Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Hard Hearts

What does it mean to have one’s heart hardened? Sure, I know on the surface what it means—to be unable to perceive or understand the big picture. In the bible, that means that someone isn’t able to comprehend what God’s plan or purpose is in a particular situation. But I want to know what it really means. How does one have his heart hardened? Does one harden his own heart? Does God harden one’s heart? Are the hearts of some people hard to begin with because they are spiritually stupid (regardless of intelligence)?

When I think of hardened hearts, I think first of Pharaoh. Plague after plague, appeal after appeal, but Moses couldn’t convince Pharaoh to let God’s people go. And, if I remember correctly, the biblical text recalls that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart each time, causing him to tighten his grip on the people of Israel. That’s never made sense to me.

In today’s gospel lesson (Mark 6:47-56), Jesus walks out on the water as his disciples were having a hard time crossing the lake on their boat. When they see him, they are frightened, so he climbs into their boat and the wind stops. Mark records for us their reaction, writing, “And they were utterly astonished, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” That suggests that they should have understood who Jesus was after yesterday’s lesson, in which Jesus fed over 5000 people with only a few loaves and fish. They shouldn’t have been all that surprised that Jesus walked out on the water—on top of the water—to see them. But, alas, their hearts were hardened.

There are lots of times when the disciples are portrayed in a way that suggests to us that they are pretty slow on the uptake, evoking within us some disappointment in their ability to perceive what’s really going on, but this isn’t one of them for me. I don’t look down at the disciples here. I pity them. No matter what I had seen the day before, if someone comes out to me in the middle of a stormy lake, physically striding across the waves, I’m going to be astonished. Wouldn’t you? Isn’t their reaction reasonable? What does it really mean, therefore, to have a hardened heart?

There’s another passage of scripture in which the heart of stone within God’s people is said to be removed and replaced with a heart of flesh—the decalcification of their hearts. Maybe hardheartedness has less to do with one’s inability to perceive the truth within a particular situation and more to do with a general state of being. Perhaps what it means to be human in this part of our relationship with God—partially but not fully redeemed—is that our hearts are hard. Even though we get glimpses of the big picture, we can’t put all the pieces together. That might be our fault, but it’s part of who we are and where we are in our journey with God.

One can’t simply decide to shake off one’s hardness of heart. The stories of Pharaoh and the disciples remind us that this level of imperceptibility isn’t a choice. One doesn’t harden one’s own heart—it is just hard. Although one day we will be able to appreciate the big picture and perceive with the softened hearts that God gives us his purposes in this life and in the next, we often can’t figure those things out right now.

My heart is hard. I’m not proud of it. I wish it weren’t so, but it’s part of who I am. How many things do I wish I understood? How often do I long to perceive what God is doing in my life and in the world around me? My response, therefore, is not to grow increasingly frustrated but to trust that which I can’t understand. God’s work in the world continues regardless of my hardheartedness—whether I can comprehend it or not.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Time Apart to Reconnect

Just last night, my wife mentioned that she is thankful that the leader on this mission trip knows that the group needs a balance of work and play—that after a long day of work we all benefit from some time to swim, to relax, to socialize. I don’t think either of them had read the Daily Office for today ahead of time, but that seems to be what Jesus has in mind also.

In today’s gospel lesson (Mark 6:30-46), Jesus’ disciples return after being sent out to do some hard missionary work. When they return, Jesus says to them, “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while.” The gospel writer lets us know that things had gotten so busy that the crowds of people coming and going had not even left the disciples with enough time to eat. Jesus wanted to give them a break. So he took them aside for a little R&R.

Unfortunately, the crowd beat Jesus and his disciples across the lake and was waiting for them when they landed ashore. One thing led to another, the work got out of hand, Jesus got carried away entertaining the people, and anytime that was supposed to be for refreshment became a double-shift. Sometimes that happens.

In this case, of course, the result is one of the most well-known miracles from Jesus’ ministry—the feeding of the 5,000+. Instead of being renewed, Jesus and his disciples enable the multitude to be renewed. Their attention to their own needs was transformed into an opportunity to take care of the needs of others in precisely the same way. Although I’m not suggesting that R&R should be set aside as an opportunity for more work, I do think the framework for this miracle is intentionally set by Mark as a scene in which Jesus and his disciples expected to find refreshment.

Initially, Jesus sought to take the disciples “to a lonely place,” where they could relax, and later in the story the disciples pick up on that same terminology, identifying the spot as “a lonely place” where buying an evening meal would be difficult. I think the disciples themselves had accepted that their intention of rest had been transformed into an opportunity for service. Instead of being fed, they fed others. And so it is from time to time with us.

Unless we take steps to be renewed, we cannot help others be renewed. Many in the helping professions hear that—therapists should be in therapy, physicians need to model good health, etc.. But, since each of us is called to a helping vocation as Christians, perhaps we need to take that adage more seriously. I can’t minister to others unless I’m being ministered to. And, when I take time to be filled by God’s presence, I can more readily fill others. As this gospel lesson shows us, it’s not just a wise saying. It actually happens in tangible ways. We are making space to minister to others when we take time to rejuvenate. Naming that time as Godly time is important.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


I’m on a mission trip—the best kind of mission trip. Instead of staying in makeshift housing with rugged or no amenities at all, I’m staying in a resort. Literally. It’s not the kind of resort that would attract the richest of the rich back in the U.S., but here in Honduras it brings in some of the wealthiest nationals. The houses on the compound are well furnished—air-conditioned bedrooms, televisions (in case you like television in Spanish), and comfortable furniture. There’s even a pool with a swim-up bar and a beach-front restaurant that serves tropical drinks for those who stare out over the bay. Really, it’s luxurious—especially by missionary standards.

But the reason this is the best kind of mission trip isn’t because I like all these plush things. It’s because I’m not pretending to live the kind of life that most people in a developing country endure every day. It’s easy to go on a mission trip and experience for one week the kind of challenges that most people on earth face—limited food and clean drinking water, inadequate housing, and no luxurious amenities at all. But that’s just a week. And then what? It’s too easy for me to convince myself that I’ve done something to improve the world just because I’ve pretended to live in poverty for a week. And, even though that week might get my attention, pretty quickly my attention to that poverty and those who inhabit it fades.

The real work of being on a mission trip isn’t what happens in the course of a week. It isn’t a merit badge for charity that you get after enduring hardship for a short time. The work to which modern missionaries are called is the work of genuine relationship. We’re here to love these people and to let them love us back. We’re here to check in on our friends and share some of the work they are doing in this place. We’re here to celebrate and laugh and share pictures of our families with each other. We’re here to tell stories from the twelve months since our last visit and to recall legendary stories from our previous visits. In other words, we’re here to visit with our Christian family, and it’s really more of a vacation than a “mission trip.”

I don’t mean that the work done on a mission trip isn’t supposed to be hard work. There is physical exhaustion. There is sweat and occasionally blood. We sleep soundly and rise a little sore. And there are plenty of good missionary adventures that involve rough accommodation. You don’t have to live in luxury to do God’s work—that’s for sure. But you can’t confuse the conditions you inhabit with the work you’re called to do. When I get back to the States, the stories I share should be of people I’ve met—new friends whom I love and hope to see again and for whom I will remain in prayer all year long. I shouldn’t get lost in self-indulgent tales of hot, sweaty, mosquito-filled nights that I endured for the sake of the gospel.

In today’s gospel reading (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52), Jesus says, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind.” For me to believe that the kingdom of heaven is filled with lots of people who aren’t just like me I need to know those people and love those people. Coming alongside someone’s poverty and then leaving it behind won’t do it. I can’t appreciate the diversity of the kingdom if I only engage it one week out of the year. That’s why I’m here. And that’s the reason I’m thankful for an air-conditioned bedroom (well, one of the reasons, anyway). I won’t get distracted by the hardships I’m facing so that I can devote myself instead to the hard work of getting to know how big the kingdom really is.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Welcoming Aunt Flo(w)

This just in from the world of “So Obvious It’s Funny…”

This morning I saw a news piece from that the California Milk Board has scrapped a recent marketing pitch that focused on drinking milk and PMS. Yes, that PMS. Apparently, the science is sound, but (and I don’t know who in the marketing department totally failed on this one) an ad campaign that focuses on getting unhappy husbands to encourage their PMS-battling wives to consume more milk in an effort to alleviate unpleasant symptoms didn’t go over so well. Really? Duh.

Even before I saw that, I was already thinking about our culture’s (particularly male culture) discomfort with menstruation. Why? Well, today’s gospel lesson (Mark 5:21-43) is a direct challenge to that cultural baggage. I wasn’t going to comment on in here, but, given the NPR story, it seemed appropriate.

Jesus is walking through a crowd on his way to heal the daughter of an important official. As he pushes through the people, he stops. “Which one of these people touched me,” he asks his disciples. “Master,” they replied, “that’s ridiculous. The crowd is all around us. How could we know which one touched you?” But Jesus is insistent. He demands that the anonymous be brought to light.

This woman, defined by her unstoppable menstrual flow, was otherwise unknown to society. She lived apart. She wasn’t invited to social gatherings. Whoever she was—whoever she had been before her illness—was lost. Her identity was sacrificed to her unspeakable disease. But she had faith, and so she touched Jesus. The physical healing was automatic. It required no response from Jesus. But Jesus was interested in more than just a physical healing. Jesus wanted to give this woman back her identity as one of God’s beloved children, so he called her out, refusing to press on to his urgent destination until she had been singled out.

There’s an old episode of King of the Hill, in which Hank, who is watching his neighbor’s daughter, is forced to go down the “feminine hygiene” aisle in the Mega Lo Mart to look for some maxi pads when Connie gets her first period. The whole episode is summed up in Hank’s aversion to “Aisle 8A,” which is cleverly the title of the episode. Seeking to console himself about this misadventure, he mumbles in discomfort, “Aisle 8A…we sure are a long way from automotive.” Later, when he explains to Peggy, his wife, that he had “to learn about megalabsorbancy,” she replies, “You went down Aisle 8A? We’ve been married for twenty years, and I can’t get you past Aisle 5.” If you haven’t seen it, it really is worth a watch.

Stop for a moment and consider this: if we live in a culture in which men are uncomfortable with menstruation, what was it like in Jesus’ day—in a time in which women on their periods were forced to live apart from the rest of society to avoid accidental physical contact with others? Men were so afraid of women’s periods that they labeled them (the women) “unclean.” Imagine, then, what it was like to be the woman in the gospel lesson—who had been bleeding for twelve years. Who would even listen to her? Did anyone even remember that she had a name?

We have inherited a pretty silly cultural discomfort for the biological cycles of women. And we have inherited a lot of other ridiculous cultural aversions that we struggle with. Issues of gender, issues of race. Mental retardation. Physical disability. Poverty. Grief. Sexuality. There are lots of things we are uncomfortable with. I don’t think Jesus is telling us that our discomfort is wrong. But I do think he’s reminding us that just because we don’t understand something or don’t find it very pleasant doesn’t mean that it’s not completely “of God.” Without even realizing it, we marginalize those who make us squirm a little bit. And when we segregate them from the rest of society, we are saying to them, “You are defined by your difference.” And Jesus is calling them out into the middle of the crowd and saying to them, “You are defined by your identity as a beloved child of God.” Why can’t I be more like that?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Golden Cows

The good news of Jesus Christ, although expressed through a particular moment in human history, must always be translated into universal, culturally relevant terms. But that means more than simply telling the story in a way that people from other times and places can understand. It means that our faith must be willing to let go of those things which might feel sacrosanct but are actually impeding the spread of the gospel.

In today’s New Testament reading (Acts 15:1-11), we come to a decisive moment in the history of Christianity. Will the Gentiles need to be circumcised in order to be saved, or does the message of salvation transcend that fundamental expression of “chosenness” from which Judaism cannot be separated? Now, looking back, we know how the story ends. The Church accepted that someone need not be Jewish in order to be Christian. Individuals don’t need to observe the Jewish customs and laws regarding religious observance and dietary choice in order to be a part of the Jesus movement. Looking back, that seems obvious. But I don’t think we can overstate the significance of this dilemma or the decision that came out of it.

Circumcision is only the symbol of a deeper, costlier debate. How “new” is the faith that Jesus represented? In what ways is it a departure from the faith of his ancestors? To what extent does Christianity base its understanding of the divine-human relationship on a Jewish understanding? To put it in perspective, it’s hard for me to imagine Christianity without the cross. I might even suggest that it would be meaningless without it. But that’s the kind of transformation this Spirit-led, Apostle-made decision represented. Circumcision (and everything that went with it) wasn’t just a “minor feast” or a chunk of adiaphora. This was the core of Jesus’ own faith and identity. It’s like having Christianity without Christmas or Easter. Will the integrity of the Jesus movement crumble if this is given up?

From our perspective, of course, the answer is no. And, even though the “what if” question is largely spurious, I’ll still suggest that the faith we know now would be barely conceivable had that ancient decision gone the other way. We could still have our faith as followers of Jesus, but it would feel a lot different. What, then, must we be willing to give up—to sacrifice—as the gospel and God’s kingdom spread from one land into another and from one century into the next?

Peter reluctantly released his grip on the traditions of the faith as he knew it. Empowered by the Spirit, he was able to guide the Jewishness of Jesus’ faith into a Gentile-based expression. Where is God calling us to undergo similar growth? Some of the hallmarks of our faith aren’t as culturally relevant as they once were—atonement, sacrifice, marriage, Sunday, bread and wine, flimsy wafers and cheap port, exclusivity, patrimony, etc. Some of the changes our faith will undergo in the next century will lead us to places we might barely recognize today. But that’s not a process that we should fear. As God shepherds the growth of his gospel, the Truth remains a fixed reality even if expressions of that Truth look and feel completely different.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Sunday Sermon - 5 Pentecost, Proper 11A (07/17/11)

July 17, 2011 – 5 Pentecost, Proper 11A
Isaiah 44:6-8; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

A quick drive past our house on the way home from church will reveal that I’m not much of a gardener. It may surprise you, therefore, to learn that I love working outside in the yard. I’m just not very good at it. Even though our family hasn’t been a family for very long, there are already plenty of stories about things I’ve messed up around the house. And one of my least favorite of them is the legend of the herb garden that never was.

My father isn’t much of a gardener either, so I probably should have realized that his constant encouragement that I should start an herb garden was more of a trap built on his wishful thinking than a real possibility. Nevertheless, I decided than an herb garden would be the perfect outdoor project. So I did the research. I picked out the right spot. I separated the plot into four squares, each of which was designated for herbs that were likely to grow there. I prepared the soil, planted, watered, and waited.

At first, everything seemed to being going very well. Having had only minimal success with caladiums, hydrangea, and a few common annuals, I rejoiced that I had brought up from the ground what were clearly tiny sprouts of herbs. Days passed, then weeks. And then I noticed something. The grass, which I had painstakingly removed from this part of the garden, had begun to sprout amidst all my herbs, and I didn’t really know what to do. When my father came and saw the intruding plants, he asked, “What are you going to do with those?” “Well,” I said, “Jesus said to let the weeds grow up with the wheat lest the roots of both be pulled out, so I’m going to let it go.”

Apparently, I’m more of a preacher than a gardener. As most of you know, that’s not good horticultural advice. By the end of the season, my herbs were barely recognizable—completely choked out by the weeds. Looking at the mess, I realized that trying to harvest both and separate the two, as Jesus instructed, would obviously have been a futile effort. I managed to salvage a few leaves of basil and a little thyme, but the whole endeavor was essentially a total loss. Well, almost. I did learn one thing: Jesus’ parables are sometimes designed to tell you exactly what you wouldn’t expect them to say.

The parable of the wheat and the weeds: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.” The point of this parable is that letting the wheat and the weeds grow together is a bad idea. As a farmer or a gardener, that’s not the way you’re supposed to do it. And, everyone who heard Jesus’ story who had even the slightest bit of agricultural knowledge would have known that.

The parable, as Jesus tells it, depends upon our understanding that it doesn’t make sense. It grabs our attention because that’s not the way we expect things to work. In other words, Jesus is trying to show us that kingdom of God isn’t like the world we live in. In God’s kingdom, the wheat and the weeds are allowed to grow up together no matter how strange that might seem.

How many aspects of our lives do we approach with the same “early-weeding-out” philosophy that Jesus challenges in his parable? You don’t have to be an accomplished gardener to understand how deeply rooted that mindset is in our society.

Recently, as I’ve heard more and more stories from people who are dealing with cancer, I have begun to appreciate how important a fastidious approach to clear margins really is. When a surgeon removes a malignancy, the focus is on making sure that every single rogue cell has been taken out of the body as even one can grow back into another tumor. After the margins are tested and found to be clear, oncologists may recommend radiation or chemotherapy as an additional attempt to be certain that all traces of a cancer have been weeded out.

In the mid-90s, our nation seemed particularly interested in making sure that habitual offenders remained behind bars, separated from those they threatened. Between 1993 and 1996, twenty-three different states adopted so-called “three strikes” laws, which handed out long mandatory prison sentences for third felonies if the previous two had been deemed violent. Although these laws have had their critics, it seemed wiser to separate the truly persistent criminals from the rest of society before any more harm could be done.

In June 1992, in response to the public disclosure of long-standing patterns of clergy abuse, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a “zero tolerance policy” for responding to allegations of sexual abuse. The policy required that any allegation be taken seriously, that it be reported to the civil authorities, and that the accused priests be permanently removed from ministry. It’s hard to imagine a part of our life in which we would more strenuously seek to remove any and all traces of potential harm than our efforts to make sure predatory pedophiles are kept apart from our children.

So how is it that Jesus is portraying God’s kingdom as the one place in which the wheat and the weeds are allowed to grow up together?

You might remember the 1956 film The Bad Seed, which stars Patty McCormack as Rhoda Penmark, an eight-year-old with a penchant for murdering those who stand in her way. The storyline is cast in terms of the famous “nature vs. nurture” debate, and the audience watches as Rhoda’s mother struggles to accept that her daughter may actually be a bad seed—a child who was evil from her birth. What I remember most about the film is its unusual conclusion. Rhoda’s mother, unwilling to face the truth about her daughter or herself, attempts a murder-suicide, which is doubly unsuccessful. As her mother lies in a hospital bed recovering, Rhoda walks along a wharf, searching for something that one of her previous victims had dropped. As she spots it, lighting strikes and knocks her into the water.

But the film isn’t over yet. The narrator asks the audience to wait a moment. Then, during the credits, after all the cast members have introduced themselves, Rhoda’s mother, who appears last, steps forward and takes her daughter over her knee and begins to spank her. Finally, right before the screen goes black, the narrator says, “You have just seen a motion picture whose theme dares to be startlingly different. May we ask that you do not divulge the unusual climax of the story? Thank you.”

Actually, I’m not sure just how “startlingly different” the film really is. In fact, I think the ending is precisely what the audience wants to see—a child who, even though she might have escaped the punishment of her mother, can’t escape a divinely appointed lightning bolt. And, just in case that wasn’t enough to satisfy our need for justice, the director gives us another chance to see the deviant child spanked by her mother.

As much as The Bad Seed may reflect our desire to punish the wicked in order to preserve the integrity of the good, that’s not Christianity. God doesn’t separate the good from the bad before anyone is allowed into his kingdom. In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, Jesus defines the kingdom of God as the place in which both are allowed to grow up together. But that doesn’t make sense, and it’s not supposed to.

We think that criminals should be punished and that pedophiles should be segregated and that bad seeds should be plucked out of society as soon as possible. But, as Jesus shows us, that’s not how the kingdom works. If it were, who would ever be welcomed in? The truth is that each of us is a bad seed. And the truth about the kingdom is that it’s the place where bad seeds like you and me are enabled by God to grow into good plants that bear fruit.

If you’ve been approaching your relationship with God as if you need to be good enough in order for God to love you, then you’re trying to fit the logic of this world into the illogical generosity of God’s kingdom. God doesn’t work that way. No matter who we are, we are invited into the kingdom where, with God’s help, we can grow. Our response, therefore, isn’t to worry about whether we’re in or not. We’re already there—all of us are. Our only concern is about what sort of fruit we will bear now that we are a part of God’s kingdom. Amen.


I kind of wish I were preaching this Sunday. But maybe I can say that only because I’m not. The gospel reading from Matthew (found here) is a collection of mostly one-line parables, through which Jesus attempts to portray the kingdom of heaven. It’s a scattergun approach—a little like a preacher’s sermon. “How many different ways can try to get this across? Hopefully one of these images will stick.” Maybe it will be a challenge for preachers to narrow it down to one approach, but I love the fact that the lesson as a whole suggests that the kingdom needs to be “explained” in lots of different ways.

Today’s gospel lesson from the Daily Office is from Mark (4:21-34), and it contains (arguably) four different descriptions of the kingdom—perhaps a preview or a practice-run for Sunday. The lamp on a stand. The measure you give will be the measure you get. The unexplained seed. The mustard seed. The last of these four is the most familiar to me. The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed—the smallest seed becomes the biggest garden plant. Maybe Jesus intended that little description to stand on its own, but I think it’s worth remembering that it’s grounded amidst several others.

My favorite, I think, is the unexplained seed. “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter his seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how.” That’s the kingdom as I know it today. It’s happening all around me, and I’m a part of it, but I don’t know how it all works. It’s up to me, but it’s not up to me. Only God makes it grow. But I still play a part in the story even if I don’t really understand how it all works.

But that’s only one way of looking at the kingdom. There is no one image to explain it, and maybe that’s why the unexplained seed is my favorite within this passage. It takes a lot of different looks to express the magnitude of something we still can’t comprehend. It is something tiny becoming huge. It is something bright to be shared with everyone. It is something that multiplies—more to those who have and none to those who have naught. The kingdom is something that invites us to consider and reconsider it to no end.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Saturday Plans

What did you do last Saturday? I got up early and spent some time reading. When they woke up, I spent some time with my family before leaving for the church. Most Saturdays, one of us (the clergy) opens up the church for the flower guild, which might sound highly inconvenient but actually serves as a good excuse to spend a few hours at the church wrapping up the previous week’s work or getting ahead for the following week. After an hour or so at the church, I went for a short-ish run (hot by then), returned to the church, wrapped up, and left for home. After a quick lunch and a shower, I went to the golf course for 18 holes (16 of agony, 2 of joy), and then I came home. Supper, baseball, and bedtime.

I don’t really think a lot about my Saturdays. They are usually fun. They usually involve a mixture of work and play—whether at the house, at the church, with family, or with friends. It’s just one of those days that happens. Some are better than others. Very few are genuinely unpleasant. Saturday is pretty much just Saturday. Why would it need to be anything more?

In today’s reading from the gospel (Mark 2:23-3:6), Jesus and his disciples take center stage on a Saturday. “One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’” And, a little later on, “Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.” As we all know from our childhood Sunday school classes, the sabbath was (and is) different for faithful Jews than it is for Gentile Christians. Jesus always seemed to be getting in trouble about how he observed (or didn’t observe) the sabbath. For me, Saturday is just Saturday, but, for Jesus and his contemporaries, every Saturday is a day of prescribed significance.

Usually in the bible we read about things you weren’t supposed to do on the sabbath: heal, walk, carry things, pick up your mat, pluck heads of grain, pull your donkey out of a pit, etc.. But that’s only because those are the things Jesus was doing and for which he got in trouble. Actually, sabbath observance has as much (maybe more) to do with what you are supposed to do than what you aren’t allowed to do. Honor the sabbath. Remember it. Remember that God made all of creation in six days and then rested on the seventh. Internalize through your restfulness a connection with your createdness. Reflect in your Saturday plans a little bit of what it means to be a child of God. Let your thankfulness totally consume your life for one day a week.

I think Jesus’ questions in today’s gospel lesson get to the heart of sabbath observance. “Have you never read what David did…?” And “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath…?” He’s asking not what one isn’t supposed to do but what one is supposed to do. Honestly, for me Saturday is usually just another day. It gets filled with whatever comes up. I don’t think that’s bad. I don’t think I’m supposed to restrict my movement in order to truly “rest” on the sabbath. Instead, I should be asking myself what am I really supposed to be doing in the midst of my Saturday plans? How can I honor my createdness through whatever I’m doing? How can I enjoy not just another day but enjoy the day on which God rested? The sabbath is a gift. It may not be a strict religious observance (especially if you hear the language I use on the golf course), but it is still a chance to enjoy our relationship with our heavenly father.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Best Friends

There’s not a whole lot in the bible about best friends. Family relationships seem to take center stage, while friendships play a smaller role. Maybe that’s why the unfolding story of David and Jonathan that has been in our Old Testament readings from the Daily Office lately has caught my attention.

In today’s lesson (1 Samuel 20:1-23), David and Jonathan make a pact. Saul, Jonathan’s father, has decided to try to kill David, but Jonathan doesn’t want to see that happen. Although close with his father, he doesn’t see the reason for killing David, so he says to his friend, “Whatever you say, I will do it for you.” That was treason—a betrayal of his own father that deserved death—but his heart belonged to his best friend.

Often, when a son betrays a father, it is to take advantage of him—to put oneself in a position to gain from the loss, defeat, or death of the father. But Jonathan doesn’t seem as concerned with saving himself as he does with saving his friend. Perhaps it’s just because I want to read this story altruistically, but I find honor in Jonathan’s willingness to turn his back on his family in order to save the life of his best friend.

After offering to help David and forming a pact with him, Jonathan asks for one thing in return: “If I am still alive, show me the loyal love of the Lord, that I may not die…let not the name of Jonathan be cut off from the house of David.” He’s not making a deal for half of the kingdom. He’s not asking for a position of power alongside David’s rule. He just wants David to remember him that his life—if it hasn’t already been taken by his father—might be preserved. I think his true motive is shown in the way Jonathan asks David for his pledge: “Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own soul.”

The love of two friends—we don’t read a lot about it…in the bible or elsewhere. But we often experience that love. The love of parent for child and for siblings and for spouses—all of that love is what we expect. Our culture assumes that families will be united by love. When we share with a friend the kind of undying love that is willing to sacrifice all on behalf of the other, that sort of love is extraordinary. It stands out…even if we often take it for granted.

I’m the sort of person who says “I love you” almost every time I hang up the phone with a relative, but there aren’t a lot of friends (if any) with whom I share that same sentiment out loud. That’s not because I don’t love my friends as selflessly as I love my family. I do. But why don’t I celebrate it more often? When we receive the surprisingly giving love of a friend—someone united to us not by blood but only by friendship—it has the ability to stop us in our tracks and bring us to our knees.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Which is Easier?

When we know a bible story well enough to anticipate the outcome, it’s hard to be surprised by a question we all know the answer to, but, in today’s reading from Mark (2:1-12), Jesus asks a question I’m not sure we really know how to answer: “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk?’” Well, which is easier?

As I’ve said to many people, I’m in the forgiveness business. Although I don’t ever take it lightly, I don’t always approach my ability to pronounce absolution of sin with as much gravitas as I should. To be honest, it really isn’t that hard at all. As you might imagine, I pretty much just get up in front of the congregation and read the words from the prayer book, often accompanying them with a well-rehearsed, cruciform wave of the hand. Even though I’ve been ordained for more than five years now, I’m still not 100% sure how absolution happens. Sure, I’ve been given the authority to pronounce absolution of sins, but I don’t really understand what role I (as me rather than as a priest of the church standing in the person of Christ) play in that.

Ultimately, I think forgiveness has as much to do with our ability to receive its assurance as it does with God’s desire to forgive. Although we often forget it, we believe in a God who is always forgiving. His nature is to love. And, because God is impassible (see other blog posts on that subject), he isn’t affected by our sin. He just forgives. Always. Without hesitation. In that regard, we are forgiven. That’s where our relationship with God starts. The only variable in the equation is whether we can believe that fact.

So which is easier—to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up and walk.” Well, saying either is pretty easy to do, but I have no intention of walking up to people with any sort of physical ailment or disability and saying, “You’re healed. Get up.” Just saying it doesn’t make it happen. But, then again, I’m not in the physical healing business. There may be other priests who are, and I’m eager to pray along with someone for physical healing, but I’m much better at assuring people of God’s love than I am at performing a physical healing. Doctors, surgeons, nurses, physical therapists, and the like are able to do what most of us would identify as miraculous—explicable by modern medicine, perhaps, but jaw-droppingly amazing all the same. For them, I’m guessing it’s easier to say to a paralytic, “Get up and walk,” than it is to say, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Perhaps the real question is which is easier to hear? When I meet with someone whose entire life is burdened by guilt and I say to that person—whether in a sacramental way or a conversational way—“God forgives you,” it doesn’t often make a big difference. Perhaps, after hearing the message of grace and forgiveness over and over someone might yield enough of their heart to God that divine forgiveness might become a reality. But, even before someone internalizes absolution, forgiveness is already given. God didn’t send his son to die for the righteous. God’s forgiveness isn’t for people who don’t need it. The reality, however, is that despite God’s prevenient absolution I may be trapped in my sins until that grace becomes real. Is damnation anything other than living a life uncertain of God’s love?

I am no more able to forgive sins than I am able to restore perambulation to a paralytic. As the crowd in the gospel lesson rightly murmurs, “Who is able to forgive sins but God alone?” But God has given the church and its ministers the authority to assure God’s people that they are forgiven. In my experience, there’s no one magic thing that I can do to make that real in a person’s life. Instead, it breaks into our consciousness and into our souls in different ways—often in small, almost-imperceptible ways.

How, then, can I hear and believe that I am forgiven? Sometimes it may very well be easier for a paralytic to hear, “Get up and walk,” than it is for a person burdened by a life of sin to hear, “You are forgiven.” For me it starts in this gospel lesson with a question: which is easier? It starts with acknowledging that the answer isn’t as easy as I might initially think. I shouldn’t presume that forgiveness is always received without effort. Honestly, sometimes it’s hard to believe that God loves even me. Instead, I should be honest about those things that are making it hard for me to trust God’s forgiveness and see whether God might work through them to make his love real to me.

Monday, July 11, 2011


Some of the bible’s most compelling stories have a dark side. Like a television drama, the story of David and Saul takes a decidedly fatalist twist in this morning’s Old Testament lesson (1 Samuel 18:5-16,27b-30). As they return from battle, the crowds come out to celebrate the successes of their king and his captain. But, as the story shows, they attribute greater success to David, stoking the flames of jealousy in Saul: “Saul has slain thousands, and David has slain ten thousands.” That made the king very angry—and rightly so.

Scripture contains stories that capture the basest of human experiences, and this story is a great example of that. It contains success, rivalry, jealousy, anger, and violence, and it reminds me that the wide range of emotion and response to emotion has been a part of that experience forever. The Lord’s favor was with David. It had been withdrawn from Saul. Everything David did was blessed—destined for prosperity. Saul, although successful by almost any measure, could not compete with David. Like so many human relationships (sibling-sibling, parent-child, boss-subordinate, friend-friend), a pattern of comparative success leads to jealousy and on to violence.

Near the end of the reading, the author reveals the ultimate end of allowing such comparative jealousy to grow: “But when Saul saw and knew that the Lord was with David, and that all Israel loved him, Saul was still more afraid of David.” When one’s rivalry reaches an uncontrollable level, fear results. If I become consumed by my desire to compare myself with another—so much so that I lose the ability to distinguish between myself and my successes—then I lose my awareness that I’m not actually defined by my accomplishments. Those were never mine in the first place. They were always a gift of God. And, when I lose sight of that, I lose my faith that God will take care of me.
If God gives and takes away, then why do we measure self-worth by comparing ourselves with others? Why do I get lost in the vicious cycle of rivalry, jealousy, and fear? Because that’s what it means to be human. The message of David and Saul is complicated. On the one hand, it’s a portrayal of human nature at its worst. But it also gives insight into God’s role behind the scenes. Only in God do we find our true worth. Our job is to remember that—even when (especially when) jealousy occupies our every thought.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Told to Listen

In this morning’s New Testament reading (Acts 10:17-33), we read about two individuals who receive strong commands from God. Peter, who had just finished seeing the vision of the sheet full of unclean animals being let down from heaven, hears God’s voice tell him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation.” Likewise, Cornelius recalls that he had seen a vision, in which he was told, “Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter.” In the beautiful way in which the story ties itself together, both men received complimentary instructions from God, bringing the unlikely companions together under one roof.

What strikes me about their divine instructions is that both of them are told to listen. God tells Peter to stop what he’s doing and go with the three men without hesitation—wherever they might lead you. Cornelius is told to bring Peter into his house in order “to hear all that [he has] been commanded by the Lord.” These are such strong imperatives, but both are told to listen. Usually, when I think about God commanding me to do something, I expect him to give me something to do. And, although listening is certainly important and can be quite active, it’s not exactly the bold work that I anticipate will accompany a divine instruction.

God appears to Peter in a vision and says, “Listen.” God appears to Cornelius in a vision and says, “Listen.” The result is a double-conversion. Cornelius is won over to the Christian faith because he takes the time to listen to what Peter has to tell him. Peter is won (at least in part) to the acceptance of Gentiles because he takes the time to listen to what the three visitors (and Cornelius) tell him. Both men are changed by the experience in ways that could not have been accomplished had they not heard so clearly from God the command to listen.

I want God to give me exciting things to do—problems to solve, ministries to initiate, and sermons to preach. I want to be active. I want to be busy. Basically, I want God to give me words to say so that others might listen to me. But that’s only a small part of serving God. A much greater part is the command to listen. More often, I’m praying for the right things to say and not for the right spirit to listen. Yes, Peter had important words to share, but he couldn’t have shared the gospel story had he not first listened to three men he otherwise never would have paid any attention to.

Gentiles and Jews didn’t mix. Nothing but listening could have bridged that gap. In my own life, whether I’m aware of it or not, there are gaps that can only be bridged by listening. Grief, anger, resentment, broken-heartedness, despair—none of those can be addressed except by listening. And that list is what I am supposed to be dealing with most often. And I think that’s probably true for most of us. How might God be commanding us to listen—to boldly, courageously, and patiently listen?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Next Steps

God said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, seeing I have rejected him from being king over Israel?” At the conclusion of the day’s Old Testament lesson (1 Samuel 16:1-13), Samuel has anointed David, son of Jesse, to be the next king of Israel. And, as history tells us, David was the great king—the one under whom Israel prospered, the king who sought after the Lord’s heart. But getting to that place—letting go of Saul and accepting David—was a lot easier for God than for Samuel.

Usually, when God asks me to let go of something, it’s not as dramatic or painful as Samuel turning his back on Saul, his friend and king, in order to search out a stranger to take his place. Instead, God is usually calling me to accept that he knows where my life is headed even if I can’t see its destination. The steps God is asking me to take are often less painful and seem less consequential than those he asked Samuel to take, but they’re no less significant as steps of faith.

What is God calling us to let go of? The grief we feel at the loss of a dream is supposed to sting, but it isn’t supposed to represent despair. Even if my hopes are shut, God is asking me to trust that he will bring me in a new direction. What is God calling us to leave behind? The pain of a failure is supposed to humble, but it isn’t supposed to represent uselessness. If I try something and fail, the only true loss would be to assume that God has failed me in that moment. Instead, of course, there’s a new plan for me whether I can see it or not.
God is the one who sees how the story will play out. That’s how he has revealed himself to us. That’s how we have defined the one in whom we put our trust. If God were not in control, it would be impossible for us to let go and leave behind our disappointments. They would represent the end of our life’s story. But our God is the one who knows where the path leads. Our faith in him depends upon the fact that he knows and we don’t. When Samuel went into Jesse’s house, he didn’t know what Israel’s future would be. But he didn’t have to. God knew, and Samuel decided that that was enough.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Sunday Sermon - 3 Pentecost, Proper 9A (07/03/11)

July 3, 2011 – 3 Pentecost, Proper 9A
Zechariah 9:9-12; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
© 2011 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be downloaded here.

Grace might be free, but it doesn’t come cheap.

This week’s “The Ethicist” column in the New York Times Magazine features a letter from the C.F.O. of a financial-services company. She has written to the columnist because she still feels unsettled about a former bookkeeper in her firm who used a company credit card to rack up $47,000 in personal expenses. Although the bookkeeper was fired and paid the money back, the C.F.O. wants vengeance. Since no criminal charges were filed, the shameful deceit has escaped public notice, and the C.F.O. is asking whether it would be ethical to call the bookkeeper’s husband in order to humiliate her in front of her family. The columnist, of course, says no, but she concludes her piece with a gut-checking question: “How could her husband not yet know?”

In fact, there are lots of things that we keep hidden from our spouses. In a way, that’s funny because our husband or our wife is the one person on earth who has promised to have and to hold us…to love and to cherish us “for better [or] for worse.” Yet so often the person we love the most is the last person whom we want to see just how wretched a human being we really are.

There are two kinds of married people who come into my office in a moment of crisis—those whose spouses have already found out and those who are terrified that their spouses will learn the truth. The former are often surprised to have discovered that their husband or wife still loves them despite their darkest secret. But until that happens—until the solidity of my marital vow is truly put to the test—it’s hard to trust that someone could still love me despite what I have done—despite who I really am.

Whether it’s good or bad, I don’t know—but only a few of us ever have to bring to light the darkest corners of our soul. I’m not talking about those embarrassing secrets that only a few people know. I mean those most shameful truths that we hide even from ourselves—the kind that only a long relationship with a therapist might bring out. Even though they’re in there, most of us, I think, die without ever bringing them out.

In several ways, the marital relationship is analogous to our relationship with God. That’s the reason marriage is reckoned as a sacrament—because the selfless, forgiving love of husband and wife is an image of God’s love for the world. But, unlike a spouse, who may never learn the fullness of our depravity, God is the one “unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” Likewise, God’s forgiveness, unlike that of a human partner, is guaranteed—his promise is never broken. But, even though God knows the fullness of our sin and even though God’s forgiveness is assured, we still hide things from our heavenly father—things we won’t even ask forgiveness for. Although it seems silly to think about it, we keep things from God. And I think that’s because, until the solidity of his loving promise is truly put to the test, it’s hard to trust that even God could love me despite who I really am.

Grace might be free, but it doesn’t come cheap.

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul puts on paper this internal struggle which we have with our darkest selves. “I do not understand my own actions,” he writes. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Sin, if it were a choice, would be easy. With enough practice and effort, I might tame those things that challenge me. But Paul’s insight is to show us that the true power of sin is its ability to assume control of our ability to choose. As he writes, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Deep down, the sins we struggle with the most are the ones that reflect a flaw not in our judgment but in our character. I expect my wife to forgive me when I make a mistake. But way down in the darkest part of me is a compulsion that, no matter how much I might want to shake it, still presses me to do things that feel unforgivable. How can I be forgiven for who I am? A one-time transgression can be overlooked, but how do you accept and forgive someone who is hardwired for evil?

Our faith declares that there is no limit to God’s love. There is no flaw he will not forgive. There is no compulsion he cannot redeem. We might know that in our minds, but do we trust it in our hearts?

God’s grace is given to us as a free gift. We don’t need to do anything to receive it. But the costlessness of grace has masked its true costliness. I believe that, because God’s love is given so unreservedly, humanity’s response is to doubt its limitlessness. When God says, “I love you no matter what and it doesn’t cost you a thing,” I think our instinct is to try to hold back the fullness of our sin. That’s because nothing could be worse than God’s abandonment, so we try our best to hide the magnitude of our brokenness, doubting that God’s free gift could really be that free—that even our very worst could be forgiven.

In fact, the costlessness of grace is what makes it so costly. God’s free gift requires us to bear the cost of being loved so freely. In order for God’s love and forgiveness to be real in our lives, we must, therefore, bring even the darkest shadows of our souls to him and trust that he will love us anyway. Otherwise, when we hold something back from God, we deny the true power of his love.

I think that’s why so many people who are in recovery from an addiction understand grace better than the rest of us. They know the liberating power of a searching and fearless moral inventory. They know what happens when we admits to ourselves, to God, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Although explicitly non-religious, the Twelve Steps are an implicit restatement of the gospel.

Paul, it seems, understood how an addiction to sin really works. No matter how much we might desire to do what is right, sin is a compulsion beyond our control. It’s not a question of desire; it’s a brokenness of character. True forgiveness, therefore, has less to do with absolving a sinful act and more to do with redeeming a flawed nature. The true power of God’s grace is his willingness to love even our most unlovable aspects. But that means that the true cost of grace is our willingness to search fearlessly within ourselves, to be honest with God about the extent of our brokenness, and to trust that God will love us anyway.

Grace is free, but it isn’t easy, and it isn’t cheap. Many of us would prefer to accept God’s promise of forgiveness without ever confronting the depth of our sin. But to cheapen grace is to rob it of its power. We are, by nature, afraid of coming up against the limit of God’s love—afraid that we might be too sinful, too broken, or too wretched for God to forgive us. But the only limits to God’s love are the limits we impose upon it.

Decide today to allow God to forgive even the darkest corners of your soul. Fall helplessly into the waiting arms of your heavenly father. And trust that there is no limit to his love. Amen.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Independence Day - A Major Feast?

Two weeks ago, while I was participating in the Sawyerville Day Camp, I had a conversation about the relationship between religion and the state. Well, that might be overstating it a little bit. I think that’s what we were really talking about, but, to anyone else, it may have sounded like we were speaking in code.

In the cafeteria at Greensboro Elementary School, the American flag and the Alabama flag were positioned on incorrect sides of the stage. Perhaps because of my Cub Scouts days but more likely because of my personality, I noticed and swapped them. Someone asked about it, and I took it as an opportunity to launch into Evan’s interpretation of the proper positioning of our national flag. In that diatribe, I noted that secular spaces are easier to figure out than sacred spaces. In a school auditorium, there is little doubt as to which direction the flags are facing—out toward the audience. That means that, from the audience’s perspective, the American flag should be on the left—more precisely, the American flag should be on its own right. (Picture yourself as the flag and ask yourself, “Am I the flag furthest to my own right?” If so, it’s correct.) But in a sacred space, everything gets muddled.

Which way is the flag facing? Is it facing out toward the congregation? Or is it facing along with the congregation toward the altar? What if the altar is fixed against the wall and the flag is against the same wall—is the flag facing the wall upon which it is standing, or is it looking slightly outward to glimpse the front edge of the altar? Or if the altar is not fixed, does the flag face the center of the altar no matter where it is (if behind, looking out…if in front, looking in)? And, more importantly, what’s the role of the flag in worship anyway?

That was the real subject of the conversation being had. What place does our national symbol have in a space that should be dominated by religious symbols? To what extent is our nation’s flag a religious symbol? Some of those participating in the conversation were shocked to learn that at St. John’s we regularly process the American flag (and the Alabama flag) in behind the cross and torches. (And, if you’re curious, the American flag walks in on the right and then crosses to the congregation’s left, where it stays for the service.) “Of course we process the American flag,” I replied. “It’s part of who we are. We’re an American church, right?”

Tricky, isn’t it. Are we an “American” church? Well, actually, we’re not just an American church—we have dioceses in Honduras, Haiti, Europe, and elsewhere. But, regardless of where the Episcopal Church’s headquarters are (note the military term), one would expect a congregation to bear the flag of the nation in which the congregation is located. The Honduran Episcopalians pray for their own president…I hope. In fact, there is a beautiful, conflicting, unavoidable mixture of religion and state in our Episcopal expression of Christianity. And that’s signified by the fact that today, July 4, is a “Major Feast” in our church’s calendar.

By my counting, there are only 33 Major Feasts in our church year. (I’m not counting Ash Wednesday and the weekdays of Holy Week.) And Independence Day is one of them. It has its own readings for both Eucharistic celebration and Daily Office. And this morning’s Old Testament reading from the Daily Office is a great expression of the role of religion in state (and vice-versa). “The government of the earth is in the hands of the Lord,” the author of Ecclesiasticus writes. How many of us believe that? How many of us trust that?

Although I’m firmly in the “separation of church and state” camp, I acknowledge that they influence each other. We pray for the president and those in authority. We influence the electoral process by attempting to interpret God’s word and will in the specific political climate. State and church go hand-in-hand…even if they shouldn’t be speaking directly to one another. No matter how much we might prefer for religion and politics to be separate, God still has a hand in the government of our nation—not in the “we-need-a-strong-Christian-president” sense but in the “God-is-in-control-of-even-secular-affairs” sense. We don’t need a religious political leader in order for God to rule our nation. And I think that’s what Independence Day is really all about.