go to church to get that reminder. But we do need to come together as a community of faith—even if we can only gather virtually—to hear the other side of that Lenten proclamation—that, even though life is fragile, God’s salvation is assured. 

We may not know how that salvation will come to us in this moment. Even the prophet Joel acknowledged that he wasn’t sure about it when he wrote, “Who knows? Maybe God will turn and relent and leave a blessing behind him instead.” But we do not need to know how and when God’s saving help will find us to believe that it will. That is why we come together this day—to remember that we are dust yet to proclaim that we are beloved, to acknowledge our own mortality yet to renew our faith in the one who saves us still. 


[1] Harmon, Katherine. “When Grasshoppers Go Biblical: Serotonin Causes Locusts to Swarm.” Scientific American; 30 January 2009. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-grasshoppers-go-bibl/

Monday, February 15, 2021

A Wilderness Journey

 

February 14, 2021 – Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 21:30.

When was the last time you knew a story’s dramatic ending right from the start yet enjoyed hearing the story anyway? If a storyteller is going to hold our attention despite letting the cat out of the bag at the very beginning, either they must be very good at their craft or the story itself must be compelling. In today’s reading from 2 Kings, we get both.

In the opening phrase, we learn how everything is going to work out: “When the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.” Never before in the stories of Israel had God taken someone up into heaven like that. There is no precedent for this, yet the narrator starts this story as if it were no big deal—as if Elijah’s dramatic ascent were a foregone conclusion. We quickly learn, however, that the journey to that point is as important as the destination. 

This passage is filled with the tension between staying and going. Elijah, the prophet, will depart, and Elisha, his protégé, must remain behind. We know from the very beginning that that is where the story will end, but the narrator fills the story with other examples of that same tension in order to draw us in. “Stay here,” Elijah says to his disciple, “for the LORD has sent me as far away as Bethel.” We are not sure why the great prophet insists on leaving his companion behind. Maybe the journey was difficult. Maybe they were likely to meet some of the king’s soldiers, who had been ordered to kill those prophets, along the way. Or maybe Elijah simply knew that Elisha would be better served by staying behind where the action was. We don’t know why he ordered his disciple to stay behind, but there is no mistaking the younger man’s refusal to obey: “As the LORD lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” 

Perhaps in those words we hear the transition of authority already beginning to take place. The junior prophet invokes the name of God, swearing an oath that prioritizes obedience to the LORD over that of his master. He uses a word that carries the force of abandonment in declaring that he will never forsake his teacher. In so doing, the younger prophet declares that his God-appointed duty is to stay with Elijah for as long as he can no matter where his master leads him.

As the prophetic duo make their way through central Israel, they meet loyal members of their prophetic tradition along the way. Each company of prophets provides the younger companion another reason to give up and turn back. “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” they ask. When read alongside Elijah’s insistence that Elisha stay behind, the prophets’ question becomes another argument for giving up. “Why follow someone whose work is already finished?” they seem to be asking. “Don’t you know that it’s time to move on?” But Elisha isn’t interested in hearing how things will end up. He already knows how this particular journey will end, but he doesn’t care. “Yes, I know,” he snaps at the other prophets. “Be silent.” 

With each repeated example, the narrative tension in this story builds not toward an unknown conclusion but toward an unknown purpose. As we follow the two prophets from Gilgal to Bethel and on to Jericho, we are not left wondering what will happen but why the prophets are taking this particular route. Why go from one city to another? Why encounter these companies of prophets? Why bother with these repeated exchanges? But, once Elijah and Elisha leave Jericho and head for the Jordan River, the point begins to become clear. If God is going to show up and do this dramatic thing that has never been done before, the place where that thing will happen is not in the cities where the prophets live but out in the wilderness where God is to be found.

When they come to the Jordan, Elijah takes off his mantle—his cloak—and rolls it up and slaps the surface of the river. Immediately, the water is parted in two—to one side and to the other, until the two of them cross on dry ground. If that sounds familiar, it should. The narrator wants us to see this moment for what it is—a dramatic, Spirit-enabled exodus from the cities of Israel back into the untamed wild. As the company of prophets looks on from a distance, they see the two men effectively retracing the steps of their ancestors, leaving behind the settlements of promise in the land of Canaan and journeying out into the wilderness through which God’s people had been led so long ago.

Throughout his ministry, Elijah had always met God out in the wilderness. It was in the wilderness where that “troubler of Israel” had first defined his ministry in opposition to the king and the king’s authority. It was to the wilderness that he had fled when being hunted by the king, and it was there in a cave where God’s still, small voice of silence spoke to him, urging him not to give up. Like Moses before him, Elijah’s ministry had led him out into that place where, as Walter Brueggemann described it, “reliance upon the raw power of Yahweh is a necessity” (1 & 2 Kings, 295). And it was in that place and in that spirit that Elisha literally takes up his predecessor’s mantle and embarks on his own ministry of confronting the powers of this world.

“Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you,” Elijah asks his persistent companion once they have crossed the Jordan. “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit,” Elisha says in reply, requesting not twice the power of his mentor but a firstborn son’s inheritance—a double-portion reserved for the one primarily responsible for carrying on the family name. “You ask a hard thing,” the older prophet says, acknowledging that it was not up to him to determine how the spirit of the LORD is doled out. Yet Elijah names the criterion through which that transfer would be confirmed: “if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you.” 

Here, at the end of the episode, we discover what had been true yet hidden all along—that Elisha’s identity as the one to follow in his master’s footsteps is secured not because of his master’s favor nor by the recognition of the prophets who live throughout the land but through an encounter with the LORD, whose unbridled power is manifest not in the cities of Israel but out in the wilderness. Before Elisha can do the work he is called to do, he must have his own encounter with God’s power beyond the reaches of civilization. 

We live in an age in which the wilds of God are shrinking—not only because of a consumerist culture that fuels suburban sprawl but also because the reach of technology has narrowed the places that are tethered to the comforts and security of civilization. As the prophets’ journey beyond the Jordan reminds us, we cannot meet the untamed, unfiltered power of God until we step out beyond the places where worldly power has eclipsed God’s presence. Yet, despite the steady shrinking of the physical wilderness, the gap between those whose security is tied to the powers of the world and those who are threatened by those powers is widening. 

As in the prophets’ day, the futures of the poor and the rich—the destinies of the landowners and the tenant laborers, the outlooks of the stockholders and the line workers—are set on divergent paths. If we are going to claim the mantle of divine leadership and pursue God’s work in our own day, we must step out into that gap—into that wilderness gulf where complete reliance upon the raw power of God is necessary. There we will find the enabling power of God’s spirit. But, to get there, we must leave behind our ties to the comfort and security we find in the cities and palaces and cathedrals of the world.

Fortunately, there has not been a better time in decades for us to leave behind the structures that reinforce our dependence on earthly power and eclipse God’s presence among us than right now in the midst of a pandemic. When else have we needed to look for God somewhere other than the church we love? Why else would we leave behind the established religious patterns that bring us such comfort? More than ever before, this is a time to search for God out in those places where the powers of the world fall short—in tent encampments and warming centers, in Covid units and unemployment lines, in the homes of the grief-stricken and the dwellings of the lonely. There, where complete dependence on God’s saving power is our only hope, we will have an encounter with the LORD. 

We need not assign divine causality to this disaster in order to recognize the strange opportunity provided to us by the challenges of this moment. If we come through this pandemic only to reset everything back to exactly the way it was before we embarked on this wilderness journey, we will have given up before reaching the journey’s end. We will have come back without receiving a double portion of God’s spirit. This is our chance to follow the prophets out into the untamed wilds where God’s power is on display. Now is the moment for us to seek God out where God is waiting to be found.


Sunday, February 7, 2021

Called to Something New

 

February 7, 2021 – Epiphany 5B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service is available here with the sermon beginning around 21:40.

Simon and Andrew, James and John. That list of names is familiar. Two Sundays ago, we heard Jesus call out to those four fishermen and say, “Follow me.” And immediately they left their nets and became his disciples. But, over the last two weeks, they haven’t made it very far.

Actually, it hasn’t been two weeks for them, of course, but Mark’s frequent use of the word “immediately” makes it hard for us to tell how much time has passed between one episode and another. After they “immediately” dropped their nets and “immediately” left their father, they “immediately” appeared at the synagogue in Capernaum on the sabbath. But we know that the fishermen wouldn’t have been working on the sabbath, so at least a day or two must have gone by since they left their boats. However long it was, we read about what happened in the synagogue last Sunday, when Jesus, wielding his own spirit-enabled power, cast an unclean spirit out of another person. 

This Sunday, Mark picks up right where we left off last week, with our hero and his companions exiting the synagogue and word of his new and authoritative teaching spreading “immediately” throughout the surrounding region. Although not much time has gone by, Jesus is beginning to make a name for himself, and now it’s time to build upon that success with a bold new missionary venture. So where does Jesus lead his new and faithful followers? Back home, to Simon and Andrew’s house, where Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever. 

I wonder if it occurred to the disciples that following Jesus was a lot less involved than I made it seem two weeks ago when I preached about bringing our whole lives with us as we follow Jesus into the kingdom of God. Instead of going out in search of new opportunities for ministry, Jesus and his disciples waited at home until those opportunities literally presented themselves at their door. As soon as the sun had set and the sabbath observance was over, the whole city, we are told, gathered at the entrance to the house. Throughout the evening and into the night, Jesus worked, healing the sick and casting out demons. When the night was over, perhaps after catching a few moments of sleep—we aren’t told about that—Jesus snuck away while it was still dark, in the wee hours, in order to pray. 

When the disciples woke up, already there was a crowd standing outside with more sick and demon-possessed people for Jesus to heal. Everyone in the city and from the surrounding villages was looking for the miracle-worker, so the disciples went out hunting for him—a word that means more than just looking or searching but actually stalking him the way a hunter might stalk its prey. So urgent was the need back at the house that the disciples didn’t stop to consider that maybe Jesus wasn’t going back. It didn’t occur to them that the size of the crowd and the fruitfulness of the ministry back in Capernaum didn’t matter to Jesus. Jesus was focused on something else. “Let us go on to the neighboring towns,” he said when they found him, “so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”

Something happened to Jesus while he prayed. We don’t know what he said or what God said in reply, but that time of prayer became a turning point—a moment of transition from the first chapter of his ministry to the next. Usually, I think of Jesus going out into that desolate place to pray in order that he might recover after a long night of exhausting work, but that probably says more about my own approach to prayer than Jesus’. Instead of seeking strength to meet the unending needs of those who waited at the door, he prayed in order to receive strength to respond to the needs of those that waited down the road.

This week, a friend and colleague asked whether that time of prayer might be less a time to recharge and more a time of agony like Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane. His question helped me discover that there are only three moments in Mark’s gospel account when Jesus stops to pray. This is the first, when he goes out early in the morning to pray before taking the message of God’s kingdom to some new places. The second comes in Mark 6, when, after feeding the 5,000 and sending the disciples across the sea to Bethsaida, Jesus goes up the mountain to pray by himself. After that, he walks across the water to meet the disciples who were struggling to make it to the other side. The third and final moment comes in Mark 14, when Jesus takes his disciples to Gethsemane, where he prays before being taken into custody by the religious authorities. Each time Jesus prays, he does so not in response to what has happened but in anticipation of the challenges that lie ahead. Is that how we pray? Is that how we approach ministry?

For Jesus, the success of his ministry was never measured in terms of diseases cured and demons cast out. If that were his focus, he never would have needed to leave Capernaum, where he and his disciples had a place to sleep, family and friends to support them, and a synagogue ready to hear him preach at any time. Instead, that time of prayer reminded him that the real fruit of his ministry always lay ahead, down the road, wherever God would lead him next. 

What about us? What do we consider to be the measure of our success in ministry? Is it meals served and evictions prevented? Is it classes taught and prayers offered? Is it anthems sung and sermons preached? We are really good at what we do right here. We are a successful church. Our ministries help meet the needs of our parishioners and the members of the wider community. But what if following Jesus means doing more than that? What if being faithful means leaving those successes behind and proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom to people who haven’t come up to our front door?

This isn’t an easy time to be trying something new. We can’t even do the things we’re good at right now. How in the world are we going to pick up and move on to new opportunities we haven’t even tried yet? And what if our efforts aren’t successful? What if we run into trouble or meet opposition along the way? Why not just stay put and focus on doing all those things we know how to do so well? Because following Jesus into the kingdom of God may start with the successes we already know, but he always leads us beyond them, into new opportunities for proclaiming the good news of God’s reign. We did not become followers of Jesus in order to stay put and wait for the kingdom to come and find us. We answered Jesus’ call because we believe that we find that kingdom by following him into the fullness of God’s reign.

I don’t know what is next for us. I don’t know what is waiting down the road. But I do know that, if we are going to be faithful, we can expect what lies ahead to come with great challenge and hardship. And I also know that, if we are going to find the strength we need to be faithful to whatever opportunities await us, we must commit ourselves to prayer. By that, I don’t mean the kind of self-assured prayer in which we tell God all of the things we would be comfortable doing in God’s name and ask God to make our best intentions prosperous. I mean the kind of risky prayer that puts our whole lives on the line and says to God, “I don’t know what you have in store for me, but I believe that you will use me for something better than I can imagine.” We had better be sure we mean those words before we say them. But, when that becomes our prayer—when we start seeking God’s strength to leave our successes behind and embrace the opportunities we haven’t even dreamt of yet—big things are going to happen.


Sunday, January 24, 2021

What To Take With Us

 

January 24, 2021 – Epiphany 3B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 20:40.

“Follow me,” Jesus says, “and it will only cost you your career, your wealth, your future, your family, your friends, and even your life.” Who among us is ready to sign up for that?

Jesus begins his ministry by calling some of the disciples. First, it’s Simon and Andrew, and then it’s James and John. The gospel tradition wants us, a new generation of would-be disciples, to recognize what is being asked of us as we commit to following Jesus. Simon and Andrew are in the boat, casting their net into the sea, and Jesus calls out to them, beckoning them to follow him. Immediately they drop their net to answer his call, and, in so doing, they give up their career, their livelihood, and the security that it has provided for them and their families. 

A little farther down the road, Jesus calls out to the sons of Zebedee, who are in the boat with their father, mending the nets. Like the first pair of disciples, they respond immediately by putting down their work and leaving behind their father, their family, and their filial responsibility in order to follow Jesus. Only the hired hands—a symbol rich with layers of relational distance and incomplete commitment—are left behind to support their father. 

When we hear this gospel lesson, we confront the magnitude of what we must leave behind in order to follow Jesus. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” Jesus says a little later on in Mark. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” That costly truth is evident not only as the disciples’ commitment to Jesus matures but even from the very beginning, from the first moment they decide to follow him. But this gospel encounter reminds us that following Jesus is not only about what we leave behind but also what we take with us.

How was Jesus, an itinerant preacher who was only just beginning his ministry, able to woo these followers with only a few words? Perhaps he had spent more time than we realize building up a reputation for himself, but, in addition to that possibility, there is tremendous power in the invitation he offers. Jesus, we are told, came to Galilee “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.’” Not that the time will come soon. Not that the kingdom is just around the corner. Jesus announces that God’s time is already perfected and that God’s kingdom is already here. He doesn’t ask his followers to trust that, with a little patience, they will reach their destination. He asks them to believe that their ultimate fulfillment has already arrived. He invites them—he invites us—to see that in him the fullness of God’s reign has already come and found us and that now it’s our turn to bring our whole lives into that reign. 

When Jesus speaks to Simon and Andrew, he does not tell them to quit being fishermen but promises to make them fish for people. He calls them to bring their trade with them into the kingdom of God. And, when he calls James and John, he does not ask them to forget the family they leave behind, but, as Mark’s gospel account shows, they continue to be known as the “Sons of Zebedee.” As disciples, their whole identity, even their family name, belongs to God. In committing to follow Jesus, these disciples do not simply forsake their previous lives. They bring their earthly identities with them in order that their entire lives might be devoted fully to the reign of God. And, if we see in Jesus what they saw, we must do the same.

Our decision to follow Jesus is not simply a decision to give up our wealth, to let go of our career, to leave behind our family, and to sacrifice our dreams for the future. When we choose to follow Jesus, we choose to bring those things with us—our money, our jobs, our relationships, our hopes, and our expectations—and devote them to the kingdom of God, which is already present all around us. Yes, being a disciple requires great sacrifice, but we are not called to sacrifice all the things that we love but to sacrifice the illusion that any part of our life belongs outside the reign of God.

One of the things I value most about the Episcopal Church is our understanding of the church’s mission. We do not measure the success of our ministry in terms of the number of souls that are rescued from hell and promised to heaven. We are not focused on establishing an escapist cult whose members care only about being whisked away from this planet and drawn up into a mythical paradise. Instead, we pursue and proclaim the presence of God’s reign in this world, here and now, all among us. Our mission is to restore all people to unity with God and to each other in Jesus Christ. In other words, our mission is to live fully in the kingdom of God here in this world and to invite others to live there beside us.

One of the biggest challenges of our tradition, however, is remembering that it is not our job to make God’s kingdom come. Our job is to follow Jesus into the kingdom that he has already established on the earth. To that end, as Jesus’ disciples, we are still learning about—still being formed for—a life that belongs wholly within the reign of God. As strange as it may sound, we are not called to do good works in our community. We are not called to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and care for the needy and lift up the downtrodden. Instead, we are called to follow Jesus into that kingdom where there is no hunger or poverty or oppression. And, when we fully belong to that kingdom, when our whole lives become a part of God’s reign, then no one will go to sleep hungry or cold or alone or forgotten.

If the invitation Jesus were offering us today is to try our very best to make the world a better place, I dare say that invitation would not be good enough to justify giving up our jobs, our wealth, our families, and our lives. Maybe we would hand over a small part of what we have, but not the whole thing. No amount of goodwill on our part will make the world the place God wants it to be. But, in Jesus Christ, God has already done that work for our sake. In Jesus, God has already brought God’s reign to the earth. In him, God has already lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things. Jesus calls us to follow him into that reign and to bring our whole lives along with us. The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is at hand. Believe in the good news—news so good that we would give everything we’ve got in order to be a part of it.


Sunday, January 17, 2021

Can Anything Good Come Out Of Them?

 

January 17, 2021 – Epiphany 2B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 25:00.

Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Can anything good come out of Gravette? Can anything good come out of Pea Ridge or Harrison? Out of Seattle or San Francisco? Out of Dardanelle or Delaware?

Today’s gospel lesson is a little bit geography, a little bit theology, and a whole lot of expectation. And, if we don’t hear what’s really going on between Jesus and Nathanael, we will miss a word of encouragement that feels pretty important in a time when encouragement isn’t easy to find.

Look at the way Philip sets up Nathanael for disappointment: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote…” That’s not a casual invitation. Philip isn’t inviting Nathanael to come and hear a powerful preacher or meet a charismatic leader. He’s telling Philip that he has found the singular hope that God’s people had been waiting on for a thousand years. “This is it!” he tells Nathanael. “This is the one! This is the person whom Moses in the Torah and the great prophets of our people told us to look for.” But, as soon as Philip goes on to tell Nathanael that he’s talking about a man from Nazareth, all the energy and excitement and expectation in his words evaporate.”

We don’t know a lot about Nathanael. John is the only New Testament author to mention him by name, and he only mentions him twice—once in today’s lesson and again when Jesus appears to a handful of disciples after he had been raised from the dead. But, whoever he is, Nathanael seems to know his Hebrew scriptures pretty well. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asks. That sounds like a slight against the people of Jesus’ hometown, and it very well may have been, but what Nathanael was probably trying to remind Philip is that nowhere in the Torah or in the prophets is Nazareth even mentioned, much less depicted as the place from which the messiah will come. Bethlehem, sure. Jerusalem makes since. Even Egypt is possible. But Nazareth?

As far as we can tell, back then Nazareth was one stop past nowhere—a tiny village home to some working-class folks with no claim on greatness. Nowadays, it’s the largest city in the northern part of Israel, but back then it wasn’t even worth mentioning. The first non-biblical reference to Nazareth that archaeologists have found is from around 200 AD. There were plenty of cities from that part of Palestine that could have produced a prominent religious or political figure—Caesarea Philippi, Capernaum, Tiberius, Bethsaida—but pretending that the messiah was supposed to come from Nazareth is like expecting the next President of the United States to come from Ozark or Prairie Grove. But, despite what the scriptures said, Philip had found someone worth meeting, and, despite all of his expectations, Nathanael agreed to meet him.

They say you only get once chance to make a first impression, and Jesus was working with a deficit right from the start. Yet with one sentence he managed to flip everything around. When he saw Nathanael approaching, Jesus said, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Those are flattering words to say to a stranger, but they are more than a mere compliment. 

Another translation says, “Behold a true Israelite in whom there is nothing false!” The word translated as “deceit” or “false” is literally the word for “bait” or “lure,” a fishing or hunting word that implied setting a trap for someone by putting on airs or making a false presentation of oneself. In other words, Jesus identified Nathanael as a genuine descendant of Israel who didn’t need any pretense in order to convince others of his standing in the faith. That means that, in the exact subject area from which Nathanael had raised a reasonable objection to Jesus’ pedigree, Jesus repays Nathanael’s skepticism with a generous affirmation. He compliments the very thing Nathanael had been using against him. How remarkable!

Nathanael, it seems, was immediately set back on his heels. “Where did you get to know me?” he asked, making almost as little sense as Jesus’ words had made to him. Jesus replied, “I saw you sitting under the fig tree before Philip called you.” At first glance, that seems like a strange or even off-topic response, but it could be that Jesus referred to a fig tree because, in the rabbinic tradition, scholars of the Jewish faith were said to have gathered frequently under the shade of fig trees to discuss the nuances of their religion. If so, Jesus is doubling down on his flattery. Here is a true Israelite in whom there is no deception. But how do you know that about me? Because I can tell that you are a careful student of the scriptures. 

Instead of arguing with Nathanael or defending himself or trying to explain how it is possible for the Son of God to come from Nazareth, Jesus finds and praises the best qualities in his intellectual adversary. Instead of tearing him down, which, when it comes to rabbinical arguments, we know Jesus to be fully capable of, Jesus compliments the skeptic. “Well done!” he seems to say. “You’re right: no one is looking to Nazareth as the place from which God’s anointed one will come, but, if you’ll give it a chance, you’ll see some pretty spectacular things.” And what is Nathanael’s reaction? “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

What Jesus gave Nathanael was grace—an unmerited, undeserved, unearned dollop of favor. The benefit of the doubt. A chance to grow beyond his initial impressions. And that grace had the power to flip everything that Nathanael had already decided about Jesus on its head. All Jesus did was find the source of the conflict between them and breathe a little grace right there into the heart of it. Somehow, if Jesus had decided to pick a rhetorical fight with Nathanael or make a shameful example of him, I don’t think the story would have turned out the same way. Do you?

Grace seems to be in short supply these days. When was the last time you went driving through the country? You don’t have to get very far outside of town before you find yourself in the middle of nowhere. Some of you live out there in the middle of nowhere, where you can go a month without seeing your neighbors. I’ve noticed that, as I get further away from the center of town, the political signs in people’s yards begin change. And, although I’m ashamed to admit it, I’ve also noticed that, along with those signs, something begins to change in my heart and in my mind. All of my expectations of who I might meet and what kind of people they might be begin to shift. Why is that? I’m a child of the rural South, yet it has become pretty hard to see what part of me belongs out there, even if “out there” is really just a few miles down the road.

I don’t mean to suggest that the way forward for us is to ignore the very real dangers that arise when political, economic, and cultural differences become radicalized and weaponized. And I don’t pretend that other people who don’t look or sound like me wouldn’t have a harder time if their car broke down in the wrong part of Arkansas at sunset. But I do mean to suggest that doubling down on our worst expectations of other people won’t get us anywhere except more angry and more scared and more lost. 

Remember what Jesus said about himself: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” 

In Jesus Christ, God’s grace—God’s unconditional love—is breathed into this world, into each one of us. In him, we are not broken down or torn apart but built up by God’s love and favor. God loves each one of us, not because we deserve it—not because we’re any better than anyone else—but simply because of God’s infinite goodness and mercy. If God can love you simply because that’s who God is, that love has the power to free you up to love others in the same way. 

If you can remember that you are lovable not because of who you are or where you’re from or what you think but just because, then you can remember the same about others. That’s the only way anything will ever change. That’s the only way our expectations will ever get flipped upside down—when the love of God surprises us into believing that we, too, can love others just because God loves them first. 


Sunday, January 10, 2021

Salvation Within Us

 

January 10, 2021 – Epiphany 1B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 22:30. 

Are we coming, or are we going—which is it? At what point on a journey do you stop leaving home and start heading somewhere new? The answer isn’t a mile marker but a mindset. Sometimes we go on a trip just to “get away,” and other times we embark on a journey toward something in particular. Usually, it’s a little of both. But what about right now? Are we coming or going?

Are we living, or are we dying—which is it? You remember that line from The Shawshank Redemption, first spoken by Brooks, the elderly prisoner, and then repeated by Red, the man who follows in his footsteps: “Get busy living or get busy dying.” Which one is it? The answer probably has something to do with age, but surely it is more than that. What does “over the hill” really mean? Don’t some of us live our best life even in our final few years? Right now, are we living or dying?

Are we avoiding hell, or are we embracing heaven—which is it? A long time ago, I asked a mentor of mine, a devout Muslim whose faith I admired, why he went to such considerable lengths to practice his faith. “Because I don’t want to go to hell,” he replied. When he turned the same question around on me, I wasn’t prepared, so I repeated back to him the same answer he had given. Looking back, I wish that I had said, “Because I want to go to heaven.” On this faith journey we are on, what is our answer? Are we avoiding hell or embracing heaven?

Today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, and, in so doing, we celebrate nothing less than the transformation of the whole human race—from the sin and death and destruction we know so well to the freedom and life and flourishing we find in union with God. But sometimes I think we forget that that’s the journey we are really on. 

Many of us, I think, are like those disciples in Ephesus, who thought of themselves as Christians but who had never received the baptism of Jesus. They had received the baptism of John, the baptism of repentance, by which they were cleansed from the sins of their past, but still they were missing something. They knew what to leave behind but didn’t know where to go. Then, when they were baptized in the name of Jesus, and Paul had laid hands on them, a dramatic transformation took place. They were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues and to prophesy. We tend to eschew such dramatic expressions of Spirit-fueled activity, but, as Moses said, “Would that all God’s people were prophets, and that God would put his Spirit upon them!” (Num. 11:29). Though we tend to forget it, we, too, were baptized not merely to escape the consequences of sin but to initiate in us the full manifestation of God’s power. We were baptized to become one with God.

In the western Christian tradition, when we talk about salvation, we tend to use the language of accounting. Our sins are debts that must be forgiven or paid off. Because we are enslaved to sin, our souls must be bought and paid for. In Christ, we are redeemed. That mindset leads us to look at salvation as if it were accomplished solely in the cross of Christ—that moment when the price of our sin was paid. We look to his death, therefore, in order to find forgiveness. 

But the eastern tradition embraces a much bigger understanding of salvation. Instead of using the language of accounting, they use the language of being—that of our nature, of ontology. In the incarnation, the Word became flesh, and God united Godself to human nature. In the baptism of Jesus, the one who knew no sin took upon himself the fullness of our sin. In the death of Christ, therefore, that which is broken within all of us was itself put to death so that, in our own baptism, we might be raised with Christ to the new life of union with God. We are saved, therefore, not only at the cross but also in the womb of Mary, in the River Jordan, at the empty tomb, and in the waters of our own baptism.

We are baptized, therefore, not only to leave our particular sins behind but to enter into a new life of oneness between all of humanity and God. And, in weeks like this one, when the full brokenness of human nature manifests itself in a violent attack at the center of our national life, I need to know that that’s how God’s salvation is accomplished—not only through the innumerable individuals whose sins have been washed away in the waters of baptism but in the complete restoration of human nature that has been accomplished in Jesus Christ. 

That is the journey we are on, and we are on it alongside the whole human race. That victory, that renewal, that restoration has already been achieved, even if, in this life, we can only see it in part—as St. Paul said, like looking through a glass dimly. Even in moments when evil and sin appear to be winning, we know that, in truth, they have already been defeated. That truth lives within us. It lives within our human nature, united through Christ to the very core of our human being. 

Our hope, therefore, is not simply that the good people would outnumber the bad, for that would always leave us wondering and worrying that evil might one day triumph. Instead, our hope is that the full transformation of human nature, which has already been accomplished by Jesus Christ, would be completely realized in our lives. That is the life into which we have been baptized. That is the hope to which we cling. That is the truth into which we have been adopted. That is the reality we see unfolding in our lives when we look to Christ, whose victory over sin and death was not only accomplished on the cross but woven into our very nature by the Holy Spirit in the waters of baptism.