Sunday, May 2, 2021

Stay Connected Now, Bear Fruit Later

 

May 2, 2021 – Easter 5B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

“Try hard to relax.” It’s a pretty silly thing to say, isn’t it? You should work harder to not work so much. Since doing nothing doesn’t come naturally to you, you should practice it more. Sayings like those are basically non-sensical.

In a way, that’s what Jesus tells his disciples to do. In these final instructions before he leaves them, Jesus says, “Abide in me.” I think most modern translations use the word “abide” because it sounds more official and significant than “remain” or “stay,” but the word Jesus uses—the thing he tells his disciples to do—really is as simple as that. Stay put. Remain here. Dwell in me. If you abide in me, you will bear fruit, and, if you don’t, you won’t. It’s really that simple. If you want to be my disciple, all you have to do is stay put in me. But I wonder if the disciples knew how hard that would be.

Just hours after Jesus spoke these words to his disciples, he was arrested. He was tortured. He was executed. His crucified body was put on display as a warning to any of his followers that, if they dared challenge the authority of the Empire, they, too, would meet a ghastly end. And where were the disciples? Hiding in the shadows. Scattered to the wind. Nowhere to be found. “All you have to do is remain in me,” Jesus said, but that wasn’t easy at all.

In the early church—actually by the time John’s gospel account was written—the principal test for Christian disciples was not how much they knew about Jesus but whether they were willing to be counted among his followers in the face of persecution. Martyrs were the witnesses who sacrificed their homes and possessions, their relationships with family and friends, and even their own lives rather than renounce their faith in Jesus. Abiding in him would enable them to bear much fruit, but the seeds for that fruit, as Tertullian (sort of) wrote, would be their own blood. 

Still, although more challenging in practice than in theory, being a disciple really does start with abiding in Jesus. If we abide in him, even in the face of opposition and struggle, we will bear the fruit of discipleship. Jesus does not say to his disciples, “Go out and bear much fruit in order than you might remain connected with me.” Instead, he tells them to stay where they are—connected and rooted in the vine—in order that, in him, they might bear much fruit. No matter how hard we try to get that backwards, our first calling as disciples of Jesus is simply to remain in him. Bearing fruit always comes later.

What has abiding in Christ looked like for you during the pandemic? How have you stayed connected to the vine? On the one hand, being a Christian really is as simple as staying connected with Jesus, but doing that during a time when all of us are cut off from one another and the usual vehicles for spiritual growth are unavailable to us is hard. Collectively, we are the body of Christ. We are nourished as the body of Christ when we assemble and receive the body of Christ, but, for many of us, that most basic of Christian practices—coming together for Holy Communion—is not possible right now. Sure, we say our prayers and read the Bible and share our bounty with those in need, but doing those things in isolation rather than as part of the community of faith makes it hard for us to recognize them as practices that keep us connected with Jesus. It feels like what we really need is to return to normal—to go back to the way things were before we had to wear masks and stay home and keep six feet of distance from one another.

But isn’t there a peculiar holiness to this challenging chapter of our lives? Isn’t there a sense in which what we are going through is analogous to God’s pruning of the branches that bear fruit in order that they might bear more fruit? Aren’t we learning new ways of staying connected with Jesus and, through him, with one another? Aren’t we learning all over again why those familiar practices, which we have had to set aside for a time, are important and valuable in the first place? Aren’t we called to return to them not as if nothing has changed but with full recognition that everything is new and different?

“Abide in me as I abide in you.” Though it takes considerable effort and intention on our parts, those who abide in Jesus will bear much fruit and for no other reason than the fact that that’s where they remain, where they dwell. What does it mean to be fruitful in the years ahead? How will church be different when all of us are able to come back together again? We don’t know. We can’t know. And that’s ok. Our calling is not to bear that fruit in order that we might be worthy of Christ. Our calling is to remain in the vine so that in us Christ might bear whatever fruit God will bring to bear. 

In this time of pruning, when branches that bear fruit are cut back in order that they might be more fruitful and when branches that no longer bear fruit are removed to give room for new growth, our calling is clear. We must remain in Christ. That is always the definition of faithfulness, but it is clearer than usual in this pandemic time. Now more than ever, our prayers matter. They matter because they hold us together and hold us together in Christ. We must remain rooted in the vine even and especially when it is hardest to do so. It isn’t easy to stay connected with Jesus during this time when we are forced to stay apart. And our desire to be fruitful—our tendency to measure the success of our faith in output instead of identity—often gets in the way of what really matters.

Abide in Christ. Remain in Christ. Dwell in Christ. You belong to Christ not because you bear fruit but in order that Christ might bear fruit in you. In this time of our collective struggle, don’t lose sight of what really matters. Don’t be discouraged because bearing fruit is hard or looks different during the pandemic. Christ is the vine, and you are the branches. Our job, our calling, is merely to be what God has made us to be—a branch that remains connected to the vine no matter what wind and rain and last frost comes. Stay put. Abide. Remain in the vine and wait until that vine bears fruit in us once more.


Sunday, April 25, 2021

Different Kind Of Shepherd

 

April 25, 2021 – Easter 4B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here.

Jesus is the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He knows his own, and his own know him. Of all the things we teach our children, that is what we teach them first. Not the creation story. Not the Golden Rule. The story of the good shepherd. That is the cornerstone of our children’s program, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. As the name implies, everything we want to teach our children starts with this lesson—with Jesus the good Shepherd. From their first day in Sunday school, we teach our children that Jesus knows each of them by name. We teach them that they know him and already recognize his voice. We teach them that Jesus goes ahead of them and leads them in and out of the sheepfold. And we teach them that, when danger comes, Jesus lays down his life to keep them safe.

Jesus is the good shepherd. One thing we don’t teach our children is how beautifully strange that is. Preachers like to make a big deal about how counterintuitive it is that our God is depicted as a lowly, smelly, unglamorous shepherd. But, actually, that’s not strange at all. Lots of ancient near-eastern religions described their gods and heroes as if they were shepherds: Anubis, Attis, Yima, Zarathustra, Marduk, the Phrygian god, Agamemnon, and Apollonius of Tyana [1].  Given how important sheep were to the economy and how important shepherds were to the sheep, it shouldn’t surprise us at all that divine caretakers were depicted as keepers of their flocks. But what should surprise us—even shock us to our core—is that Jesus defines the good shepherd as one who would sacrifice his life for the sake of the sheep.

What kind of shepherd is that? After all, what good is a dead shepherd? The Bible is full of exemplary shepherds, but none of the good ones die in the line of duty. God shepherds us through the valley of the shadow of death. Moses learns how to be a leader for God’s people while caring for his father-in-law’s sheep. David, in order to rescue sheep that had been attacked by wild animals, fights off lions and bears with his bare hands. Ezekiel envisions the day when God’s true shepherd will come and gather together the scattered flock of Israel. But nowhere in the Jewish tradition is the shepherd expected to give up his life for the sake of the sheep. Really, if you think about it, a shepherd who dies while trying to protect the flock isn’t a very good shepherd at all.

But that’s who Jesus is, and that’s what Jesus does, and that’s what makes our faith so remarkable. We put our trust not in the shepherd who comes and triumphs over the wolves with a mighty show of force. We follow not the one who uses his shepherd’s staff to protect us. We put our faith in the one who surrenders his life for the sake of the flock. We believe in the one who loves us enough to die on our behalf. 

The implications of a divine shepherd who sacrifices his life for the sake of the sheep are far-reaching. What does it mean to belong to the one who fulfills God’s purposes not by defeating his enemies but by yielding to them? What does it mean to follow the shepherd who cares more about the sheep than his own life? If we find our greatest hope in the one who gives up his life for our sake, if we pledge ourselves to that good shepherd, our lives begin to take on the pattern that has been set for us by Jesus. Those of us who spend time in the presence of Jesus, who live our days and nights under the watchful eye of the good shepherd, undergo a transformation.

This week, an old survey is making the rounds on social media again. Back in 2013, The New York Times published a dialect quiz that uses twenty-five questions about how you speak and what you call things to predict where you’re from. Every few years it comes back around, and, over the weekend, I decided to take it. Like my speech patterns, most of my answers are still the same, but, after living here for three years, a few of them have changed enough to make a difference. The quiz still thinks I’m from the southeastern quadrant of the country, but the likely cities where I live have moved west from Columbus, Georgia, and Jackson, Mississippi, to Little Rock and Amarillo. It’s funny how living somewhere, even for a little while, begins to change you.

Those who belong to the good shepherd, who go in and out behind the one who knows them and calls them by name, who loves them enough to lay down his life for their sake, learn what it means to love others like that. We start by seeing how we have been loved, and then that love begins to shape us. John writes about this in the first letter that bears his name. “We know love by this,” he writes, “that he laid down his life for us. But that’s not where John stops. “We ought to lay down our lives for one another,” he continues. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a sibling in need and yet refuses help?” The answer is that it can’t. When God’s sacrificial love abides in us, we love others, “not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Those who have experienced selfless love and know that they belong to the one who loves them selflessly become bearers of that same selfless love.

How different our faith would be if we belonged to one whose victory was not accomplished through sacrifice and whose triumph was not achieved through death! But this is our flock, and Jesus is our shepherd. We belong to the one who knows us and loves us sacrificially. Our community is defined by that sacrifice. We make the image of his death the icon of our faith. We proclaim the cross as our fullest hope.

This is the most important thing we teach our children because this is the most important thing we proclaim as Christians: Jesus is the good shepherd who knows us and loves us and lays down his life for our sake. It’s as simple as that, but that is only the beginning. What that means for us is a lifetime of being formed as his disciples—a lifelong journey of study and prayer and practice as students of that love—but, no matter how holy we will eventually become, everything we will learn along the way starts with that truth. Jesus is the good shepherd, and you belong to him. You belong to him not because you come to church or because you are nice to other people or because you try your best to live a good life. You belong to him because he loves you. You belong to him because he lays down his life for your sake. You belong to him so that you might live in his love.

______

[1] C. K. Barrett, The Gospel according to St. John. SPCK; London: 1965, 310


Monday, April 19, 2021

Forgiveness Matters

 

April 18, 2021 – Easter 3B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner


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

Several years after I was ordained, I had lunch with a colleague who had recently moved to the Diocese of Alabama. We were both in “Fresh Start,” a program for clergy who are starting in a new position. We had met together with a handful of other participants once a month for the better part of a year, and it was time for the program to end. To celebrate, the bishop took all of us across the street from the diocesan office to have lunch at a fancy restaurant. In the middle of our meal, that friend looked across the table at me and said, “Evan, I need to say something to you.” His tone was surprisingly serious, and I gave him my full attention. “I need to apologize. I repent of something I did to you years ago, and I beg your forgiveness.”

I was stunned. As I stared back silently, he continued, recalling for me that, back when both of us were in seminary, the flag football teams at our respective schools had faced off in a gritty, spirited match. He remembered acting inappropriately toward me—playing too rough, too viciously for a match against fellow seminarians—and he hoped I would forgive him. In that instant, I tried my best to remember what he was talking about. I did recall someone getting very angry and very physical in one of the games we had played that year, but I hadn’t thought about it in so long that I could hardly recall what had happened. I thought about telling him that I barely remembered it and that it was nothing he should worry about, but the intensity of his gaze let me know that he needed more than a passing, “Oh, it was nothing.” So I stared back at him. “Thank you, Joe,” I said. “I forgive you.”

Far more powerful for me than the episode on the gridiron was that moment of contrition and forgiveness we shared in that restaurant. I still think about it all the time. I’m sure that, in the middle of that football game, I was furious at him, but I quickly forgot all about it. He didn’t. When we met and started that class together, I didn’t recognize him from years back, but now it was clear that all he could think about was that moment from the past. Seven years later, he still needed to set things right. Why? Why would anyone care enough about how he acted in a flag football game to bring it up seven years later and ask for forgiveness from someone who had long since moved on?

After opening their minds to understand the scriptures, Jesus said to the disciples, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” We are witnesses of these things. Literally, we are martyrs of these things. We are the ones who bear witness not only to the resurrection of Jesus Christ but also, as a more accurate translation would put it, to the “repentance unto forgiveness” that is the fruit of his death and resurrection. 

We are martyrs for this truth. With our whole lives, we are witnesses of these things. Even though we did not see his hands and his feet, even though we did not have a chance to touch him, even though we did not hear his voice or see him eat that fish, we are witnesses to the life-giving, life-changing truth of forgiveness that is accomplished through his death and resurrection. And, if that truth means anything to us, we must bear witness to it in ways that the whole world can see.

I think we forget that, as Christians, Jesus has called us to be his witnesses. In the Baptismal Covenant, we declare that part of what it means to claim the Christian faith for ourselves is to commit to proclaiming by word and example the good news of God in Christ. And what is that good news? It is not merely that the tomb is empty—that Jesus was raised from the dead. It is the good news that, because the tomb is empty, the path of repentance will lead to forgiveness no matter who it is that walks down that path. 

That is why Jesus died and was raised. He himself said it that plainly. His death and resurrection are the means by which forgiveness is possible for all people. This is God’s great gift to the world. This is why Christianity exists. Because of Jesus, we believe that God’s forgiveness belongs to all people, whether they deserve it or not. Because of Jesus, nothing is unforgivable. No crime, no sin, no evil is unredeemable. When God overcame the bonds of sin and death and raised Jesus on the third day, God set all of us free. And, because we are participants in that forgiven life, because the risen Christ has set us free, we must be witnesses of these things. 

We are Easter people. We are people of the resurrection. We are people of unconditional love and limitless forgiveness. If we have experienced that truth—if we have seen it and heard it and touched it for ourselves—we must be witnesses of it. We cannot live in the truth of the resurrection without sharing that truth with others. We cannot experience the limitlessness of God’s forgiveness and not share that forgiveness with the world. The world is desperate to know that its burdens have been lifted. People are dying to know that they can set those burdens down. And this is the place where they can do it. We are the people who can help them find it. We are the ones who have the good news of forgiveness to share. We are witnesses of these things.

If we allow ourselves to doubt the limitless power of forgiveness, we deny the truth of Easter. If we live in fear that something we have done is too awful to be forgiven, we have not encountered the risen Christ. If we withhold forgiveness from someone else, we cannot know the fullness of forgiveness in our own lives. But no matter what fear we are holding onto and no matter what resentment we carry in our hearts, the power of God’s forgiveness is real, and it cannot be defeated by any fear or doubt or grudge that we can muster. 

If you are stuck in that place where you have heard that the tomb is empty but you haven’t yet experienced the power of the resurrection, you’ve come to the right place. You’re in the right place because the risen Christ is here in our midst. He is here in the breaking of the bread. He is here in the body that is broken and made whole. He is here in order to show himself to you. He is here in order that you, too, might be a witness of these things.


Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Only Easter Evening

 

April 4, 2021 – Easter Evening

© 2021 Evan D. Garner


Gathering as the church on Easter evening is an ancient tradition. As you can tell, our worship tonight has its own lessons. We hear not the story of Mary Magdalene and the other women discovering that the stone had been rolled away. We are not told of the moment when the angels met the women and told them that Jesus had been raised and instructed them to go and tell the disciples what had happened. No, tonight we’re on the road to Emmaus with two of those disciples, who had heard the women’s testimony but didn’t know what to believe.

Some of you are here because there wasn’t enough room in church this morning. Covid-19 has forced us to limit attendance in the building. Normally, we’d have 700 or 800 people in church on Easter Day, but this year we’re only able to accommodate less than a third of that. Others of you are here because this is an outdoor service. Covid-19 is still a threat to those with vulnerable immune systems, and some would argue that any indoor gathering is irresponsible. Whatever reason you’re here, I’m glad you’re here, and I’m particularly glad that we are here together because, in a very real way, we cannot finish our celebration of Easter without this service.

You’ve heard me say how much I love the journey we make each year through the Paschal Triduum. From Maundy Thursday through Good Friday into Holy Saturday and the Easter Vigil and on to Easter Morning—it’s a wonderful, magnificent mystery than unfolds for us. But that great unfolding isn’t finished—the story isn’t complete—until we hear and celebrate Jesus appearing to his disciples at the supper table in Emmaus.

When is the risen Jesus known to his disciples? When is he revealed to them? Not outside the tomb but in the breaking of the bread. Luke tells us that, after the women ran to find the disciples, the men dismissed their words as mere nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb to see it for himself, but all he found was the linen cloth still lying on the floor of the tomb. After that, he went back home, wondering what had happened, but he didn’t see Jesus.

Then, these two disciples—one named Cleopas and the other left unnamed—walk the road from Jerusalem down to Emmaus, bearing the messy grief of having lost the one they thought had come to redeem God’s people and yet having heard the women say that he may still be alive. As much as they wanted to believe it, the women’s testimony made no sense. They had seen Jesus nailed to the cross. So thick was their grief that they didn’t even recognize Jesus when he came to walk with them, nor could they understand what he was trying to explain to them about the scriptures. 

But they didn’t want to let that stranger keep walking down the road at night, so they invited him in. “Come! It is late. Stay the night with us.” And then, at the table, the stranger took a loaf of bread, said the blessing, broke it apart, and gave it to them, and their eyes were opened! This was Jesus! This was the risen Lord! He had come to them and revealed himself to them in the breaking of the bread! And then he vanished from their sight.

What does the full Paschal mystery tell us? What do we learn about God and God’s salvation this evening that we cannot grasp as fully at any other time? We learn that the risen Christ reveals himself to us when we break bread in his name. Those two disciples weren’t looking for Jesus. They were going in the opposite direction. They had given up. They were moving on. And still Jesus came and found them and made himself known to them when the sat down and broke bread together.

When we share Communion with each other, we meet the risen Christ, or, more accurately, he comes to meet us. Christ sits with us and shares himself with us and reveals himself to us in ways that transcend what we hear with our ears and see with our eyes and understand with our minds. There is no amount of testimony nor heap of explaining that can win our hearts to the resurrection. As was true for the disciples, Christ must come and meet us and bring us into the truth of Easter. For the church, that truth isn’t complete at the empty tomb. It finds its completion at the table.


Transformed in the Tomb

 

April 3, 2021 – Easter Vigil, Year B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service can be seen here.

The women come to the tomb in grief but leave in ecstatic wonder. They come cloaked with doubt but leave aglow with amazement. They come bearing a particular intention but leave in the spirit of pure possibility. They come under the shadow of death but leave having been raised to new life. 

The women’s faithfulness transcends our own. They came to the tomb not because they expected it to be empty but because they loved Jesus enough to anoint his dead body. And, because of that love, they became vessels for the miracle of the resurrection. God revealed to them Christ’s great victory over death not because they were prepared to explain it to others but because their love gave them the capacity to encounter it in the first place. The terror and dread with which they ran away were not signs of their failure but of their faithful encounter with the pure holiness of God. 

On this holiest of nights, we gather within the tomb, after it has been emptied of its lifeless body yet before the women have come to discover its glorious truth. We gather, therefore, in the presence of the risen, triumphant Christ, who is here with us, among us. Tomorrow morning, we will see for ourselves what the women saw. We will hear their testimony and behold the bewildering truth for ourselves. But, tonight, our wait within this holy place, where sin is defeated and where death itself is put to flight, finds its fulfillment. Our waiting, our longing, our yearning is over. The risen Christ is here in our midst, and we are transformed. Alleluia!

And yet, in a way that surpasses our understanding of time and space, we come into this sacred tomb only as inheritors of those women’s love. We gather here because their love has shown us what will take place this night. We come to the tomb as they did, following their example, and so, despite all that we already know about this holy night, we, too, bring with us our own uncertainties and incompletenesses. We carry our grief and our doubt into the tomb because we dare to hope that what those women found will be true for us as well. We dare to believe that God’s great gift of love will come to us as it came to them.

The women have taught us that faithfulness is not the same thing as understanding. They have shown us that transformation precedes realization. So we come, having received from them what they know yet hoping to learn it all over again—that in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has overcome anything that would stand in the way of God’s love for us.

Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!
From John Chrysostom’s Easter Sermon

We have come to the tomb carrying with us all our grief, but now we leave in ecstatic wonder. We have come bearing the weight of all our doubt, but now we leave beaming with the fresh glow of amazement. We have come with all our particular intentions—for ourselves, for our lives, for those we love—but now we leave having been given the spirit of pure possibility. We have come shrouded in the shadow of death, but now we leave having been raised with Christ to new and unending life. Alleluia!


Sunday, April 4, 2021

Jesus Finds Us

 

April 4, 2021 – Easter Day, Year B

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

 Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the service is available here with the sermon beginning around  19:45.

Early in the morning, while it was still dark, a woman slipped quietly, unnoticed to the tomb. Filled with overflowing grief—more than her body and soul could contain—she went to the place where she could weep—where she could pour out her broken heart and be as close to the body of Jesus as she could get. She loved Jesus in a way that was different from that of his mother or his disciples—with a love that was unsurpassed on the earth. That love drew Mary to the tomb even while others slept.

“Mary.” Oh, to know that Mary! To know her love and devotion! To experience her transformation from fullest grief into fullest joy! Who is Mary? Who is the Magdalene? Across the centuries, people have invented stories and caricatures to express their devotion or to influence the devotions of others. She has, at times, become an embodiment of sin and shame and repentant love. To others she has been the apostle to the apostles, a feminist icon of leadership in a patriarchal church. Perhaps so many stories have been told about her because the gospel text actually says so little. Except for a brief mention by Luke, Mary Magdalene only appears at the very end of the four gospel accounts—always at the cross and at the tomb, where her devotion captures our admiration and our imagination. 

Each of the four gospel accounts tells the Easter story a little differently, but all of them include the faithful love of Mary. We know, therefore, that we cannot tell the story of Jesus’ resurrection without telling of Mary’s love. Her love and faith, her tears and joy, are our own path to discover that the stone is rolled away, to see the angels dressed in white, and to hear Jesus speak our name.

I don’t know the particular challenges that you bring with you to the tomb this morning. I don’t know what brokenness, what struggle, what disappointment, what anxiety you’re carrying, but I know that collectively we’re carrying a lot. We’re tired of sickness. We’re tired of death. We’re tired of being cut off from the people we love. We’re tired of being alone. We’ve had enough rancor and racism. We’re exhausted from doing our part—from doing our best—and seeing that it hardly makes a difference. We’re so sick and tired of being sick and tired that we’re not sure things will ever be any different. We’ve started to lose hope. It feels like one more setback, one more disappointment, and we’ll have nothing left to do but fall down in a heap and cry. Kind of like Mary did.

And that’s when Jesus came and found her. That’s when the good news of salvation—of being rescued from all that is broken in our lives—appeared to her and spoke her name. “Mary,” Jesus said to her. “Rabbouni,” she said back. She didn’t find him; he found her. She didn’t make the miracle of Easter happen. She didn’t create hope out of hopelessness or faith out of despair. Instead, faith came and found her. Hope itself appeared when she needed it most, and, when it did, all her brokenness fell away. In an instant, all her burdens were lifted. She was remade.

God is not waiting on us to figure it out. God is not asking us to get our act together. God has not built a fence around the empty tomb so that only those who have studied the scriptures can see it. There are no admission requirements. There is no entrance exam. The risen Jesus is not hiding from us, waiting for us to reach a certain level of holiness before revealing himself to us. He is here, standing outside the tomb, looking for us. 

God does not bestow blessings and love on the people who deserve it—the people who always say nice things even when they’re angry, whose children always behave in public places, who always look perfectly calm even when the world is falling apart. No, the good news of Easter is that God blows right past all of those people (whoever they are) to come and find you and me and all the other folk who are struggling just to make it through another day. We are the ones Christ seeks out this morning. We are the ones he comes to find. We are the ones whose name he speaks. And all we are asked to do is have faith enough to listen.

Sometimes the thing that most stands in the way of us receiving the good news of Easter—of hearing Christ speak our name—is the church itself. By that, I don’t mean the church that is the crucified and resurrected body of Christ. I mean the church that makes us feel like we had better get our act together if we want to get a seat at the table. On this Sunday of all Sundays, we pretend that what it takes to see the risen Christ is our very best—perfect outfit, perfect hair, perfect family, perfect faith. That version of ourselves belongs on Instagram, not in church. Here, it’s okay for you to leave it behind. Easter isn’t about presenting our best selves so that we might find Jesus. It’s about bringing our real selves and allowing Jesus to find us. It’s about showing up at the tomb just like Mary did.

And you’re already here. Whether you’re here in person or watching online, you’ve come to the tomb. I don’t know what you expected to find when you got here, but the good news of Easter that we proclaim this day is that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what you’re looking for, and it doesn’t matter what state you’re in. You’re here, and so is the risen Christ. On this Easter Day, he was raised from the dead in order to find you. And, simply because you’re here, he already has.


Friday, April 2, 2021

Salvation at the Center of Our Need

 

April 2, 2021 – Good Friday

© 2021 Evan D. Garner

Video of this service can be seen here.

A month and a half ago, as we approached Ash Wednesday, I heard several people mention that it felt like last year’s Lent never ended. We have been stuck in a period of sacrifice and self-denial for more than a year. Last year on Good Friday, I preached to an empty church and to a congregation that was only able to gather online. This year, things have improved, but still only a few of us are able to come into the church for worship.

Each day, however, things are getting better, and, as we gather now both virtually and in person to commemorate the passion and death of our Lord, it feels as if both of those Lents are coming to a close. Our forty-day journey with Christ in the wilderness will reach its end at Easter, and, although it will still be a while before our endurance of the pandemic will come to an end, we can see that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Yet to suggest that both of those journeys possess a Lenten quality is to say something more substantial than to label them as miserable, difficult, and undesired experiences of penitence and punishment. To say that last year’s Lent never ended is to acknowledge the need to search for spiritual renewal even in the hardship that the world has faced.

As we stand in the shadow of the cross this day, we do so as a people who have been reminded of our mortality. We have encountered again the inescapable limitations of our lives. We have experienced the pain and grief of loss and isolation. We have endured our own inability to solve the most pressing problems of our day. We have discovered again our need for a savior. 

Every Lent, we are invited into a period of personal and communal discernment. As the church and as individuals within it, we choose a season of sacrifice in order that we might remember the deepest truths of our humanity and of God’s love for us. This year, the most profound elements of sacrifice we have endured have not been our choice, but they are no less an opportunity to recall how completely we depend upon God’s love.

The passion narrative presents us with the stark reality that, as much as we want the world to be divided up into neatly defined groups of good people and bad people, the truth is that we use labels like “good” and “bad” to suit ourselves. A better way—a more accurate and spiritually productive way—of thinking about how the world sorts itself out is according to power. When we hear the haunting story of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, torture, and death, we know what side we’re supposed to be on. We know that we are supposed to stand with the crucified one, the powerless one. But, in the story, no such person exists. Instead, a close look at the text reveals our tendency to protect ourselves by reimagining the story in ways that always shift the responsibility for Jesus’ execution and our own failure to stand with him onto someone else.

Within decades of the crucifixion, Christians had invented the lazy and cheap anti-Semitic trope that it was the Jews who killed Jesus, and for centuries Christians have perpetuated that idea. Every year around Easter, there is a rise in hate crimes perpetrated against Jewish people, and it is up to Christians like us to make it stop. More recently, scholars have helped us recover the truth that crucifixion was an exclusively Roman method of punishment and that the charge nailed to the cross signifies that Jesus was executed by the Empire for crimes against the state. But, again, we tend to use that distinction to ignore the fact that it was people in positions of power and who wanted to maintain their power that killed Jesus. In other words, it was people like us.

What about the disciples? What about the people who were closest to Jesus? What does their part in the passion story tell us about ourselves? Their desertion tells us everything. Judas betrays Jesus. Peter denies Jesus. None of them can stay awake with Jesus. None of them will stand with Jesus, except to use a sword in a momentary display of violence that is antithetical to the way of Jesus. When it is time to take their place beside the powerless prisoner, they all disappear. None was willing to stand with Christ in defeat. Days earlier, everyone wanted to be seen with the one who rode into the holy city as the presumptive heir to David’s throne, but now their shouts of “Hosanna!” have gone silent, supplanted by the call to crucify him. 

We, too, when given the chance to align ourselves with power or weakness, with triumph or failure, always choose the side of power—the side of victory. That instinct for self-preservation is so ingrained in us that we repeatedly use the power we have to recast the world into “good” and “bad,” always sure to draw the lines where they suit us. Isn’t that also what the pandemic has exposed within our community—within each one of us? Aren’t we quick to judge others, making them the scapegoat for what has affected everyone in the community, always assuring ourselves the privilege of self-righteousness?

And, still, the story of Good Friday reveals to us not only our failure to accept the way of Jesus but also our confidence in God’s saving love to rescue us despite that failure. That we could discern in the death of Jesus our own greatest defeat is also how we find within it the story of God’s greatest victory. We turn not away from the tragedy of the cross but toward it because that part of us that belongs to God knows that there it will find salvation. We see in Christ’s last gasp for air our own first breath of new life. We receive from his wounded side the nourishment of a mother who holds her infant to her breast. We have nailed Jesus to the cross, yet there we find our own forgiveness—our own salvation.

 For us, this time of sacrifice and self-denial is almost over. Our journey through it need not be empty or worthless. Whether or not we have chosen it for ourselves, this time in the wilderness has been given to us as an opportunity to confront our need for salvation and to find at the center of that need the saving life of God. When we can see within ourselves that tendency to crucify the love of God rather than embrace its powerlessness—to shift the blame away from ourselves rather than accept our own vulnerabilities—we will find not only our failure but the triumph God has accomplished in its place. To see the cross as both a symbol of our sin and a sign of God’s triumphant love is to know the way of salvation.