Sunday, September 10, 2023

Reconciled in Love

September 10, 2023 – The 15th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 18A

© 2023 Evan D. Garner

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

Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” What do you think he meant by that? What do you think he had in mind? Pretty often, I hear people invoke those words to emphasize the validity and significance of a comparatively small gathering: on a workday when only a handful of volunteers show up or at a Bible study or a midweek service when it’s only the leader and a single participant. We say those words—when only two or three are gathered—to remind ourselves that God shows up even when most of us don’t. But I don’t think Jesus meant these words as encouragement to disappointingly small groups. I think he wanted us to realize that his presence is powerfully manifest anytime two or more of us can set aside our differences and come together in unity.

There is an independent Jewish teaching that was recorded about the same time as Jesus’ earthly ministry that helps us know what Jesus may have had in mind when he spoke those words. In the Mishnah known as “Pirkei Avot” or “Chapters of the Fathers,” Rabbi Hananiah taught, “If two sit together and there are no words of Torah [spoken] between them, then this is a session of scorners…but if two sit together and there are words of Torah [spoken] between them, then the Shekhinah abides among them.” [1]  The Shekhinah is the divine presence—the dwelling or settling of God that was experienced in the burning bush and in the cloud that covered Mount Sinai and was said to rest in the Jerusalem temple, and yet the Mishnah teaches us that it is also found at a shared table at which the Word of God is spoken. 

Later in that same writing, Rabbi Shimon taught, “If three have eaten at one table and have not spoken there words of Torah, [it is] as if they had eaten sacrifices [offered] to the dead, as it is said, ‘for all tables are full of filthy vomit, when the All-Present is absent’ (Isaiah 28:8). But, if three have eaten at one table, and have spoken there words of Torah, [it is] as if they had eaten at the table of the All-Present, blessed be He, as it is said, ‘And He said unto me, ‘this is the table before the Lord’ (Ezekiel 41:22).” [2] Where two or three are gathered at a table and the Word of God is invoked among them, the very presence of the Almighty dwells. Their ordinary table becomes the Table of the Lord, at which God himself is seated. Doesn’t that sound a lot like what we do here this morning?

We come together at this table in Jesus’ name to share God’s Word in order that the fullness of the divine presence might dwell here with us. This is holy ground. The Communion of Christ’s body and blood that we share is more than a symbolic memorial. It is more than a formative weekly experience. It is even more than a sacramental encounter by which we receive the grace of forgiveness and unity with God and each other. This gathering is the very embodiment of Jesus Christ. It is here, together, that we meet Almighty God, the one who created heaven and earth, the ruler of all the universe. Just as Jesus Christ is present here with us, so, too, in this Eucharist, do we ascend into the heavenly places to be in the very presence of God. This is not only our foretaste of the heavenly banquet but our living participation in it, and, because we know that Jesus is here, how we gather together with one another really matters.

Jesus said, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” If the word “church” sounds funny on the lips of Jesus, it is. Matthew’s gospel account is the only one that uses that word. It’s found frequently in the Acts of the Apostles and in the letters of the New Testament, but it only occurs twice in the gospel—here and back in Matthew 16, when Jesus tells Peter that he is the rock on which he will build his church. The word “church” comes from ekklesia, which literally means “the called-out ones.” Within a generation, Jesus’ disciples began to use that word to define themselves as those called out by Jesus—called to a peculiar way of life that is defined by the one in whose name they gathered. Those who met together in Jesus’ name understood that they were called not only to recite his teachings but to live out his example.

Like shepherds in search of lost sheep, those who knew that someone within the community had gone astray were called to go out and find them: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” Notice how the method Jesus taught confronts the transgression while minimizing the shame. It starts small, alone, in secret. The goal is always restoration to the community. “But if you are not listened to,” Jesus continued, “take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” At each step, the desire for reconciliation expands in the hope that more people can bring the lost sibling back. 

That isn’t easy work for anyone. It is the one who was offended that initiates the attempt at reconciliation. Jesus does not simply call us to welcome back those who return on their own but to seek them out even when it costs us to do so. There are limits to this, of course, when someone’s physical or emotional safety is at risk. But, even when it’s only our egos that are vulnerable, it is still hard to confront someone who has hurt us and do so not with the desire for further estrangement but in a genuine attempt at reconciliation and renewal.

But sometimes there is no amount of persuading that can convince someone to repent and return. “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church,” Jesus said, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” I have hope that, just as Matthew the tax collector found a seat at Jesus’ table, there is no sinner beyond God’s grace and mercy, but I don’t think Jesus intended this warning as a backdoor opportunity for recalcitrant sinners to come in unchanged. We must always leave the door open for anyone who is ready to return, but the challenging consequence of being a community defined by the one who reconciles the world to himself is that we must take reconciliation seriously. This cannot be an experience of God’s presence—a gathering of two or three in which Jesus is here among us—if we are not committed to the hard work of being reconciled to each other and to God. Otherwise, this is merely a “session of scorners,” a gathering that undermines the very principles we claim to define us.

The connection between what happens here in this place and what is true in the eternal sense is stronger than we realize. Whatever we bind on earth will be bound in heaven, Jesus tells us, and whatever we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. That isn’t some magic power that Jesus gave to Peter and the apostles and their successors. It’s a powerful insight to the way God works. It’s a reminder that how we practice repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation here on earth is a manifestation of how we live together in heaven. Those are not separate realities, divided by the veil between this life and the next, but two glimpses at the same truth. 

We might wonder whether that is that asking too much. By calling us into the hard work of reconciliation and showing us that that work has eternal consequences, is Jesus asking too much of us? How will we ever be up to the task? The good news of our faith is that, in the cross of Jesus Christ, God has set us free from the power of sin and death, of ego and pride, of fear and stubbornness. The connection between reconciliation in heaven and reconciliation on earth does not flow only in one direction. In Christ, God has already made us whole. God has fully reconciled us to Godself. We are restored. And the truth of our restoration pours down upon us in limitless abundance.

All of our frailty, our self-doubt, our weakness, our vanity—all of those things that make us want to clamp down and say “No!” when asked to forgive or to accept forgiveness—have been nailed to the cross and put to death. All that is left in the eyes of God is a restored, renewed, reconciled child, unconditionally loved and universally accepted. You are loved just like that. Nothing can ever take that away from you. It is who you are because it is what God has given you. Only because we are loved like that can we love others in the same way.

[1] “Pirkei Avot,” 3.2,

[2] Ibid., 3.3.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

The Hard Road to Salvation


September 3, 2023 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 17A

© 2023 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 19:00

I can’t decide whether the authors of the lectionary did us a favor or a disservice by splitting this chapter in Matthew’s gospel account into two separate weeks. It can’t really be split up. Peter’s recognition of who Jesus really is, which we heard last Sunday, and Jesus’ teaching that, as the Messiah, he must suffer and be killed and on the third day be raised, which we hear today, must go together. You can’t have one without the other. But I also think it does us some good to hear the first part and then have a week to think about it before we come back and get slapped in the face with the harsh reality of what we heard.

What a difference a week makes! Last Sunday, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do the people say that the Son of Man is?” referring to himself, and they responded, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” In other words, we hear from Jesus’ closest followers that the crowds were likening him to some of the greatest prophetic leaders in their people’s history. And then, as if out of nowhere, when asked who they thought Jesus really was, Peter proclaimed, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” That insight was so remarkable that Jesus responded, saying, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” In other words, the truth of Jesus’ identity was so profound that only a divinely granted insight could explain Peter’s confession.

But this week feels like a bit of a “gotcha!”—one that leaves us wondering whether last week’s celebration might have been a mistake. Building on Peter’s insight, Jesus begins to expand our understanding of what it means for him to be the heaven-sent, God-anointed Messiah by teaching us that he must suffer greatly at the hands of the leaders of the people and be killed before being raised from the dead on the third day. “Now that you know who I really am,” Jesus seems to be telling the disciples, “I can tell you how the story will end. This is how I will fulfill God’s purposes. It is through my suffering and death that I will set our people free from the yoke, from the burden, that is upon them.”

Peter wants none of it. “God forbid it, Lord!” he said, so unnerved that the disciple would dare to rebuke the master. “This must never happen to you.” But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting you mind not on divine things but on human things.” How quickly things had changed! The unassailable rock on which, only a few verses earlier, Jesus had promised to build his church was now standing on the side of Satan and had become a stumbling block—a tripping stone—that was standing in Jesus’ way. And it’s this moment—this turn—that I want to focus on today because I think the same thing happens to us all the time. 

We have found Jesus. We have recognized who he is. We have committed ourselves to following him. We go to church. We say our prayers. We try to live by the Golden Rule. But, when we look around, it often feels more like we’re wandering through the valley of the shadow of death than making our way on the glorious road to heaven. If Jesus really is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, the one who came to set us free from the power of evil and sin and death, why is life so hard so much of the time? Why does it seem like things are getting worse and not better? Why do good, faithful, loving people face so much adversity? Is this really what it means to follow Jesus?

To those who are looking for comfort, Jesus’ words can feel like a splash of cold water: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” That’s a pretty high bar for discipleship. I haven’t been to a lot of congregations that list martyrdom in their literature for how to join the church. But, if that’s not something you’re ready to sign on for, don’t worry. I’ve got good news. Peter wasn’t ready for that brand of discipleship either. But that didn’t stop Jesus from choosing him to be the rock on which the church is built. 

Jesus didn’t pick Peter because he had it all figured out. Instead, Jesus chose him because, when he looked at Peter, he saw someone whom God could use to do amazing things. And I think that’s what Jesus sees when he looks at each one of us. That’s what it means to be a Christian—that’s what it means to belong to Jesus. It means being someone whom God can use to do amazing things. But no one, least of all Jesus, said that it would be easy.

Just as Peter’s potential is our potential, so, too, is Peter’s problem our problem. When Jesus presents us with the reality of discipleship, we have a tendency to set our minds on human things instead of divine things. When Jesus tells us that things are going to be hard, we want to run in the other direction. And who can blame us? It’s a lot easier to navigate this life when we play by the world’s rules and seek the world’s comforts, but there is nothing fulfilling about a life that belongs only to this world. We don’t have a hard time recognizing Jesus, but, when we do, we want him to fit into this life, into this world, but he doesn’t. Being a Christian isn’t about getting ahead in this life. It’s about losing this life and everything in it because the life that Jesus yearns to give us is better than anything we have ever known. Jesus did not come to earth in order to be conformed to this world but to transform it, and the only way that transformation is possible is through his suffering and death and resurrection.

Why must it be that way? Our God is the God who hears the cries of those in need and answers them. Our God is the God whose heart belongs to the poor and the oppressed. Are we surprised that it is amidst the struggles of this life that God’s redemption is to be found? How else could the Son of God come and redeem this world except by embracing our suffering and experiencing our death? This is the faith to which we cling—that God saves us from suffering and death by becoming our suffering and death—and this faith gives us a hope that sustains us. If God were only to be found in lives immune from struggle or loss, even the smallest setback would be a sign of our abandonment. If Jesus’ victory were achieved through power and might, then only the powerful would have a reason to rejoice. But we know that that cannot be so because our God, in every generation, has always stood on the side of the weak and vulnerable, the wayward and the lost.

To belong to Jesus is not to forsake suffering in this world but to recognize that it is through suffering that God’s transformation takes place. We cannot accept that truth if our minds are set on the ways of this world and not on the ways of God. We grow in our understanding of God’s ways as Jesus Christ grows in us. As we are conformed to the mind of Christ, we begin to see that the places of deepest struggle within us are the places where God’s transformation is ready to break through. As we follow Jesus, we learn to celebrate not the ease that this world can provide but the redemption that only God can give us. When we offer ourselves to Jesus, we do so not as perfected saints prepared for martyrdom but as eager disciples who want to learn how to follow him. And, as we follow, we find that in him the losses we experience are the moments when he is closest to us and the parts of our journey when he has brought us closest to God.

Monday, May 29, 2023

The Spirit Doesn't Always Play By The Rules


May 28, 2023 – The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday, Year A

© 2023 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 22:15.

Moses had a problem. The people of Israel wouldn’t stop grumbling about their situation, and the Lord was getting pretty angry about it. This time, the people were upset because they didn’t have any meat to eat. God had delivered them from slavery in Egypt. God had led them through the Red Sea on dry land. God had rescued them from Pharaoh’s army. God had given them water to drink and manna to eat. But the people wanted more. 

“The rabble among them had a strong craving,” the Book of Numbers tells us. “If only we had meat to eat!” the people cried. “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” Then the Lord became very angry, and Moses, sensing that there was nothing he could do to satisfy the people’s hunger or assuage God’s mounting wrath, became distraught.

“Why have you treated your servant so badly?” Moses said to the Lord. “Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child, to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors?’ Where am I to get meat to give to all this people…? I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me.”

And God listened to Moses and told him what to do. “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel…bring them to the tent of meeting and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.” 

This was a good idea. Moses needed help, and God promised to give it to him. So Moses assembled seventy leaders from among the people, and God came down in the cloud and spoke to him and took some of his spirit and spread it among the seventy elders. As a sign that they had received a share of the spirit, those elders began to prophesy—they began to speak dramatically whatever words God gave them. Although, after a few moments, those prophetic utterances stopped, the community recognized that the elders had been endued with some of the divine spirit—that God had given them what they needed to accomplish their task. Finally, Moses would have the support he needed.

But there was another problem. Eldad and Medad, who had been registered among the elders but who had not gone to the tent of meeting, received their own share of the spirit back in the camp, and they began to prophesy. This renegade activity, operating outside the boundaries that God had established through Moses, threatened to undermine his authority and that of the seventy elders whom God had deputized. “My lord Moses, stop them!” cried Joshua, Moses’ faithful righthand. But Moses didn’t seem at all concerned. “Are you jealous for my sake?” he asked. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

It turns out that God’s spirit is shared not only through duly authorized methods like the ordination of seventy elders but also through renegades like Eldad and Medad, who refuse to play by the rules. And, over the centuries, the rabbis have helped us understand why.

The ancient Jewish scholars who wrestled with this text proposed a few possible interpretations, most of which revolve around the mathematical challenge presented by the number seventy. God asked Moses to set apart seventy elders, but there were twelve ancestral tribes among the people, and seventy isn’t divisible by twelve. How was Moses supposed to spread his authority evenly among the tribes? If he chose six elders from each tribe, that would produce two too many, and five from each would leave him ten short. Jealousy would arise if he selected six from some tribes and five from others, so the rabbis, who creatively and faithfully interpreted the biblical text by expanding the story, proposed that Moses must have cast lots, writing the word “elder” on seventy slips of paper while leaving two slips blank. [1]

Some rabbis believe that Eldad and Medad drew the blank pieces of paper, but God’s spirit found them anyway. Others propose that those two were uncomfortable accepting the honor of being chosen an elder among their people, so they stayed back on purpose, trusting that God would use the seventy others in their place. And, in turn, God rewarded their humility and gave them the gift of prophecy that, unlike the gift given to the other seventy, did not cease. Still other rabbis believe that Eldad and Medad refused to accept an authority that was derivative of Moses’, preferring to exercise their own brand of leadership. [2]

In any case, it is remarkable that Moses responded to their unexpected and unauthorized prophecy not by becoming defensive but by encouraging more unbridled, unregulated work of the spirit. When Joshua came to him in a panic, he said to Moses literally, “My lord Moses, imprison them!” He wanted to lock them up, or at least place upon them the same burden of leadership that the seventy elders bore—a weight that, in theory, had left them with no time or ability to continue prophesying. The rabbinic tradition holds that Eldad and Medad had prophesied that Moses would die and that Joshua would be the one to lead them into the land of promise. No wonder Joshua reacted so strongly. Their prophesy represented a double-threat—both to Moses’ authority and to his life. But Moses, in his humility, would rather celebrate the spirit’s presence among God’s people than cling to either his own authority or his life.

This encounter reminds us that sometimes the Spirit shows up in ways that are prescribed by religious institutions, but sometimes those institutions fail to anticipate just how God’s Spirit will show up. Some of us like structure and good order. We find it easy to trust that God will become manifest through clearly defined channels like ordinations and vestries and bishop elections. And, while it’s true that the Spirit does show up in those ways, as the story of the seventy elders demonstrates, we must also recognize that there is no process, no prescription, no ballot, no liturgy, no sacrament that can contain the fullness of the Holy Ghost.

During the next three months, while I am on sabbatical, I bet the Holy Spirit will show up in ways that surprise all of us. If you haven’t noticed, I’m the kind of person who really likes it when God’s Spirit comes in carefully prescribed and clearly defined ways. Deep down, I know that my love of good order, although well-intentioned, can become an idolatry. By stepping away from this place for three months, I trust that new and unanticipated opportunities for leadership, creativity, and innovation will arise and that they will come not only in the ways that the staff, vestry, and I have planned but also in ways that right now only God can see. And I believe that will be true not only here at St. Paul’s but also in my own life as I leave behind the comfortable routines where I am in charge and accept a period of unfamiliar renewal.

When the Spirit shows up and surprises us, what will our reaction be—that of Moses or that of Joshua? Will we recognize the Spirit when she threatens our sense of order, or will we write her off because she hasn’t made an appointment or bothered to knock on the front door? The Spirit doesn’t always come as an invited guest. Sometimes she blows right in through the window with gale force winds, threatening to rip the shutters off. Sometimes it’s easier to dismiss her as a drunken mistake than to take her seriously. 

But God’s ultimate vision for the world is not a neat and tidy place, where those who have been appointed by the religious community are permitted to speak with divine authority but a world in which all people have received a share of the divine spirit. In those days, God declares, all people will prophesy—not only the ones we expect to speak on behalf of God but all people, regardless of age, gender, or economic status. 

Our celebration of Pentecost is a celebration that those last days are here among us, even now. This chapter of salvation history in which we live is defined by the universal, unrestrained work of the Holy Spirit. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” Today, Moses’ dream has been realized. God has poured out that spirit upon all flesh. We are all Eldads and Medads. May God give us the wisdom and the humility to see it.



Sunday, May 21, 2023

Prayer Is Always The First Step


May 21, 2023 – The 7th Sunday of Easter, Year A

© 2023 Evan D. Garner

Video of this service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 25:45. 

For a group of church leaders who get a lot of credit, the disciples sure do spend a lot of time just sitting around. And that’s where God always seems to find them. Like a boss who checks up on you right when you’re taking a break, God seems to have a way of showing up when they are least prepared for it.

The risen Jesus didn’t reveal himself to the disciples while they were walking to Emmaus but after the journey was over as they sat together for the evening meal. He didn’t wait for the disciples to go out into the streets and share the good news of his resurrection but walked through locked doors in order to give them his peace. After Jesus blessed the apostles as he was ascending into heaven, God didn’t send the Spirit upon them immediately so that they could get right to work. Instead, they went back into the upper room, where they sat around and waited until the wind and fire of Holy Spirit came and filled the house.

It's a strange way to get things started—knowing that you have important work to do, unsure how you will get it done, a little confused about how God is going to help you, but somehow confident that something good is going to happen. After seeing Jesus taken up into heaven, the disciples were standing on the cusp of something completely new, so they did the only thing they knew how to do. The men and women who had followed Jesus got together in a room and devoted themselves to prayer and waited for God to show up.

That sounds a little bit like what happened in this community 175 years ago this Tuesday:

May 23, 1848, after due notice a meeting of the members of the Church was held in the schoolroom—the usual place of worship—and after divine service the Rev. W. C. Stout, Missionary, was called to the chair, and Col. W. S. Gidham appointed secretary…Whereupon the following instrument was read by the [Secretary] and on motion of John W. Chew adopted and signed by those whose names are thereunto written. To-wit: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. We, the subscribers assembled for the purpose of organizing a parish of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the town of Fayetteville, County of Washington and State of Arkansas after due notice given do hereby agree to form a Parish to be known by the name of St. Paul’s Church Parish, and as such, do hereby acknowledge and accede to the doctrines, disciplines, and worship, the Constitution and canons of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America… [1]

That’s how we got our start—gathered together in a room, unsure of what was ahead of us but confident that God would give us what we need, and devoted to prayer. 

A whole lot of good has been done in and through St. Paul’s since that day. If we took time to pour through the archives, we could count the number of services, sermons, marriages, baptisms, confirmations, and burials that have been offered to God’s glory in this place. We could probably figure out how much money has been spent carrying out the ministries of this church and responding to the needs of the community. But the good work that has been accomplished here far exceeds what any service record, parish register, or balance sheet could attest. How many lives have been touched by the people of St. Paul’s? How many prayers have been answered? How many people have found a reason to hope in the midst of their struggle or recognized God’s presence in the face of hardship? For 175 years, the people of this parish have devoted themselves to carrying out God’s work in the world, and it should be no surprise to us that that work must always begin with prayer.

In this reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear two questions that make clear to us why prayer is essential if we are to be faithful in our work. First, the apostles ask Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” As Willie James Jennings notes, it is a perfectly natural question. They have journeyed from the depths of despair in the shadow of the cross to the heights of glory in the triumph of the risen Lord. They have seen God strike a fatal blow to death itself, and now they want to know what all of us who stand in the light of that victory want to know—is this the time when God will restore the kingdom to God’s people on earth? [2]

But every time we ask that question—and long to know the answer—we impose upon God the limitations of our own imaginations. For, whenever we ask God whether this is the real moment of triumph, we reveal our desire not to follow where Christ has led but to turn the resurrection of Jesus into a sign of our own victory. As Jennings writes, the desire imbedded within such a longing is fundamentally nationalistic—not a “nationalism bound to the anatomy of Israel, but the deeply human desire of every people to control their destiny and shape the world into their hoped-for eternal image.” [3]

Jesus’ reply to the apostles puts an end to such a fantasy: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” As Jennings continues, Jesus alone “will define resurrection’s meaning and resurrection’s purpose. It will not be used by these disciples as an ideological tool for statecraft. Nor will it constitute [for] them the winner’s circle. Such ways of thinking resurrection turn Jesus into the greatest victor in an eternal competition and produces disciples who follow Jesus only because they worship power.” 

Instead, we must wait in prayer for the power that comes to clothe us from on high. The power Jesus sends upon us is the power of the Holy Spirit—a power which is indistinguishable from the power of the Crucified One. It descends from the place where he has gone before, not to bestow upon us a power that belongs to this world but a power to transform it through his death and resurrection, through his sacrifice and love. Prayer is how we wait for the power that God will give us instead of rushing in and claiming only what the world can give.

But there is another danger we must face if we are to be faithful to the one who calls us and sends us and equips us with the Spirit’s power, and the second question in this reading from Acts helps us identify it. “While [Jesus] was going and [the apostles] were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’” Those who know the triumph of the risen Christ have a tendency to stand around, staring at what has already been accomplished without offering themselves to the work that lies ahead. Our first step might be to come together in prayer, but there’s a big difference between gazing at a memorial of what has been and praying that God will lead us into something new.

The challenge for us is holding onto both. We cannot charge ahead as if the reign of God is something we can bring about through our best efforts. It does not come from within us, no matter how good and wonderful our community of faith might be. It only comes from above. But neither can our waiting and watching and hoping be a mere passive expression of faith. We cannot remain still, standing in the fading glow of his ascension, even though standing still is often a lot more comfortable to us than stepping out into the unknown. 

We do not know what lies ahead. We do not know what it will cost us. We do not know whether we will succeed. We do not know how or when the fullness of God’s reign will take hold in this world. But we do know that God has made us witnesses of Jesus Christ—missionaries of the good news of God’s infinite grace, acceptance, and love. And God has sent us the Holy Spirit to give us everything we need to be faithful to the work God is giving us to do.

In the end, prayer is how we balance the need to wait on God and the need to offer ourselves to God’s work. The majesty of God breaking forth fully into this world is not something for us to achieve, and yet it is something for us to give our whole lives to. That can only happen through prayer. Prayer is how we yield our egos over to God and allow the Spirit to shape and mold us into emissaries of God’s reign. Prayer is how we let go of our inadequate hopes and dreams and yoke ourselves instead to the dream of God. 

Once again, the people of this parish stand on the cusp of something new and wonderful. We do not know what it will be, but God does. We cannot see how or when it will come to pass, but God can. If we will be a part of it, we must come together and devote ourselves to prayer. And prayer is enough, for, by offering ourselves to God in that way, we trust God to use us however God will, and that’s when we know God will show up.


1.  Stout, W. C.. “A Faithful Record of the Affairs, Spiritual and Temporal of St. Paul’s Parish,” 1848, p. 9.
2. Jennings, Willie James. Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press; Louisville: 2017, p. 17.
3. Jennings, p. 19.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Defined By Devotion


April 30, 2023 – The 4th Sunday of Easter, Year A

© 2023 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 23:05.

Tucker Carlson is an Episcopalian. Did you know that? He’s been an Episcopalian all his life. Born and baptized into an Episcopal parish in California, educated at an Episcopal school in Rhode Island, married to the daughter of an Episcopal priest, Carlson is as intimately familiar with the ins and outs of this denomination as almost anyone.[1]  I bring him up not to discuss his politics or the implications of his dismissal from Fox News but to note how different today’s church, in which such divisive forces are present, is from the one we hear about in Acts 2. 

Back then, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” That’s not exactly the unity of spirit that comes to mind when you hear that Tucker Carlson is a member of our church. How did we get from “all things in common” to “I refuse to believe that he’s an Episcopalian?”

Today’s reading from Acts is yet another story from the afterglow of Pentecost. For the third week in a row, we hear a passage from those first few moments after the Holy Spirit descended from heaven and alighted on the apostles. We’ll go back and hear how the Spirit arrived and how the apostles began to speak in other languages four weeks from today, but today’s lesson is what happened after Peter finished his sermon—after those who had received his words had repented and been baptized. Given the rather blunt and accusatory tone of that sermon, we might think that the real miracle of the story is that 3,000 persons were added to the faith that day. But, when we pick up with today’s reading and hear how those Christians lived together in unity, there’s no doubt where the real miracle is.

This is the power of the Holy Spirit—that a community of diverse people—rich and poor, old and young, male and female, literate and uneducated, Hebrew-speaking and Hellenized, powerful and powerless—Jews from all over the known world—were able to put aside all of their differences and all of their individual desires, needs, and concerns and live in such unity that they could sell all of their possessions, pool together all of their resources, and not fight about it. Now, that’s a miracle. But don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that this description of material and spiritual unity is some utopian metaphor that modern Christians are supposed to mythologize. I believe that it is an actual, literal description of what the community looks like when we are devoted to Jesus Christ just as they were.

Devotion is what defined them. “Those who had been baptized,” the Book of Acts tells us, “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Their lives revolved around formation and community. They learned together. They ate together. They prayed together. And the Bible makes it clear that they didn’t do that once a week. Listen to the story’s description of how those early Christians lived: “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” This was not a Sunday-morning encounter but a daily endeavor. 

Each day, they continued to go into the temple as they always had, honoring their commitment to corporate worship and prayer, but their fellowship didn’t stop at the temple gate. At night, they went into each other’s homes, where, the passage tells us, they “broke bread…and ate their food”—a double-description that conveys both the symbolic and literal nourishment they received at the table. Their hearts were glad and overflowed with generosity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to all people, not only to those in their company. 

This was more than a church. This was more than a collection of believers. This was a community of faith—people bound together in joyous celebration of God’s unlimited goodness. There was no part of their lives that was untouched by this Spirit-filled movement. Everything they were and everything they had belonged to God, and the community grew and grew. 

Don’t we want to be a part of something like that? Don’t we want to immerse ourselves in God’s goodness until the blessings become so thick and full that we can no longer tell where one person’s bounty ends and another person’s begins? Don’t we believe that what God wants for us is the kind of unity that runs deep into our souls and that has the power to shape the whole world until we are all reconciled to God and to each other? That is the peace of God that passes all understanding.

What will we do to make that peace come to the earth? What can we do to make that vision for the world our reality? What decisions can we make, what structures can we put into place, what boundaries can we set, what rules can we establish, what leaders can we elect to be sure that God’s dream for the world comes to pass? The answer is none of them. 

Our job isn’t to make the reign of God a reality on the earth. That’s God’s job. And the good news of the Christian faith is that God has already brought that reality to the world in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our job is to devote ourselves to that truth. Our job is to commit ourselves—body, soul, and mind—time, talent, and treasure—to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers because that is how God’s reign comes into our lives, and it is our lives, lived together in unity, through which God’s reign takes hold in the world.

Given the state of our church, our country, and the world, it should come as no surprise that that sort of unity will not come about through expressions of power and might. The Holy Spirit doesn’t work by empowering us to make our vision for the world a reality. She works by taking hold of us and shaping us until our lives look like God’s life and our wills look like God’s will. Thus, the Spirit does not harden us with invincibility. She softens us to become vulnerable just as Christ was vulnerable. We do not have the power to bring the kind of unity described in Acts 2 into this or any other Christian community. But, by allowing the Holy Spirit to take control of our lives, God can and will make that same sort of unity the defining characteristic of our lives and of this congregation.

The vision for the church laid out in the Book of Acts is not an economic model or a recipe for communal life. It is simply a description of what the Body of Christ looks like when it is animated by the Holy Spirit and filled with God’s love. As Willie James Jennings wrote, “What is far more dangerous than any plan of shared wealth or fair distribution of goods and services is a God who dares impose on us divine love. Such love will not play fair. In the moment we think something is ours, or our people’s, that same God will demand we sell it, give it away, or offer more of it in order to feed the hungry, [clothe] the naked, or shelter the homeless, using it to create the bonds of shared life.”[2]

If we are going to get to a spiritual place where the total and complete demands of the Holy Spirit upon our lives fill us with joy instead of heartache and bring about unity instead of discord and inspire enthusiasm instead of reluctance, we must devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. That must be the life we live every day. That is how we learn how much God loves us. That is how we come to trust that God’s love for us and for the whole world is full and overflowing. That is how we learn to believe that what God has given us is infinitely more valuable than what the world can provide. Then our unity will no longer be our goal but the life we live together in God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. 


1. Petiprin, Andrew, “Tucker Carlson, Episcopalian,” The Living Church; 26 June 2017: 

2. Jennings, Willie James. Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press: 2017, p. 40.

Monday, April 10, 2023

The Risen Jesus Gives Us Everything We Need


April 9, 2023 – The Sunday of the Resurrection: Easter Day, Year A

© 2023 Evan D. Garner

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

I want to tell you something that I have kept quiet for a long time—something that will probably embarrass my children: I am a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Now, I will admit that these days, when I watch reruns of the show, they don’t always hold up. Sometimes they’re too cheesy even for me. But I grew up loving nothing more than spending Monday nights on the couch with my father watching the crew of the Enterprise explore the galaxy in every new episode. 

On Monday night, March 26, 1990, the episode “Allegiance” debuted. In the first scene, Captain Piccard is kidnapped from his quarters, and an imposter takes his place. The real Piccard wakes up in a holding cell alongside a handful of other prisoners. As the episode progresses, the audience watches as the group of prisoners—each representing a different alien species—encounters one problem after another. One of them, a naturally aggressive species, is unable to eat the food that is provided by their captors. Another, belonging to a race of avowed pacifists, begins to think that he might be killed for food. Some in the group want to try to escape, while others refuse to cooperate. In one scenario after another, Piccard and his fellow captives get tantalizingly close to opening their cell door only to discover another barrier they have to get past.

Eventually, Piccard realizes that it’s all a game—that there’s no way to escape. Their captors have brought them there to test them—to observe how different species will handle one agonizing setback after another. Once he recognizes that they’re just rats in a maze, he refuses to participate, and the alien species conducting the research returns him to his vessel. 

I first saw that episode when I was nine years old. A rerun came on a few months ago, and I found myself appreciating it in a whole new way. Now, as a parent, priest, and spouse, I often feel like I’m in the midst of a sociological experiment, being tested to see how I will approach an unsolvable situation. Do you ever feel like that? Do you ever feel like life is just one big game in which you don’t quite have what you need in order to succeed? If you just had a little bit more time or a little bit more money, you could really get ahead. If you were just a little bit faster, a little bit smarter, a little bit luckier, then things would really start to go your way.

Sometimes life feels like one unsolvable problem after another. And religion, with its unrelenting invitation to be better, to try harder, to become holier has the power to make things even worse. On Easter Day, however, we gather together to hear the good news that, because Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, there is no situation in front of us that God has not already solved, and, whenever we encounter one, we know that we have already been given everything we need.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away. She didn’t bother to look inside or check around the tomb. Instead, she turned and ran, certain that Jesus’ body had been stolen from its resting place. Peter and the other disciple raced to the tomb to see it for themselves. When they got there, they looked inside and explored every inch and found only the linen grave cloths lying on the ground. They knew that the tomb was empty, but still they did not understand that Jesus had been raised from the dead. So they returned home. 

Mary stayed there weeping, overcome with sorrow that not only had Jesus been killed but now his body had been stolen away, leaving her with grief piled upon grief. Even when Jesus came and spoke to her, she thought he was the gardener until he said her name. For us, it’s hard to appreciate just how impossible it was to understand what had happened. Before we came to church this morning, with the benefit of two thousand years of received testimony, we knew that Jesus had been raised, just as he had promised. But there was nothing that Mary and the disciples could do to put the pieces together on their own. Not even the empty tomb and the linen wrappings left behind were enough for Jesus’ closest friends to see and believe that he was alive—that he had triumphed over death exactly as he had told them he would.

The gap between us and what we need to solve all our problems might only be as thin as a strand of human hair, but, when it comes to fixing what is broken in our lives, it might as well be an infinite chasm that none of us can cross. Yet standing on the other side of that chasm is the risen Jesus, who sees us and calls out our name: “Mary!” As soon as she heard Jesus speak her name, Mary’s doubt and confusion, her grief and disbelief, evaporated. She had seen the Lord! And the risen Christ then sent her on to carry the good news of the resurrection to his disciples in order that their work of sharing that same good news might begin. All that was missing—everything that they needed, everything that hadn’t made sense—suddenly came clear. They couldn’t find it on their own, even when it was right in front of them, but when the risen Lord came and found them, he gave them everything they needed.

Our job isn’t to figure it all out on our own. Our job is simply to meet the risen Lord. In the decades that followed that Easter Day, the apostles didn’t travel around the Mediterranean teaching people that they should love their neighbors as themselves, giving them more impossible work to do. The world didn’t need Jesus to teach them that. That is a truth as ancient as civilization itself. Instead, the apostles took with them the good news that Jesus Christ had been raised from the dead. It is Christ’s victory over death that makes loving our neighbors the way God calls us to love them possible. It is the risen Christ who gives the world everything it needs to make God’s loving reign a reality.

I know that love is the answer. I know that selfless, sacrificial love is what it takes for the world to become the place of God’s dreams. I know that love is how poverty and hunger are put to death. Love is how violence and greed are finally defeated. Love is how hatred and bigotry and jealousy are wiped off the face of the earth. Love is how I become a better parent, a better priest, and a better spouse. But I also know that there is nothing I can do to solve those problems on my own. None of us can. Like rats in a maze, just when we think we’re getting ahead, human nature pops up again, and we’re back where we started. If it were up to us, we’d be doomed from the start. But the good news of Easter is that it isn’t up to us at all.

I don’t come to church because I want to be a better person, and I don’t raise my children in the faith because I hope that they will learn how to treat other people with respect. We come to church because this is the place where we proclaim that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. This is the place where death becomes life, where loss becomes gain, where love triumphs over all. And that alone has the power to change our lives. We are here to meet the one whom God raised from the dead. We are here to hear him speak our names. We are here to partake in his body and blood. We are here to see that God has already defeated everything that stands in the way of love taking charge in the world. We are here to let the risen Christ show us that he has already given us everything we need.

Friday, April 7, 2023

All We Can Do Is Pray


April 7, 2023 – Good Friday

© 2023 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon will be available soon. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 28:45.

In John’s gospel account, after telling his disciples that one of them would betray him and announcing that he would be taken from them, Jesus prays. In a red-letter edition of the Bible, except for words that introduce his prayer, all of John 17 is red. In that high-priestly prayer, Jesus prays for his disciples—that they would be protected and that they would be one. He prays for those throughout the world who will come to know God’s love because of the work that those disciples will carry out. And he prays that the glory of God will be revealed in what awaits him and that eternal life will be given to all who see and believe.

After that, John tells us, Jesus and his disciples set off across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden—a place that they knew well. John doesn’t tell us why the disciples met there frequently, but the synoptic tradition, which is reflected in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, helps us know that the garden was for them a place of prayer. In those accounts, instead of praying in the upper room before setting out, Jesus and the disciples go to the garden to pray. You might remember that, according to that tradition, each time Jesus comes and finds the disciples sleeping, he exhorts them to stay awake and pray so that they will have the strength to meet the days ahead of them. In the end, though, the outcome is the same, and we inevitably come to the arrest, torture, and death of our Lord supported only by prayer.

It turns out that the only thing we can do in the shadow of the cross is pray. Over the centuries, the church has struggled to figure out what sort of liturgical response is appropriate for Good Friday. In part, that struggle has arisen from a clear conviction in the western church that the Eucharist should not be celebrated on this day. Although the Divine Office of the eastern church has always been a part of their Good Friday observances, in the west, we have traditionally looked for other ways to remember Jesus’ death on the day when Jesus died on the cross.

In Jerusalem, as early as the fourth century, the faithful processed from the Garden of Gethsemane, where they had prayed through the night, into the city just as dawn was breaking. They read the story of Jesus’ trial at the governor’s headquarters. They stopped to pray at the column where Jesus had been scourged. After a break to return to their homes and rest for a while, they came to the church that had been built at Golgotha. There the relic of the true cross was laid upon the altar, and the people walked past it, kissing it or touching it with their hands or their foreheads. From noon until three o’clock in the afternoon, they stood in the courtyard outside the church and listened as all of the Old Testament prophecies and New Testament passages that alluded to Christ’s passion were read, stopping to pray in between each reading. Then, at three o’clock, the passion according to John was proclaimed, and shortly thereafter the service ended. 

Christians in communities and churches away from the holy city, unable to walk the Via Dolorosa themselves, developed their own ways of commemorating Jesus’ death. Over the centuries, as fragments of the true cross were distributed throughout the world, similar acts of devotion—kissing and touching and reverencing those fragments—became common. Eventually, even in places where no relic of the cross was kept, the faithful drew near to a substitute cross, offering their silent prayers of adoration to the instrument upon which salvation was wrought. But, long before the creeping to the cross became common practice, the act of hearing the story of Jesus’ death and responding in prayer was central to the church’s Good Friday worship.

In our service today, our focus remains on hearing the passion and responding in prayer. In our Good Friday liturgy, the Solemn Collects are the defining element of our worship. Once we have beheld the death of Jesus, we kneel together to pray for ourselves and for the whole world. Scholars believe that this particular form of prayer may have been composed as early as the second century, and they note that the biddings or calls to prayer, which the deacon will read, likely were written before the collects themselves. That suggests that, even before the church had decided what words to say in prayer, God’s people felt a clear and undeniable urge to pray after they had seen the cross of Christ.

Today, the only thing we know how to do is to pray. In the silence that follows each bidding, we will pray first for the church, then for the nations of the world, then for all who suffer, then for those who do not yet know the love of God, and finally for ourselves. The collects that follow each silence are designed to bring together our unspoken prayers and longings in a unified expression. In each case, because we have seen what is offered and accomplished on the cross, we bring to God in prayer the brokenness of the world and of our lives, asking God to draw into the divine life all that is in need of redemption and restoration. In the cross, we have seen God’s love poured out for the sake of the world. In faith we recognize that all our hopes must find their fulfillment there. 

On this day, there is nothing for us to produce or accomplish. All we can do is watch and pray. To see Christ die upon the cross—to hear him say, “It is finished,” and to watch him breathe his last—is to encounter more than a miscarriage of justice. Good Friday is not an inspirational moment, born of a tragedy, that demands from us a bold and decisive response. It is, in and of itself, the perfect and complete satisfaction of all that is amiss in the world. It is the means by which God reconciles and restores us to union with God and each other. The only possible response to what God has done is for us to enter into it through prayer.

Today, I urge you to bring the deepest needs of your life and of the world into the cross through prayer. Let your prayers be the channel through which everything around you that is broken comes into contact with God’s perfect love. Bring your doubts. Bring your sorrows. Bring your hardships into the cross in prayer. Bring your family. Bring this community. Bring this broken world into the cross in prayer. Bring everything that is affected by greed and violence and hatred and sin into the cross in prayer. See again what God has done, and use your prayers to enfold into Christ’s outstretched arms all that is in need of repair. Start with yourself. Feel that embrace. Allow your prayers to carry with you the burdens of your heart. Believe again that God’s love has no limits, and let that love draw you into the cross of Christ through prayer.