Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Where's Your Light

Post originally written for 05/25/11 (5 Easter, Wednesday). Blog problems prevented earlier post.

This morning’s fairly short gospel lesson (Luke 8:16-25) contains three different parts that deserve full attention—don’t hide your light under a bushel, who are my mother and brothers but those who do God’s will, and who is this that even wind and water obey him. A lengthy sermon could be written on any of them—and it’s nice to have a choice—but I’m drawn to the first of the three. A few months ago, the light-under-a-bushel theme came up on Sunday, and I wanted to say something about it, but, for whatever reason, I was led in another direction. And now I have another chance.

In my experience of parish life, there are far too many of us who don’t even realize that we have (or are) a light to shine. I wonder if the same was true in Jesus’ day. You [people] are the light of the world. You have a light to shine. You are a light to shine. Why would you hide that light? Yet we hide it all the time.

For starters, we not only hide the light but also hide the fact that we have a light in the first place. We hide it from others because we first hide it from ourselves. Why is that? Is there a great multitude of the earthly chorus saying to us over and over, “You don’t matter. You don’t have something of value to contribute?” Yet I don’t think the answer is to look in the mirror every morning (a la SNL/Al Franken’s Stuart Smally) and convince ourselves of the opposite. In other words, the problem isn’t a lack of ego (there’s too much of that going around). The problem, I think, is that we don’t realize that we have an important part to play in God’s plan.

We are the light of the world. We are called to share that light. But we hide it. We ignore the fact that God has given us a call. Too few of us approach each day as if God has given us work to do. And that work isn’t just “church work.” It’s doing the world’s work on God’s behalf. No matter what one’s “calling” it’s still a calling—a divine commissioning. And that’s the source of our light.

We are lights for the world because God has called us to do his work—right where we are, right now, every day. The mediocrity of the daily grind should give way to the light of God’s calling. Instead, we allow our particular circumstances and, more importantly, our deflated opinion of those circumstances to hide whatever light we have called to be. We underestimate the power of our predicament. If we knew we had a light to shine, we wouldn’t hide it. As Jesus said, “No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a vessel, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a stand…” He didn’t say it, but I can hear him mumbling, “What are you, an idiot?” We must be crazy to hide our light. But we’ve got to acknowledge that we have a light to share before we can put it on a stand.

The Wheel of Fortune

Originally posted on 05/12/11. Unfortunately, a minor edit has reposted it under this date.

Usually, when someone comes to me seeking advice or counseling, he or she will ask, “What should I do?” rather than “What is God’s will?” But since they’re asking me—a priest—I kind of figure that they are the same question. In a religious context, when we seek the “right” direction for our lives, we’re searching for God’s will in the circumstance. I think there’s an implicit acceptance that if we choose to do that which is God’s will then we will have made the correct choice and, for the most part, good things will happen.

But that makes me wonder: can I ever choose something that isn’t God’s will? Before we jump to extreme examples, let’s start simply. Chocolate or vanilla? Which ice cream should I choose? Well, I’m not sure how that decision affects the divine order of things, but I’m pretty sure that whichever one I choose will be God’s will for me in that moment. Either way, I’ll likely be happy, and I think God, like the late George Steinbrenner, likes ice cream. Let’s take it up a notch. Should I quit my job and go back to school full-time to pursue a dream I have? Ah, that’s a little bit trickier. Or is it? Can one make the “wrong” choice?

That depends on how one defines right and wrong choices. If I quit my job, go to school, eventually find a new job that pays more and gives me more fulfillment, one might consider that a “right” choice—doing God’s will. If I quit my job, go to school, fail to graduate, fail to find another job, and bring my family to financial ruin, one might consider that a “wrong” choice—not doing God’s will. But to look at it that way would be to evaluate the outcome on purely human criteria. In other words, that’s to say that God’s will is only to produce human success and that any other outcome couldn’t be God’s will. Surely God’s providence isn’t quantifiable purely in terms of financial, emotional, or even physical terms.

Can we ever choose to do that which isn’t God’s will? Or, to put it another way, are our wills free enough to choose a path that God has not planned for us?

In today’s lesson from the New Testament (1 John 5:13-21), we read about aligning our will with God’s will in an argument that sounds circular: “And this is the confidence which we have in him [Christ], that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him.” I’ve sat and stared at those lines for a while this morning. And this is what they’re saying to me: If we ask something that accords with God’s will, then God will hear us…and whatever we ask that is in accordance with God’s will shall be given to us.

On the surface, that seems obvious. If we ask God for a new car but the new car isn’t God’s will for us, then we probably won’t get a new car. But, if for some strange reason God wants a new car to fall from the sky and land in my driveway, then it’s going to happen. Perhaps an easier way to state that is this: if we ask it and it’s God’s will then it will happen. Or, to take it one step back, if it happens and we are in a position to see the connection then it is God will. Right?

As Christians, we’re supposed to turn over our lives (cares, concerns, worries, choices, etc.) to God. How does that happen? I think by getting out of the way and trusting that whatever happens is God’s will—even the bad things. Sometimes adversity is a gift of God. And we can usually see that…as long as the adversity is temporary and not too painful. For example, being turned down at a job one really wants can often be seen as God’s will. The challenge is realizing that, in even the most difficult moments of our lives, God is still in control. Although almost unmentionable, that says something about illness, death, poverty, destruction, and more. We don’t like associating God with struggle. We like thinking that when bad things happen it’s our fault, and when good things happen it’s God’s will. But that’s a pretty shallow view of both us and God.


Although not much more than a collection of funny moments, the film Bruce Almighty gives an interesting portrayal of how God might respond to our prayers. Do you remember the scene in which Bruce, now playing the role of God, checks his “e-mail” and realizes that he has millions of requests that need his attention? Unwilling to commit the time and energy needed to sort through all the prayers, he selects all of them and simply answers “Yes.” As the audience anticipates, chaos ensues.

What’s remarkable about that ridiculous scene is how close it comes to the gospel reading for today (Luke 11:1-13). Jesus is attempting to explain to his disciples what prayer should look and sound like. In response to their request, “Lord, teach us to pray,” he replies with the familiar, “Father, hallowed be thy name…” But that’s not the surprising part. We’re all well versed in what we’re supposed to say during prayer time, but it’s his depiction of God’s role in response to our prayers that leaves me scratching my head no matter how many times I read it.

The parable Jesus tells to explain the human-divine intercessory process is confounding. Basically, a man goes to his neighbor in the middle of the night to ask for some food. The neighbor grants the request—not because he’s a friendly neighbor but because he’s tired of being bothered and wants to go back to sleep. That, Jesus says, is how prayer works. If we ask and ask and ask enough to irritate God (a la Bruce Almighty) then he’ll finally give in to our demands.

Well, not really. This is a “how-much-more” type of parable, so it’s literal and direct application to our experience is limited. Yes, it’s true that God gives us what we ask for, but that’s because he’s so much more willing to give than a neighbor who is awakened in the middle of the night. That being said, there’s still the issue of the petitioner’s importunity—a perfect word. Importunity. God responds to our insistent, unrelenting requests. But I don’t think he responds out of irritation. I think he responds out of love, knowing that if we ask long enough we’ll appreciate that.

My neighbor and best friend growing up had a BB gun. In fact, he had two or three. And, for a while, I thought that was the coolest thing ever. And the fact that he was a year younger than I was didn’t help. I asked and asked and asked my parents for a BB gun (a la A Christmas Story), but they kept saying, “Later, when you’re older.” I asked and asked some more. Eventually, they gave in. Actually, they didn’t give in to my annoying, incessant requests. I think I finally grew up enough to be trusted with one. But to me, it was a longed-for answer finally granted. And I remember being so excited about getting a BB gun. Upon reflection, I remember being far more excited about getting the BB gun than I ever was at shooting it. It was the fact that my prayers had been answered that I celebrated more than the answer itself.

Jesus invites us to ask God again and again for things—not because he thinks God is more likely to give us what we want if we ask over and over but because by asking we become more appreciative of the granting. In other words, maybe it’s ok that my prayer life involves more “please” than “thank you.” Eventually, my heart’s desire will be granted, and the moment of thanksgiving that accompanies that answered prayer will be magnified.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Salty Speech

At St. John’s, we have a midweek bible study that meets on Wednesdays at noon. For the most part, the people who come are a very faithful group of people—7 or 8 that we see just about every week. Although we always enjoy newcomers (the group has grown slowly but steadily over the last few years), we usually see the same people each week. They are some of the deepest thinkers that I regularly spend time with, and I absolutely love and respect them. In fact, they push me in a helpful way to stretch and offer classes that challenge me as well as them. Unlike most of my other teaching opportunities, this group is particularly collaborative. And right now, in an attempt to satiate our collective hunger for new theological exploration, we’re studying prison literature.

As I’ve mentioned in our bible study, I don’t really know where this class will go. I’m hoping that we’ll discover together some ways in which Paul’s “prison epistles” (Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon) illuminate some of the same themes as other famous and not so famous letter from prison (King, Bonhoeffer, More, etc.). I’m not sure all of today’s New Testament reading (Colossians 3:18-4:18) is in the syllabus, but one verse from it is just the kind of observation I’m hoping our series will identify: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.”

Honestly, I don’t initially know what that means—to season one’s speech with salt. The image it brings to mind is the kind of salty talk one might get from a sailor, but I don’t think that’s what Paul has in mind (though I wish I had known this verse back when I was a teenager—might have gotten me out of some trouble). My best guess is that Paul is encouraging us not to let a single word be wasted—that every single utterance should be carefully chosen and designed to have greatest evangelistic effect.

And I imagine that that’s the kind of thing someone in prison appreciates more than the rest of us. Paul is in fetters. He probably senses that the end of his life is quickly approaching. Certainly, the active, travelling portion of his ministry is behind him. Although we can’t be sure, I think it’s worth wondering, imagining, how Paul felt in that circumstance. How many speeches he had given, how many letters he had written, how many conversations he had had—and to look back and reflect on whether any word was out of place. That’s the sort of thing that I cannot appreciate on my own. I need someone like Paul—someone who endures the challenge of confinement unto the end of his life—to help me understand.

There are lots of times when someone tells me something I can’t appreciate because I haven’t experienced it: “Your children will grow up so fast. Make the most of it.” or “Grandchildren are the greatest gift in the world.” or “There are some pains that nothing can heal.” And I think the hyper-experience of prison produces insights that are true for all of us even if we don’t also share that experience. And this seems to be one of them: words shouldn’t be wasted. They are precious because time is precious. So what do you want to say? What should I say? Whom have I lost touch with? What can I do to nourish every opportunity for godly speech?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Funeral Fiascos...And How to Avoid Them

I’ve learned an important phrase in my ministry: “I’m sorry, but we just don’t do that at St. John’s.” Although that sounds a lot like, “I’m sorry, but we aren’t willing to do that for you,” what it usually means is, “I’m sorry, but you’ll need to trust that we know what’s best in this situation.” The time in my ministry when I’ve had to use that phrase most often is during funeral preparations.

When meeting with the families of the deceased, I’ve heard all sorts of requests that sound good to those making the request but, if ever put in practice, wouldn’t be as “beautiful” or “special” as they hope. For example, playing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water” in the nave of St. John’s is not going to emphasize the power of the resurrection…no matter how much the dead person liked it.

One of the policies we stick to without exception is the no-solo rule. We don’t have solos at St. John’s—ever. I’ll admit that, on occasion, the right solo performed by the right soloist can be beautiful. But, usually when people ask for a solo at a funeral (or a wedding), what they want is Aunt Jenny, who has never had any formal musical training, to sing a warbly, off-key version of a piece that everyone will (unfortunately) recognize and never like again.

Another firm rule is this: we don’t do eulogies. Many Episcopal churches stick to this one. A sermon is a sermon, but a eulogy has no place in a church. By definition, a eulogy is a looking-back at the life of the deceased, when, at a funeral, we’re supposed to be looking forward to the promised resurrection. And honestly, eulogies usually either say what shouldn’t have been said (“Daddy loved beer…a lot.”) or they skirt around what everyone knows should have been said but wasn’t (“After that, he never spoke to his father again.”) Really, our rules are saving the family from disaster.

In today’s reading from the book of Wisdom (7:1-14), the king says, “There is for all mankind one entrance into life, and a common departure.” I’ve had that paraphrased to me by several at St. John’s who are emphasizing the beautiful simplicity of no sermon/eulogy at St. John’s: “We all come in and go out of this world the same. A funeral should be identical for prince or pauper.” A good point—and not only because that saves the family some embarrassment from bad solos or difficult eulogies. The theology of death suggests that we’re all the same in God’s eyes—sinners in need of redeeming—and, when we leave this life, where we go has nothing to do with our merit or status and only with God’s grace.

At St. John’s, because families usually want a eulogy and don’t want a sermon, we typically steer people away from both. But I like sermons at funerals. And by sermon I mean a sermon—an address that usually doesn’t even mention the deceased by name. It’s a sermon on the hope of the resurrection. It’s an opportunity to remind everyone there of the unifying truth that death presents—there is no distinction in death. And therefore we all share the same hope—the resurrection is the universal promise we all share. To enter the funeral office and attempt to customize it for the deceased would be to suggest that, when standing before God, a person’s life makes a difference. But we thank God every day that it doesn’t. And that’s what a funeral (and sermon) are supposed to remind us.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

When the Levees Break

Yesterday, as I was returning to the church from a pastoral visit, NPR’s All Thing Considered featured a story about the music that came from the Mississippi Delta following the Great Flood of 1927. Perhaps you heard it. If you missed it but are curious, it can be found here. In the story, the director of Delta State’s cultural center identified one particular artist as the voice that for him captures the real spirit of the Great Flood. As he explained it, Memphis Minnie, who sang “When the Levee Breaks,” has a “plaintive nature to it that if it keeps on raining, the levee's gonna break; there's nothing you can do about it.” I wonder how that observation compares with the gospel.

In today’s gospel reading from the Daily Office (Luke 6:39-49), Jesus says, “Every one who comes to me and hear my words and does them…is like a man building a house, who dug deep, and laid the foundation upon rock; and when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it.” I wonder how that verbal image sounded to his audience. Was there such a house? Did they have specific examples in their own experience—houses which withstood desert floods? Did they nod their heads in agreement, sharing knowing looks with one another that silently said, “Yep, he’s right. Built on a foundation. Won’t fall.” If that’s the case, then the people of Jesus’ community must not have had floods like the Great Flood of 1927 or the current flood of 2011.

I’ll venture a guess that no matter how firm a foundation lies underneath a river house along the banks of the Mighty Mississippi the houses toppled when the levees broke. Or, if the house technically remained on its foundation, it was so thoroughly rinsed out by the flood as to be an empty, ruined shell. There are some metaphors (perhaps all) that find their limits in physical reality. But, of course, that’s not the point.

At our wedding, we had read Matthew’s equivalent of this gospel lesson—house built on the rock will not fall; house built on the sand will collapse. Although I probably didn’t make the connection at the time, we were married in September of 2005, which means that Katrina had recently flooded New Orleans, knocking row after row of shoddily built houses in the Lower 9th Ward off their foundations, swept into oblivion. Yet, standing at the altar, my concern was for other sorts of floods—spiritual ones, financial ones, relationship ones. And my prayer was that no matter how huge the tidal wave of chaos would be our marriage would be built upon a firm enough foundation (God) to withstand it. So far, we’re good.
But we haven’t had the kind of floods that come when the levees break. And there may be something that comes along one day that is so destructive as to shake our marriage off its foundation, but I don’t worry about that. I have a confidence that transcends the physical world. Even if the image won’t withstand our experience of Katrina or 1927 or 2011, we still hold on to it. That’s because Jesus is speaking of an even greater flood than any the world has known and is also reassuring us that the foundation is stronger than any that has ever been built. And the point is that no matter how wise a man is and no matter how solid a foundation can be, God’s foundation is stronger. And even though the floods that will come are more destructive than any physical inundation, God’s strength is greater.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


I don’t believe in karma. And I think I’ve even gone on the record on numerous occasions and said that karma is fundamentally anti-Christian. And by “karma” I don’t mean a fully-informed, fully-enlightened understanding of the spiritual concept that is associated with Buddhism (although that might, upon further reflection, be included). I mean the “karma” that people like to throw around and put on their bumper stickers and say to one another, “Dude, it’s karma.” That’s the pop-culture karma that I have in mind.

That karma, as best I can tell, is an approach to life that says, “The Universe pays you back for whatever you do.” If you’re nice to people, nice things will happen to you. If you’re mean to people, mean things will happen to you. Some of the people who adhere to that principle actually believe that cosmic forces (called “the Universe”) return back to someone what he/she has dealt out. But many of the people who say, “Dude, it’s karma,” identify themselves as Christians. They claim to believe in only one God—the supreme ruler of the universe. So, whether they admit it or not, Christians who like karma seem to believe that God gives people what they deserve—good for good, and bad for bad.

But that’s not Christianity, right? Unlike almost all the other world religions, which are based on some form of getting-what-one-deserves, Christianity says to us, “You’re sinful, yet God still loves you.” Think of all the verses of scripture (mostly in Paul’s letters) that remind us of this principle: “Christ died while you were yet sinners” or “For God so loved the world…” or “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous…” Isn’t our faith built on the principle of anti-karma? No matter what you deal out, God still repays you with mercy? We don’t get what we deserve. “The wages of sin is death.” Grace is the rejection of karma. Right?

Well, fiddlesticks! Then I read this morning’s gospel lesson (Luke 6:27-38), and I’m not sure any more. Jesus ends the lesson by saying to his disciples, “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned…For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” AGH! Really? Jesus, really? Didn’t you read St. Paul’s letters before you said something like this—something that threatens to undo my whole comfortable understanding of grace?

I’ve spent a long time today wrestling with this gospel lesson and trying to figure out a way around Jesus’ “You get what you give” statement. I admit I don’t have it licked, but this is as good as I can do. I still believe that our forgiveness is a given and that no matter what we do we are still forgiven. I think that’s the Easter message that must override this or any lesson. No matter what we deal to God, God forgives, redeems, and heals it. That’s the message of the cross and empty tomb. So, with that in mind, I have to grapple with Jesus’ words.

I don’t want to ameliorate the power of Jesus’ message. I think he means what he says—we get what we give, but I think that is a statement about this life rather than the life to come. Basically it’s this: if we refuse to forgive, we cannot participate in God’s forgiveness—even if that forgiveness is certain in the ultimate end. Yes, God will forgive us no matter what. That’s grace. But if we are not in the mind of love and charity and forgiveness, then we can’t appreciate the miracle of our own forgiveness.

When I’m in the car and refuse to forgive the son-of-a-gun who cuts me off, it’s hard for me (maybe impossible) in that moment to appreciate the magnitude of God’s forgiveness of me. But the real issue is more than just a psychology of grace. It’s more than just appreciating God’s grace in a passing moment. If God’s mercy is an ultimate given, isn’t it true that the only thing that matters is our appreciation of that grace in this life? In other words, if God loves me no matter what, isn’t the only thing that I should care about whether I can comprehend that miracle of redemption in this lifetime?

If I get to the end of this life and discover a forgiveness I never knew, won’t every day of this life have been wasted? God has showered upon us the most amazing miracle of love—that he loves us no matter what. That’s the miracle of grace. And that’s a miracle worth sharing. Yet if I am not able/willing to share with others that love as freely as God has shared it with me, aren’t I missing the real point of this life? Isn’t this life all about understanding and transmitting forgiveness? Isn’t the purpose of this life to exemplify the opposite of karma (grace) by realizing that grace itself depends upon my experience of karma?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Meaningful Hope

I can’t remember where I was or the context in which it came, but I do remember very clearly introducing a humorous anecdote with the phrase, “Here’s a really funny story…” But, before I could actually begin the tale, one of my sharper friends interjected, “Well, we’ll be the judge of that.” Though never gifted with comedic timing, I knew right away that anything I said would underwhelm my audience. Although his tactic was uncharitable, his point was clear: the more I emphasize the humor in a story the funnier it needs to be to get a laugh.

We oversell things all the time. Jokes are funnier, fish are bigger, and grandchildren are more precious than they actually are. Our perspective is often like that of a passenger-side mirror—“objects in mirror are [insert relevant adjective] than they appear.” Why? Because we like having a story that’s worth listening to. We enjoy the attention that accompanies the kind of tale that gets a hardy laugh or a dropped jaw. And, whether consciously or not, we tend to oversell things when we doubt that they (or we) will get the reaction we seek.

Early in the movie City Slickers, starring Billy Crystal, the audience watches an awkward moment of overselling take place in a school classroom. It’s “Bring-Your-Dad-to-Work Day,” and Crystal’s character, whose job it is to sell advertising time on the radio, is set to follow a construction worker, who has just finished a colorful tale about summoning “super-human strength” to lift a fallen crane off of a woman’s legs. Crystal’s son, embarrassed by his father’s lackluster career, says to his class, “My dad’s name is Mitch, and he’s…a submarine commander!” The classroom erupts in a chorus of admiration only to have their excitement deflated when the truth is revealed.

Like Crystal’s son, my tendency to overstate reality reflects my insecurity. When I’m surrounded by people whom I admire and want to impress, my self-doubt shows up in the way I try to get attention, and it usually backfires. Like a hitter in a slump, the only way to get back in the game is to relax and trust that the hits will come when I stop worrying about it.

In Luke’s account of the Sermon on Mount (actually called “a level place”), Jesus looks at the multitude that has gathered around him and says, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh” (6:17-26). If anyone else had been speaking, that would surely be an example of overselling. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, and the mournful? In what way are they blessed?

Yet, in my discomfort and insecurity, that’s exactly what I try to say to someone in need: “Don’t worry; you’ll be ok.” I don’t really believe it, but it seems like the kind of thing I’m supposed to say to someone in trouble. And no matter how much I might want to comfort someone with a message of Christian hope, unless I’m in a position to do something about an individual’s suffering, my words are empty—mere overstatement. Yet Jesus is able to say to someone in that same moment of deepest distress, “You are blessed,” and say it with the power, confidence, and hope that my words lack.

That’s because Jesus isn’t offering the sort of hope that hinges on immediate relief. He’s promising them a blessedness that doesn’t depend on a physical answer for their longings. Instead, he’s saying to those who have nothing but pain that God sees them in their agony and knows their trouble. He’s showing us that even in our moment of lostness we have not been forgotten by God.
Jesus came down from heaven to demonstrate that God hears our cries and sees our needs and knows our grief. Jesus represents a cosmic answer to our earthly plight. His victory over death reveals to us that our poverty, hunger, grief, and despair are not the end of the story. That doesn’t mean that God wants us to be rich and happy all the time. The “prosperity gospel” that some espouse is surely an empty overstatement. Instead, our Lord and Savior simply says, “Blessed are you who are in need. God knows your troubles and will save you from them in ways that only he can.” And that’s the eternal hope of the Christian faith—not that God will make all of my troubles go away but that God knows my brokenness and blesses me because of it.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sunday Sermon - 4 Easter A (05/15/11)

May 15, 2011 – Easter 4A
Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

I’ve got some bad news for y’all: this is the last Sunday sermon you will ever hear at St. John’s. That’s because the world is scheduled to end this Saturday, May 21. Or, more precisely, this Saturday is Judgment Day. That means that the true Christian believers (like me) will be raptured up into heaven, while the rest of you will be left behind in the “horror of horror stories.” [1] At least that’s the way that Kevin Brown described it during an NPR interview. He’s one of a substantial number of religious fanatics who have spent the last several months proclaiming to anyone who would listen that the end will come just six days from now. Since I’m not planning on being here next Sunday and since Grace Haynes, the preacher scheduled for next week, will almost certainly not be here either, the rest of you will just have to figure something out on your own. Good luck with all that.

You’ve probably heard these most recent calls for repentance. They’ve made their way into the news—mostly portrayed in a mocking tone that the subjects themselves don’t seem to pick up on. Apparently, Harold Camping, the founder of Family Radio, has discovered coded messages in the bible and used them to calculate that May 21, 2011, is exactly 7000 years to the day since the flood sent Noah and the animals into the ark. Actually, Camping made a similar prediction almost twenty years ago, but he claims that that earlier prophecy, which had the universe scheduled to end on September 6, 1994, was based on “incomplete research.” This time, he says, he’s absolutely sure. “It’s going to happen. There is no Plan B.”[2]

Believe it or not, there are lots of people who have bought into his prophecy. NPR interviewed several who have taken to the streets to spread the gospel according to Camping. One of them, twenty-seven-year-old Adrienne Martinez, was headed to medical school until she started “tuning in to Family Radio.” After hearing Camping’s prediction, she and her husband quit everything to spend the rest of their time here on earth with their infant daughter. Describing her decision, Martinez said, “We budgeted everything so that, on May 21, we won’t have anything left.”[3] And she isn’t alone.

When Pittsburgh-resident Thomas Sayers walked passed another of Camping’s followers and heard the doomsday message, he was fascinated. After being told that “on May 21 at about 6 p.m., an earthquake of proportions which have never been known since man was on the Earth will occur,” Sayers replied, “This coming 21[st]?...Oh, this is going to be awesome!” He didn’t buy it. With pity in his voice, he said to the reporter, “I kind of feel bad for them because they do believe the world will end on the 21st. As a Christian, I also believe that there’s a certain date that nobody knows. I’m on the same journey they are—they just think it ends the 21st and I don’t think it does.”[4]

I think Thomas Sayers put it well. Both he and the doomsday prophet are Christians. They both believe that one day the world will end, but they have radically different understandings of when and how that will happen. As Christians, we are surrounded by a cacophony of voices that cry out to us in the name of God: street-corner prophets, late-night televangelists, even Sunday-morning preachers. Sometimes those of us in various pulpits share the same message, but often our words are diametrically opposed. How can you know which voices are articulating the Word of God and which voices are empty proclamations?

In today’s gospel lesson, we are reminded by Jesus that many of the voices we hear belong to strangers and that only one voice—that of the one who enters by the gate—belongs to the shepherd. He’s the one who knows the sheep by name and whose voice the sheep will follow. Only the one who comes to the sheep through the gate speaks with a voice that the flock recognizes. And that gate, Jesus said, is himself. Anyone who comes in through another way is a thief or a bandit—a stranger whom the sheep will not follow.

I think that’s supposed to be comforting. Jesus seems to have said that we, the flock, will recognize the voice of our shepherd and not be led astray by false prophets. But there are a lot of people who call themselves Christians and yet believe that individuals such as Harold Camping are preaching God’s word. And given that these “prophets” often say things in the name of God that sound totally contrary to my understanding of who God is, I’m not so sure Christians can always tell the difference between the voice of a stranger and the voice of the shepherd.

But misleading voices aren’t always troubling. Sometimes they can be hilarious. Last week, I came across the stand-up comedy routine of Kevin Pollak, a master of impersonations. He recalled for the audience a time when he was flipping through the channels and noticed that Alan Arkin was being interviewed on Larry King Live. Sure enough, Pollak picked up the phone and called the show, asking the producer to hide his true identity from the host. When Larry unknowingly put Kevin on the air, the comedian launched in with a flawless impersonation of Alan Arkin, producing a brief moment of total, hysterical confusion. At first, Larry King didn’t know whose voice was whose. He was looking at Alan Arkin in his studio, yet Alan Arkin’s voice was on the phone, claiming that the man sitting across the counter from the host was an imposter. Eventually, it all got sorted out, and the comedic moment concluded with the real Alan Arkin looking into the camera and saying of Kevin Pollak, “The man stole my soul.”[5]

Sometimes we can’t tell whose voice we’re listening to. And often that’s because, like Larry King, we’re caught up in a moment of confusion. Sometimes we’re stuck in a situation that has us convinced that the one speaking to us is the shepherd we know and trust when actually it’s the voice of a stranger—one who has tricked us into following him down the wrong path. That’s because we allow the world around us to define what sort of voice we’re supposed to be listening for. What is today’s world telling us? That the economy is wrecked. That uncontrollable inflation is upon us. That the political system is broken. That hose in positions of power are leading this country into ruin. That the future of our nation is bleak. That the Episcopal Church has lost its way. That the world is crashing down around us. That maybe even the universe will be destroyed in the coming months. 

How different that is from what Jesus is saying to us! Jesus said, “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” The world is telling us to be afraid. And, when we assume that position of fear, the voices we hear are anything but the voice of the shepherd—the one who leads us into abundant life. Fear is the opposite of faith. Fear suggests that God is not in control. Fear tells us that everything is spiraling into chaos. But the voice of the shepherd says, “I will take care of you. Do not be afraid.”

What voice have you been listening to? Is it the voice of the shepherd or the voice of a stranger? One way to tell is to ask yourself whether you are living in fear. You don’t have to believe that the world is coming to an end this Saturday in order to be plagued by anxiety. Whether it’s this Saturday or next Saturday or some undetermined time in the near future, if you’re living your life as if everything could come unraveled at any moment, then you haven’t heard the voice of the shepherd.

Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly. That means life to the full—overflowing, plentiful, and bounteous. That doesn’t mean that we will escape without any economic trouble or personal hardship. That’s not what an abundant life means. But it does mean that we can and should live our lives free of fear. If we know that the shepherd has come to lead us into salvation, why would we follow a voice that leads us into fear? Amen.

[1] 2011. Hagerty, B. B. “Is the end nigh? We’ll know soon enough.” Weekend Edition Saturday; NPR. 7 May 2011. Accessed at <http://www.npr.org/2011/05/07/136053462/is-the-end-nigh-well-know-soon-enough> on 13 May 2011.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] 2011. Hagerty, B.B. “Divining doomsday: An old practice with new tricks.” All Things Considered; NPR. 12 May 2011. Accessed at <http://www.npr.org/2011/05/12/136239062/divining-doomsday-an-old-practice-with-new-tricks> on 13 May 2011.
[5] 1993. “Alan Arkin on the golden age of baseball.” Larry King Live; CNN. 22 January 1993. Accessed at <http://www.alanarkinfans.com/articles/king93.txt> on 13 May 2011.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Healing or Heeling?

Have you ever had someone pray for you to be healed and used language like, "May this illness depart your body and go to another place never to return?" I have--once or twice. And I might even use that kind of language to pray for someone else, though I'd probably be talking about "cancer" and the "other place" I'd have in mind would probably be "remission." Occasionally, however, our prayers for healing sound awfully spiritual in nature. Prayers of deliverance from disease sometimes border on requests for deliverance from spiritual adversity. Why?

There's a connection between spiritual illness and physical illness--there's no doubt about that. And I'm not just talking about demonic possession or attachment. I mean that people experience physical consequences for psycho-social-religious asynchronicities. If I feel abandoned by God, I might also experience physical ailment (see today's Psalm--Psalm 38). That doesn't necessarily mean, however, that my fever of 101.4 is caused by an evil spirit. Sometimes the flu is just the flu.

In today's reading from Luke (4:38-44), Jesus goes to his friend Simon's house, where he discovers that Simon's mother-in-law is running a high fever. Jesus "rebukes" the fever, which departs her. Later on, when the crowd brings to him lots of sick people, many of them have demons come out of them--demons which cry out in recognition of the healer. Weird, yes. Completely foreign to our experience? Well, perhaps not completely.

I was out early the other morning and was thinking about how the different aspects of my life are connected. My health affects my work. My work affects my family life. My family life affects my work and my health. And my spiritual well-being is affected by and in turn affects all of the rest. We're organic, integrated beings. And I think we sometimes need spiritual healing.

I'm not suggesting that we should go to a "spiritualist" whenever an illness stikes. Sometimes the flu needs Tamiflu rather than annointing. But sometimes my body is out of sync because my prayer life is out of sync. Sometimes I'm in a bad mood because I haven't spent enough time in quiet prayer. Sometimes I feel run down because I haven't been renewed spiritually. Sometimes I may even show symptoms like a fever when all I really need is a dose of God.

Jesus represents good news, and sometimes that good news is the same sort of news we want to hear from our physician. When doctors say, "I have good news for you," that doesn't mean that we're not ill. It usually means that we are ill but that we will get better. Jesus is good news. We are broken--spiritually and physically. We are in need of healing. And Jesus represents a source of that healing.

How are you out of sync? What sort of healing do you need?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


In what was at one time my brother’s favorite movie, Ghostbusters, Gozer the Gozarian asks the Ghostbusters if they are gods. Ray, played by Dan Aykroyd, answers as most of us would—“No.” After the streams of lightning flying from Gozer’s fingertips attempt to kill the movie’s heroes, one of them reprimands the errant spokesperson, “Ray, if someone asks you if you’re a god, you say yes!” But that can’t be right. We’re not gods. We need God to be something bigger, stronger, and better than we’ll ever be.

What does God look like? It’s hard to describe the indescribable. It’s impossible to picture the incapturable. God is completely other, and yet for all of human existence we’ve tried to bring him close to us—to put him in a bottle or paint him on a canvas. One of those basic human aspirations is to come near the unapproachable and embrace that which created us.

In the Old Testament, God is depicted as that which cannot be seen. After asking to see the Almighty, Moses is allowed a glimpse at the hind parts of God. Anything more would have killed him. Isaiah cries out in anguish for having come into the presence of God, “Woe is me!” for he surely expected to die. I’m pretty sure that other cultures share that approach. God is defined as too powerful, too holy, too amazingly other to be embraced. Humans depend upon a confidence in something they can’t understand—to grand for comprehension.

And yet we still want God to be close to us. We want to pull him down and draw him near. God answered our deepest human longing by becoming flesh—by sending his Son to be incarnate and born of a woman. In today’s lesson from Luke (4:31-37), Jesus is teaching in a synagogue when a man with an unclean spirit cries out, “We know who you are! We recognize you, Jesus of Nazareth. You’ve been sent by the most high God. Have you come to destroy us?” This is one of the ways that the gospel writers attempt to portray Jesus’ divinity—through recognition on the lips of demons.

God is completely other, and yet God walked among us as Jesus. How do you convince a nation of believers who have been trained that God cannot be seen that actually God has become flesh and revealed himself to the world? How can you answer that human desire to know God and yet also maintain the human need for God to be completely other? We’re stuck. We need a God who is all-powerful, and we also need a God who feels our pain. We want God to be a rock that can never be moved, and we also need a God who weeps with us.
Jesus is both, but that’s equally impossible to describe. Some might call it a mystery. I don’t like that term because it forces me to admit that I don’t and can’t ever understand something, but perhaps it’s best here. The demons identify Jesus as the most high God but can’t accept the tenderness and love he represents. The crowds can see a compassionate Jesus but can’t accept that he is their God. Where are we? What does God look like?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Who is the Real Jesus?

How would you describe Jesus? What sort of messiah was he? What were the most important aspects of his ministry? For me, titles like “miracle worker” and “redeemer” and “sacrifice for sins” come to mind. Today’s gospel reading (Luke 4:14-30) gives us an example of what Jesus thought about himself. In his hometown synagogue, he stands up and reads from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Two-thousand years later, we read the gospel and get our own sense of who Jesus was…or at least we think we do. Those two millennia have shaped how we read the story of Jesus, and I think they may have shaped that story so fully that the Jesus we know today is quite different from the savior Jesus understood himself to be. There aren’t many examples in the gospel of Jesus stating his mission—of him defining his messiahship. And I think we forget how central this passage is.

In Sunday school classes when we’re discussing soteriology (how Jesus “saves” us), I am often asked about Judaism’s understanding of messiah. And the question usually sounds something like this, “Aren’t the Jews still waiting for a messiah and just didn’t recognize Jesus?” I think the Old Testament shows several quite different understandings of messiahship. Some passages envision a “prophet like Moses.” Others expect the arrival of a high priest who will purify worship. Some look for a descendant of David to reclaim the throne of his ancestors. And then there’s the passage that Jesus quotes from in today’s gospel lesson.

What is messiah? Literally, it means God’s “anointed one.” For what purpose was Jesus anointed by God? It’s easy for us two-thousand years on this side of the resurrection to say that Jesus was anointed by God to live a sinless life, die a horrible death, and rise again to save us and bring us to heaven. But if you ask Jesus, what would he say (WWJS)? He would reply, “I have been sent by God to honor the poor and outcast, to help people see who God is, and to set free those who are oppressed.” Is that a different understanding than we have? Perhaps. I think that the cross and empty tomb are part of “setting free the oppressed,” but I also think that I too often forget to use Jesus’ articulated self-understanding to help me interpret the actions of his ministry rather than use the actions to mis-define who he is.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Patron Saint of Anxious Mothers

St. Monica (or “Monnica”), whose feast I am celebrating today in part because I wasn’t drawn to the lessons from the Daily Office, must be the patron saint of anxious mothers. Her story, which we get through her son Augustine’s Confessions, is one that reminds me of the helicopter parents of the modern age. Aware of her son’s intellectual gifts yet distraught that he was squandering them with reckless behavior, she prayed and wept and pleaded to no avail.

Eventually, after her son had made his way to Milan, Monica found Bishop Ambrose there and put him on the case. Her prayers were answered. Augustine was converted, baptized, and became the heretic-fighting, super-theologian saint we now know him to be. But how did that happen? As the collect for Monica’s day states, “O Lord, through spiritual discipline you strengthened your servant Monnica to persevere in offering her love and prayers and tears for the conversion of her husband and of Augustine their son…” Also, in the moment of her deepest distress, Monica was consoled by Ambrose, who said to her, “the child of those tears shall never perish.” We remember her tears as if they had something to do with Augustine’s changed life.
In the gospel lesson appointed for St. Monica’s day (
Luke7:11-17), we read about Jesus’ encounter with a weeping mother from the city of Nain. Her only son had died, and she was left as a widow with no one to care for her. Whether her tears were for her dead son or the appointed state of a woman left to fend for herself, her agony touches Jesus. As Luke writes, “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her.” He walks up to the bier on which the dead child lay and touches it, saying, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” And the woman’s tears were turned to tears of joy.
What is it about the tears of a mother that can change a circumstance? More importantly, why is it her tears can accomplish what years of pleading cannot? Tears do that which words fail to accomplish. In my experience of childhood—both personal and observed—the harder a desperate mother tries to change her child’s ways the less able that child is to change himself. That’s true from elementary school through professional life. The more someone (in this case my parent) tries to convince me that she’s right and that I’m wrong the less likely I am to embrace the change she seeks in my life. Instead, when she lets go of her need to affect a change in me and instead releases that concern to another—usually to God—something different happens.
When I look upon the tears of my mother who is no longer trying to change me but instead is simply hoping for a change, something is freed up inside of me, enabling a transformation in my life. When Monica came to Ambrose and wept, he said to her, “Don’t worry. The child of your tears will not perish.” He helped her let go. He helped her let her son, whom she still loved just as much, discover a change for himself. And new birth happened.

Whom am I trying to change? In what relationships have I convinced myself that the harder I try the more effective I will be in making someone into the person I want them to be? Is it my spouse? My child? My subordinate? My friend? Sometimes the best thing to do is cry for them—an act of admitting that one is helpless to accomplish that which is sought. Only God can work a change in someone’s life. And he might use my tears of submission to bring about the change I most desperately want for someone I love.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Sunday's Sermon - 2 Easter A (05/01/11)

May 1, 2011 – Easter 2A
Acts 2:14a, 22-32; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

Driving an automobile brings out the best in people, doesn’t it? Not you or me, mind you, but everyone else out there seems to have a harder time controlling their emotions when they are behind the wheel.

One afternoon, not long after I moved to Montgomery, I was driving from one pastoral visit at Baptist South to another down Narrow Lane Road, and I had stopped on the access road to wait for the light to turn green so that I could turn left and cross the Bypass. I was actually stopped at a stop sign, but there wasn’t any room for me to continue ahead into the lane of traffic that was waiting at the light. Pretty soon, another car came up behind me, but there was nowhere for me to go, so I just waited. And that meant that he had to wait, too. But, since he was turning right and didn’t need to wait for the traffic signal, his patience with me quickly gave out. Eventually, unwilling to wait any longer, he pulled around me into the lane of oncoming traffic and managed to turn right in front of my car while holding the steering wheel with his knees. I know this because he used both hands to show me how angry he was.

 In a moment like that, I like to stretch my neck out a little bit just to make sure that the driver knows that he’s flipping off a priest. I’m not sure that made any difference to him. But it usually makes a difference to me. To tell you the truth, I’m like most other people. I get angry at drivers who cut me off or run a red light or ride my tail. And sometimes those drivers make me angry enough to hold that grudge as they speed off down the road, leaving me mumbling something obscene under my breath. But it’s in that moment—when I’m watching the offending driver disappear down the street—that I remember that I’m a priest and that Jesus once said something pretty serious about holding grudges.

That admonition comes in this morning’s gospel lesson. Jesus says to his disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” What does that mean? In John’s gospel account, this is the passage in which Jesus gives his disciples their commission and sends them forth to do God’s work. And right at the center of that charge is the foundational text for our belief in priestly absolution. This is the part of the bible that we turn to in order to understand what it is that a clergyperson does when he or she pronounces God’s forgiveness.

As we understand it, if a priest or bishop absolves someone of his or her sins, then that person is forgiven in the eyes of God…or at least that’s what the Church teaches us. But what does that really mean? Does that mean that the minister has a special path to God and that when he declares forgiveness he’s doing so on God’s behalf? And forgiveness is only the first half of this tricky verse. The more confusing and perhaps more important part is what comes next: what happens when those sins are retained? What happens when someone cuts a priest off in traffic and he refuses to release the other driver from the cosmic consequences of his wrong-doing? Are those “sins” retained in God’s eyes? Is that person forever unable to escape God’s punishment?

Now, I’ll admit that I might be the only person in the world who worries about how this verse should affect his driving habits. And I’ll also admit that there may be a touch of superstition behind my concern. At one level, it’s pretty silly to think that my refusal to absolve someone of his sins will have any impact on that person’s relationship with God when he finally comes to the day of judgment. That’s ridiculous. But heaven and hell are pretty serious things. While it’s true that I probably have no impact on the eternal consequences of another person’s sins, do you really want me taking that chance when it comes to your eternal destination?

Actually, I think this verse has more to do with the impact of sins in this life than it does with their effect on one’s experience of the afterlife. And I also think Jesus’ commission isn’t directed only at members of the clergy. Given the centrality of this verse in Jesus’ commissioning of his disciples, I believe he’s speaking to all of us. What Jesus says he says to anyone who would follow him: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” I believe that all of us are in the forgiving-retaining business, and I think that’s the core of Christianity.

Is there anything more powerful or transformative than saying to someone who has wronged you, “I forgive you?” Nothing else can release the hurt and the guilt associated with a wrong as completely as those three little words. They have the power to heal relationships and to restore lives. Likewise nothing can do more damage than saying to someone who has come to you asking for forgiveness, “I refuse to forgive you.” Spirits are crushed, relationships are obliterated, and lives are ruined when forgiveness is denied. And that’s why this verse is so important for Christians.

With regard to our relationship with God, forgiveness is always given. That’s what the story of Easter tells us. The risen Christ shows us that no matter what evil we throw at God God’s forgiving love will always triumph over it. That’s why Jesus appears to his disciples and says, “Peace be with you.” It doesn’t matter that they’ve run away. It doesn’t matter that they’re hiding in cowardice behind locked doors. God seeks them out in order to forgive them—“Peace be with you.” But there’s more to the story than that.

God’s forgiveness might be certain, but our ability to accept and internalize that forgiveness depends upon whether we’ve known forgiveness here on earth. And that’s where the true and deadly power of sin lies. In the end, nothing can separate us from God’s love—not even our sin. But, if we can’t get past the brokenness that our sin has caused here on earth, how can we have confidence in God’s forgiveness in heaven? When we’re seeking reconciliation with someone we love but whom we have hurt, what matters more to us in that moment—a belief that God will forgive us one day or the agony of knowing that someone we love refuses to forgive us?

God’s victory over sin and death, which was declared through the resurrection of Christ, means that there can be no brokenness that God will not eventually heal. But, before the power of the empty tomb can be real to us we must understand that forgiveness here in this life. The resurrection is not just an image or a metaphor. It’s a physical reality manifest in this world to demonstrate to us that sin should have no claim on us in this life or in the next. That means that sharing the good news of the Easter story is about proclaiming forgiveness to others as liberally and unreservedly as God has declared that same love to us and to the world. As Christians, we are called by God and sent forth by Christ to forgive always and to retain never the sins of those who have hurt us.

When was the last time someone cut you off in traffic? How long has it been since you’ve banged the receiver of your phone on a table because a customer service representative was rude and unhelpful? In what relationships—whether meaningful or not—have you been slow to forgive? The power of the resurrection is liberation from that which separates us from God. But we can only know that power if we propagate that same forgiveness as readily as we ourselves have been forgiven. Jesus is sending us out to do the same work that God sent him to earth to do. We are Christians, and so we are to forgive just as we have been forgiven. Amen.

St. Mark the Favorite

My favorite gospel account is that of Mark, whose feast day we celebrate today. (It’s usually April 25, but Easter Week got in the way, so our buddy had to wait for his party.) There are lots of reasons I like Mark. We don’t know much about him—might be John Mark from Paul’s letters or might be someone else entirely. He adds a few odd details in his gospel account that others haven’t included—like the naked man fleeing from the Garden of Gethsemane after Jesus’ arrest. But the real reason I treasure Mark’s gospel account is that he gives us the absolute core of the good news—the earliest and simplest account—uncorrupted by later doctrinal additions.
I’m not suggesting that the bits of the story that get added in some of the other accounts (virgin birth, ancestry, post-resurrection encounters) aren’t true. But Mark didn’t need them to tell his story, and that’s what I like about him. He’s the Joe Friday of the gospellers. In some ways that makes him the easiest to read in the 21st century. If the other accounts are true, perhaps we can say that Mark’s account is truer.
In the gospel lesson appointed for his feast day, Mark begins his account of the good news of Jesus Christ. And that’s pretty much how he starts: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” What understated beauty! Mark goes on to connect the life and ministry of Jesus with the prophets (Isaiah), to highlight the role of John the Baptist as the forerunner (though without mentioning his cousinship with Jesus), and to demonstrate Jesus’ amazing victory over temptation (though without personifying Satan).

There are, of course, reasons to fall in love with Luke’s compassionate Jesus or to revel in John’s transcendent Jesus. But for me, Mark does it in a way that draws me in most fully. We need all four accounts of the gospel—the one Gospel is the four accounts—but it’s ok to have a favorite. You can probably tell a lot about me from my favorite—some good, some not so good. I might tend to eschew the phenomenal in favor of the rational, but Mark isn’t all stick-in-the-mud. The good news of Jesus Christ as conveyed by Mark is still powerful and miraculous, but it also lets the story speak for itself. For me, given the death and resurrection of Christ, all else is possible—no matter how outlandish—but, at the same time, given the miracle of Easter, what else do you need?