Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The King of Kings' Speech

I am not a hunter. That’s not because I have a special compassion for animals. I’m actually quite happy to take the life of a lesser creature and then eat it for supper. I’m not a hunter because my father wasn’t ever a hunter. And, as best I can gather, my father isn’t a hunter because his father wasn’t a hunter. I don’t know how far back that goes, but, given the hilarious stories my family has about the few times one of us actually did go hunting, it is apparent that we haven’t been a hunting people for quite a while.

So when my ten-or-so-year-old neighbor and best friend from childhood invited me to go with him and his father to their hunting camp, I was ecstatic. It did not matter to me that it was April and that there would be no hunting. Any chance to be near the place where regular hunting took place was a treat.  It was a chance to be manly. We cut grass. We checked on deer feeders and salt and mineral licks. We cut down brambles and hauled heavy things. I worked hard, but loved every minute of it.

Late in the afternoon, while my friend and I were walking back to the main campsite, we practiced our curse words. It was very clear to us in those days that grown-up men liked to cuss and that it wasn’t right for us to be heard cussing. We threw out words we barely understood as if we wanted to impress the pine trees. After making that last turn toward the site where his father would be, my friend advised me, “Let’s stop cussing now. My dad’s just over there. We need to practice using clean language so we don’t get into trouble.” I happily agreed.

Unfortunately, plans don’t always work out as one anticipates. Just as we came up to where his father was sitting, as I was walking in full stride, a grasshopper jumped up from the ground and landed in my hand as my arm swung past my body. In that fragment of a moment, I had two instincts: 1) to close my hand around whatever had jumped into it and 2) upon realizing that I then held a living thing in my hand to drop it and scream out, “Oh shit!” At first I didn’t know what was worse—the bug or the word that had jumped from my mouth out into the very public open where my friend’s father heard it. As he started laughing, I knew everything would be ok.

In today’s epistle lesson (James 3:1-12), James writes that the tongue is a fire—“an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body.” He compares the tongue to a bit by which a horse is turned by its rider. He compares the tongue to a rudder by which a great ship is steered by its captain. As goes the tongue so goes the whole person. And my encounter with a grasshopper in the woods still reminds me that the bad news is that the tongue is a hard thing to control.

Pedagogically, it’s true. There is something about the language we use and the nature of our speech that sets our whole selves on a particular course. Using polite language, manners, and pleasant words shapes a person into the sort of person his or her mother would want him or her to be. Allow cussing, critical speech, and rudeness to pervade one’s conversation and the whole thing begins to collapse. We are right, it seems, to strive to control the uncontrollable tongue.

And that’s where the real lesson is. We can’t control it. It’s a fire that burns without limit. Our tongues utter gossip in the beauty parlor, racism in the country club, and hatred in the parking lot. We aren’t proud of that, but we often don’t even notice it. Once it starts it just goes and goes. Taming the untamable is about recognizing that spiritual discipline isn’t designed to achieve a goal. Unlike Buddhists, we don’t meditate and pray and keep silence in order to achieve enlightenment. We do all of those things just to center ourselves a little closer to God.

We are called to practice godly speech. More importantly, we are called to try to practice godly speech. It’s an opportunity for growth. If we put effort into shaping our speech into edifying, encouraging words, then the rest of our lives will follow suit. Well, sort of. Grasshoppers (and other things) happen. It’s the practice that matters.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Path of Destruction

Have you ever felt like you were on a predetermined path towards disaster? Recent news coverage of Hurricane Irene as it approached the mid-Atlantic coast was designed in part to help convince residents of the need to prepare. There was a real inevitability about the storm, and, no matter how much people might prefer that it go somewhere else, it was coming. Similarly, there are moments in my life when I feel like disaster is right around the corner and there’s nothing I can do about it.

In today’s gospel lesson (Mark 14:66-72), we read the heart-breaking story of Peter’s denial of Jesus. As the tragic story reaches its momentary conclusion, we read, “And immediately the cock crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ And he broke down and wept.” As much as I might prefer to read that story as if Peter were suddenly surprised at the magnitude of his betrayal, that’s not how the story goes. He knew in advance how treacherous his actions would be. And I think that each time he denied Jesus he was conscious of the inevitability of his failure as if it were a massive internal struggle he was destined to lose.

How many times do we feel as if we are stuck on an unalterable path that leads to devastation? Additions are a little like that, and people who come to me ready for help with an addition often say that they can see the destructive path they are headed down and feel powerless to alter its course. It takes a power greater than themselves, they must acknowledge, in order to change the direction in which their life is headed. And that’s the truth behind the gospel lesson, too.

The story, of course, doesn’t end with Peter’s denial. Jesus dies and is raised, and, when he comes to Peter, he assures him of his forgiveness. The story never ends with defeat. It can’t. Just as our disasters are inevitable, so too is our redemption. But that truth—the inevitability of God’s forgiveness—is inextricably linked to the inevitability of our sinfulness. We are on an unalterable path toward death and destruction. But God has taken that path and overlaid onto it his own path of unalterable redemption. Just as we cannot set our course away from sin, so too are we unable to avoid the eventual destination that lies beyond our destruction.
It’s hard, sometimes, to be fully aware of the inevitability of my sin and yet also be aware of God’s incessant forgiveness. Human logic would suggest that a worthless cause (like me) should be abandoned. And, if it were only about me, the abandonment would be certain. But the path I am on is set ultimately by God. And that means that even if I find myself denying the very means of my salvation God will still pursue me and place me on a course that leads to forgiveness.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Whose House? God's House!

At a recent conference, I heard an Episcopal priest recite with great enthusiasm the “mantra” (his word) that they use in his parish. Although I don’t remember it exactly, it went something like this: “We believe that every man, woman, and child who crosses the threshold of our church can and will experience the presence of God…” It continued on with expectant language of how the Holy Spirit transforms each of us as we gather for worship. What struck me, however, was the emphasis on place.

Something happens when you cross the threshold of that church. Perhaps something happens when you enter any sacred space, but there are plenty of times when no one notices. For a congregation like his to declare to themselves and to the world that simply by entering their physical space an individual can and will experience God is to name a possibility and claim it as reality. How exciting that must be—to go to church in a place that is universally committed to encountering the Holy Spirit.

In today’s lesson from 2 Chronicles (6:32-7:7), we read Solomon’s prayer to God about the sacredness of the temple in Jerusalem. He entreats God, saying, “When a foreigner…comes and prays toward this house, hear thou from heaven thy dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to thee.”  Later on, Solomon prays, “If thy people go out to battle against their enemies…and they pray to thee toward this city which thou hast chosen and the house which I have built for thy name, then hear thou from heaven their prayer and their supplication, and maintain their cause.” It’s as if the physical place of the temple has a role in uniting all the prayers of the world—those of other nations and those of Israel.

Toward the end of the lesson, we read how God enters the now-consecrated temple in dramatic fashion: “When Solomon had ended his prayer, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burn offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. And the priests could not enter the house of the Lord, because the glory of the Lord filled the Lord’ house.” This was—both metaphorically and literally—God’s house. God, who had dwelt for generations in the ark of the covenant and the tent of meeting as Israel had wandered through the wilderness, had now taken up residence in the temple. It was his new home.

When your faith dictates that God dwells in a specific place (like ancient Judaism), it’s natural to understand intuitively the sacredness of that space. The challenge for us is to recognize that God dwells in every sacred space and to respond to his presence in terms just as specific as Israel’s response to the presence of God in the Jerusalem temple. We might not need to offer “twenty-two thousand oxen and a hundred and twenty thousand sheep” to signify that presence, but it is a good idea to find some intentional way to set our holy spaces apart to remind us of God’s presence there.

We do this, of course, in lots of different ways. One of them is the elaborate but demonstrative service for the consecration of a church. This lesson from 2 Chronicles reminds me of that service. In it, the bishop moves from one part of the church to another, naming its symbolism and praying appropriately for God’s work to be performed through its function. For example, at the font the Bishop’s prayer mentions the waters of baptism. It’s a great (though lengthy) service. Unfortunately, not everyone who walks through the doors of our churches has been to one of those services. In fact, many (if not all) of the people in our own congregation weren’t around (or even alive) when our specific church was consecrated. How, then, are we to remember?

Worship itself is an engagement of God’s presence in a specific place. Spirit-filled gatherings, therefore, should remind us that God is in our church and that we can encounter him in a tangible way when gathered together. Sometimes, however, we need to remind ourselves of that—much as the catchy mantra helps remind that congregation that God is in their church. If we really believe that God is present with us, why aren’t we celebrating that fact in more substantial ways? If we really believe that God lives in our church, why aren’t we inviting the whole world to come and experience that? If God lives in our congregation 365 days a year, why are we only showing up twice a year?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Choosing Obscurity

Sometimes I think I know so well what Jesus is going to say, but then he goes and surprises me.

Rhetorical questions are supposed to ask a question to which the audience knows the implied answer. Unfortunately (for me or for Jesus, I’m not really sure), I didn’t know where Jesus was leading me in this morning’s gospel lesson (Luke 22:24-30). Speaking with his disciples, Jesus asks, “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?” But I’m already anticipating where he’s going with this. I know he’s the one who serves. So I’m thinking in my mind that Jesus is going to make some big point about how in God’s kingdom the one who is the greatest is the servant at the table. But that’s not what he says.

He continues, “Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” Wait. Wait, wait. I thought the new kingdom mentality was that the servant was greatest of all, but that’s not what he’s saying. He’s not inviting me to greatness by becoming a servant. He’s inviting me to become even less by serving others. Secretly (though not any more), I’ve been hoping to achieve greatness, which is why I’ve been doing the whole servant thing. But now I’m discovering that the path of servant-hood is still the past of the least. What’s so attractive about that?

Everyone knows Mother Teresa. She chose a life of poverty and humble, dirty service. And for most of her life, she achieved relative obscurity. But, towards the end, she became a rock star of humility. Even in the world’s eyes, she achieved greatness by choosing the path of service and self-emptying. But that’s not what Jesus is calling us to. (No hard feelings, MT, right?)

Jesus isn’t teaching me to shoot for the stars by being a servant. He’s asking me to expect a life in the dirt. In other words, we don’t do this for an ulterior motive. We’re not called to some back-door path to greatness. And that leads me to a new question: What am I willing to give up…really? To what extent am I willing to be a servant to all?

Today is the feast of St. Bartholomew. I don't know anything about him. I even looked him up on Wikipedia, and I still don't know anything about him. I do know that he's not the patron saint of obscurity, but perhaps he might as well be. I suppose someone needs to be remembered for that so the rest of us can fade away into nothing.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Wake Up

Not too terribly long ago, I heard a parishioner explain to me that Hurricane Katrina was God’s judgment against the people of New Orleans for their sins. Apparently, there’s more than just a generational gap between this octogenarian and me. Our whole understanding of who God is seems radically different. But, in that same conversation, this man told me something that is true—even if he and I approach that truth in different ways.

The turmoil that the earth has experienced in recent years—earthquakes, famines, wars—are a sign that Jesus is returning. He said that (or something close to that), and since it came on the heels of the Katrina comment, I dismissed it as more Harold-Campingesque theology. But, reading today’s gospel lesson (Mark 13:28-37), I think he might have been right. Jesus says, “When you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” Since then, we’ve been looking for signs that Jesus is coming. And plenty of people have gotten other stirred up over the expectation that a recent natural disaster or military skirmish is a sign that the end is finally near. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant.

We recognize his nearness through those signs of chaos, but that doesn’t mean that the end of the world is near—at least not in the temporal sense. Jesus is near. He’s at the very gates. And the turmoil we experience should be a reminder of that. But that doesn’t also mean that we should stock our spiritual shelves with canned goods. If Jesus is really that close, there’s work to be done in the midst of that chaos. Now, more than ever, people need to hear the good news that Jesus is Lord, and that he offers salvation to a broken world.

Keep alert. Stay awake. You don’t know when the master will come. But we do know that he’s very close. He’s always very close. And it’s interesting to me that the way we know he’s close is in the troubles we face. That might not make sense to someone who’s in great shape, but I think it makes sense to those of us who are struggling. We need God to be close to us in our troubles. We depend upon his nearness—the proximate promise of salvation—in those tough times. His command to keep alert, therefore, isn’t an instruction to get ready for the end of the world. It’s a reminder to watch for signs of our salvation in the midst of our chaos.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Let the Reader Understand

“Let the reader understand.” But what if we don’t?

In today’s gospel lesson (Mark 13:14-27), we read the apocalyptic section of Mark. Jesus predicts the setting up of the “desolating sacrilege” and the following days when the whole universe seems to crumble away. At the beginning of the reading, Mark interjects that little editorial comment—“Let the reader understand”—but, of course, we don’t understand.

It’s a wonderful testament to how difficult it is for 21st-century Christians to read the bible. So much of it was written into a context that we don’t know. The real trouble lies in passages not like this one. In this weird prediction, we are very clear that we don’t understand what’s going on. I wonder about all those passages in which we think we know what we’re reading but actually don’t. Let the reader understand! Understand what?

There’s a cartoon that sums this principle up nicely. One man, dressed in what appears to be ancient garb, is sitting at a rock diligently writing something. Another man walks up and asks, “Why are you so worried about getting all your sources correct? It’s not like anyone is going to be taking it literally.” (Insert laughter here. At least from those who have actually seen the cartoon.) How was the bible written? What did the authors have in mind? How much of what Jesus taught is actually taught by those who have reinterpreted his words to mean something almost completely different? Biblical scholarship is a struggle.

This passage from Mark is one of those that lets us know right off that we don’t know what’s going on. That wasn’t the author’s intention—he had no idea his text would still be the subject of scrutiny two-thousand years later. What was he talking about? Perhaps the erection of a statute of Nero in the Jerusalem Temple—something that happened in the mid-to-late first century. Or maybe it was something else completely. What is clear to us is that Mark had something specific in mind—let the reader understand. The trouble is that we just don’t.

But as long as we can start from that place—an admission that there is a gap of knowledge between what Mark thought we would know and what we actually know—then there’s hope for our study of scripture. We don’t have the answer. We don’t know what’s going on behind the text itself. We can guess. We can imagine. And all of that is good and right to do. The only mistake would be to assume we know everything about the text and try to find one concrete way of explaining this apocalyptic passage.

That should be true of the rest of scripture as well. There is always a gap in our knowledge. Unfortunately, those gaps aren’t always as easy to see as they are in this passage. How much more lively is the bible when we don’t know all the answers? I read a passage in another book last night that conveyed a subtle image that I still don’t get. And now I’m reading and reading in an attempt to figure it out. So, too, can the bible draw us in as we seek to understand it in our own, always-changing context.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sunday Sermon - 10th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16A (08/21/11)

August 21, 2011 – 10 Pentecost, Proper 16A
Isaiah 51:1-6; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

On any given night, there is a perceptible level of tension in our house. Exactly what that level of tension is depends upon a number of factors. Did either or both of our children take an afternoon nap? Has Elizabeth had to work all night at the hospital in the previous day or two? Have I gone out to have a drink with friends rather than coming straight home from work? These and a myriad of other things can shift the mood in our house quite considerably, sending it from pleasant to ferocious with surprising ease.

I’m not exactly sure what caused it, but, about a week ago, we had one of those nights that belongs on reality television. For whatever reason, it didn’t take much to set me off, and my family suffered because of my irascibility. While I was making dinner, Elizabeth did something that triggered a series of provocations, which resulted in a fair amount of yelling and self-righteous indignation on my part. And, because I was more interested in being angry than I was in moving on, I held on to that resentment throughout dinner and beyond. But hanging on to that anger was a choice, and I actually had to work pretty hard to keep it up.

I’m just not the kind of guy who is very good at holding grudges. Sometimes, I wish I were better at it, but inevitably I give in—often before I even realize that I’m ready to move on. That same night, only a little while after supper, I walked into the den and saw Elizabeth picking up toys. “I really like your new haircut,” I said without thinking about it. “You look very cute.” I paused. “Dang-it!” I said out loud. “I didn’t mean to say that. I’m still angry at you, and I didn’t intend to pay you that compliment.” She laughed disarmingly. From that moment on, it was useless for me to pretend to be angry anymore.

Some people are better at hold grudges than others. Maybe you know someone like that—someone who always seems to enjoy being angry a little longer than everybody else. Like it or not, there’s real power in holding a grudge—in withholding forgiveness from someone who has asked for it. Have you ever apologized to someone only to have them refuse to accept your apology? It’s a terrible feeling to want reconciliation yet have it withheld by someone you care about. It’s the classic case of the overbearing parent, the unrelenting spouse, or the hypercritical boss.

Whatever the circumstance, when someone refuses to forgive another, he or she retains power over the other and over the relationship. And, to the extent that the apologetic party still values that relationship, the withheld forgiveness cripples him or her, locking that person in a state of unreconciled angst. In other words, as long as the person saying, “I’m sorry,” still hopes for healing, the person who refuses to forgive maintains a position of power by refusing to give in. And sometimes that oppressive power can haunt us to our grave—just ask Norman Bates.

The issue of forgiveness is an issue of power. To forgive is to release one’s claim of power over another. When we hear those three little words—“I forgive you”—we experience a yielding or ceding of authority that can have cosmic implications. No longer will the offended person insist on maintaining a position of control in the relationship; instead, he or she relinquishes it to the offender, choosing reconciliation over resentment.

Today’s gospel lesson is about the power of forgiveness. As he and his disciples were travelling together, Jesus stopped and asked, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” After listening to their wide-ranging replies, Jesus asked them directly, “But who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And, in response to that confession, Jesus declared, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Those keys were a symbol of heavenly authority, and they were God’s alone to give. When God sent his Son into the world, God invested that authority in the person of Jesus Christ. But God sent his Son to earth not so that his authority might be preserved but so that that authority—that power—might be given to others. When Peter recognized that Jesus was the Son of God and thus acknowledged that he had come to reveal God’s true nature to the world, Jesus passed those keys on to Peter. And, to the extent that we, too, recognize that the work Jesus accomplished is the very heart of God’s will for humanity, then those keys are passed on to us as well.

Those keys are a symbol of God’s power, and God yields that power to us fully through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. There can be no greater demonstration of mercy. Thus, the cross and empty tomb declare that there can be no limit to God’s forgiveness. And if God is the one who always says, “I forgive you,” then God holds no grudges. By eternally declaring his willingness to forgive us in the death and resurrection of his Son, God has completely given up any claim of vindictive power over us. Instead, God has yielded that power to us in Jesus’ ultimate gesture of limitless grace. As we are forgiven, we are given the keys to the kingdom. God has ceded to us the power of a reconciled relationship. What we now do with that power is up to us.

Jesus said, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” I take that at face value, and I take it pretty seriously. If God’s nature is always to forgive, then the only thing that can stand in the way of that forgiveness is us. God has given over to us that power which is forgiveness. It’s ours. We can pass it along, or we keep it for ourselves.

Sure, it’s costly to give it up. Just as God makes himself vulnerable by saying to the world, “I will love you and forgive you no matter what,” so too do we expose ourselves when we release that power we have over someone who has wounded us. Forgiveness is costly. It’s the renunciation of a power that we are entitled to. But, if God’s forgiveness is going to be real to us, doesn’t it depend upon our willingness to relinquish the power that comes with it? Amen.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Getting Messy

From today’s gospel lesson (Mark 12:13-27): “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”

Render unto Caesar… It’s a phrase that Jesus uttered two-thousand years ago into a religious and political context that no longer exists. Perhaps the Roman Empire has an analogy in the modern world, but the incompatibility of church and state that Jews experienced under Roman rule is hard to imagine. Nonetheless, we still hang on to Jesus’ words and use them relatively frequently to assign conflicting concepts into their appropriate spheres.

What is the relationship between church and state? How should we handle disputes between science and religion? What do we do when our conscience and the laws of the land come into conflict? To what extent is our nation’s prosperity linked to our religious identity? Should our president be religious? Should he or she be a Christian?

Yesterday, I heard someone on CNN quote Jesus’ famous phrase. During an interview that immediately followed an interview with Bishop Henry Parsley of the Diocese of Alabama, this commentator was arguing that Alabama’s new immigration law is a good one. I found it amusing that the words would be used by the person opposed to the bishop’s lawsuit. You can watch the whole clip here:

Sometimes we use the Caesar quotation to distance ourselves and our faith from politics. “Let the state do what it does. Caesar is Caesar. God is God. Issues of faith and government shouldn’t mix.” Other times we use the famous phrase to demonstrate how the two can successfully be mixed. For example, the Creation story in Genesis tells a quite different tale than a well-informed biology text. Can we have both? Of course—render unto Caesar…

The bottom line is that the church is in the world. Those who came to Jesus to test him were hoping to catch him in a trap. Had he simply said, “Yes, pay the temple tax,” Jesus would have given his opponents an excuse to portray him as a Roman sympathizer and Jewish lawbreaker. Had he responded, “No, the tax is ungodly,” they could have labeled him as a zealot and Roman lawbreaker. Either way, Jesus would have been in trouble. So, of course, he splits the issue right in half, insisting that he and we live in both worlds.

Often it feels good to retreat into one of two spheres, attempting to leave the other behind completely. The specific, unbiased, unquenchable quest for knowledge that is science holds great appeal, and it’s easier to avoid bringing it into dialogue with our faith. Likewise, it’s easier to read the bible as it is written and not worry about its implications for the modern intellectual. But we can’t do that. Our faith is completely immersed in the world around us, and that includes things like science and politics and immigration and all the other messy stuff we deal with on a daily basis.

That doesn’t mean that there are easy answers for how to deal with them. That’s not the point behind Jesus’ quotation. As Christians, we are “both-and” people not “either-or” people. We need to talk about how those two worlds intersect.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Limitless Mercy?

Where or when or under what circumstances does God’s mercy end? If there’s a wideness in God’s mercy, how long would a bridge need to be in order to span it—stretching beyond its limits? When does God give up on someone?

In today’s gospel lesson (Mark 11:27-12:12), Jesus tells a parable to the chief priests, scribes, and elders: “A man planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a pit for the wine press, and built a tower and let it out to tenants, and went into another country.” As the story continues, we read that time after time the owner sent servants to go and collect his share of the harvest, but each time the wicked tenants beat and/or killed those whom the owner sent. Eventually, things reach a head. Jesus says, “He had still one other, a beloved son; finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’” Then, of course, the owner comes and destroys those tenants, giving the vineyard to others.

It’s a parable with many layers, but I worry we need to dig pretty deep to get to anything of value. On the surface, the story has a shocking meaning. Throughout the ages, God has sent his prophets to his people, and his people have rejected them, even killing some. Finally, God sent his son, and again his people killed the one who was sent, so God is now destroying his people and withdrawing his love of them and giving it to another. It’s the classic God-loves-Christians-but-sends-Jews-to-hell approach to the New Testament. And it’s repugnant—bad theology all around.

Going a little deeper, we discover the foolishness of the tenants. Maybe that’s where our focus should be. Who in his right mind thinks that by killing the heir he will gain the inheritance? In what bizarro world do things work that way? Yet, of course, that’s how humanity works. God reaches out to us with mercies, and we turn our back on them, thinking we can do better on our own with what he’s given us. But even with this reading, we’re still left with the scary day of judgment and the replacement theology needed to explain it.

The bottom line is that the parable suggests a limit to God’s mercies. Eventually, the vineyard is taken away from those who reject God’s chosen ones and given to others. That’s the part of the parable the begs us to make sense of it. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to do it.

Maybe the limit of God’s mercy is defined as that point at which we reject it. In other words, God doesn’t limit his love and grace—we do. Think again about the parable. Instead of focusing on the tenants’ foolishness, consider God’s own foolishness. After sending servant after servant, all of whom were beaten and many of whom were killed, God decides to send yet another—his own son. In what bizarro world does that make sense? What convinced God that the last messenger he sent would receive a fate any different than that of the others? Actually, nothing. God had no expectation that the end would be any different. He sent his son knowing that his son would be killed. He chose a foolish path, knowing fully the consequences of his choice, yet he chose it anyway.

Is there an end to God’s mercy? There can be no greater expression of love than that which God has already demonstrated. Knowing that he would be rejected and killed, God still sent his son into the world. With no hope of success, God embarked on the fullest disclosure of his love even though the devastating outcome was predetermined. It doesn’t get any more selfless than that.

And that is, in and of itself, the limit of God’s mercy. It’s infinite. And nothing is bigger than that which is infinite. Nothing is wider than that which is limitless. If we join with the wicked tenants and murder the son, then there can be no other gesture of love to win us over. If we don’t get God’s love as shown to us in the person of Jesus Christ, how else can we understand it? God isn’t taking the vineyard away from us. He’s giving it to us recklessly. He’s always reaching out with love that has no limit. The only thing that keeps us from getting into the garden is ourselves.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Bearing Fruit in Due Season

Usually, I’m not one for bringing up technical approaches to biblical interpretation during a sermon or blog post. If you’ve been reading what I’ve written or listening to what I’ve preached for a while, you’ve likely noticed that I don’t like talking about “what this word really means” or “the author’s integration of other source texts.” In fact, I promised myself that I would never stand in a pulpit and utter the words “the Greek word for…” Nor will I ever refer to a passage or story as a “pericope.” I’ve heard too many preachers say things like that in an attempt to make them look smarter than they are. Confession: I usually tune out at that point.

So it is with great hesitation that I mention here that in today’s gospel lesson (Mark 11:12-26) Mark deliberately sandwiches two stories together to make one central point. That’s a technique he often uses, but usually the preacher can make those observations and keep them to himself. In this instance, however, the story of the cursed fig tree makes almost no sense unless we recognize that Mark is using the story of the cleansing of the temple, which is sandwiched in the middle of two references to the fig tree, to convey a greater message than either story carries on its own.

First, the fig tree. Jesus and his disciples are walking along, and Jesus sees a “fig tree in leaf,” which he approaches in search of some fruit. Finding only leaves, he curses the hapless tree, saying, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” The only problem is…it wasn’t the season for figs. Mark goes out of his way to mention that fact. Jesus would have known that, but he was angered enough (it seems) by the fruitless tree that he curses it into oblivion. When the disciples and Jesus pass back by the tree on their way out of Jerusalem once the temple had been cleansed, Peter exclaims, “Master, look! The fig tree which you cursed has withered.” Alone, this story shows us little more than the damning power of a petulant, irritable Jesus.

But there’s another story at play here. After cursing the tree, Jesus and his disciples proceed into the city, where he enters the temple and encounters the money-changers and pigeon-sellers. Turning over their tables, he exclaims, “Is it not written ‘My house shall be a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers!” Lots of attempts have been made to fill out the context of Jesus’ actions. Some claim that those selling things in the temple courts would have charged an outrageous commission. Others argue that buying or selling anything would have undermined the spiritual focus of the temple’s intended function. Actually, I’m not sure that it’s either of those. I think the money-changers and pigeon-sellers were essential for what happened at the temple, and I see no reason to conclude that they were dishonest in their trade except that it provides the preacher with an easier explanation of the passage.

Following something Jeffrey John wrote, I think Jesus’ turning over of the tables represents his rejection of the temple worship of his day outright. But I don’t think he was doing it in the supersessionist, “sacrificial-worship-is-empty-unless-you-view-me-as-the-sacrifice” way that some Christian preachers identify. Instead, I think Jesus was acting in the “minor-prophet” school of temple cleansing, which envisioned God’s anointed (“messiah”) as coming to purify the worship of God’s people (a la Malachi 3:3). Clearly, what Jesus did by overturning the tables in the temple was to interfere with the worship that happened in that place, but to conclude that he did so as an attempt to refine what was being done is a bit of a stretch…unless we look again at the story fig tree, which bookends this passage.

Jesus curses the fig tree for not having fruit even though it wasn’t the season for figs. On one level, that’s unreasonable. Why would anyone (even God) expect figs from a fig tree when it wasn’t the right season for them? But that’s exactly the point. Jesus cursed the fig tree to teach his disciples (and us) about the right time for spiritually substantial worship. “But it’s not the season for figs!” we all exclaim, questioning Jesus’ judgment. And his implicit reply suggests that we can’t wait until the “appointed season” to bear fruit. Our timing doesn’t always fit into God’s timing. As his disciples and as followers of God, the time to bear spiritual fruit is now. It’s always now. And God will not wait until we’ve decided the time has come for spiritual renewal.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Box of Tissues

Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been a sucker for movies that depict tension and reconciliation between fathers and sons. It’s a virtual guarantee—if I see an estranged father and son embrace on screen I’m going to cry. My son isn’t old enough yet for me to appreciate that relationship from the parental side, but I’m certainly old enough to have cause those emotional ripples from the child’s perspective. I don’t know if every father and son feel this, but I think it’s pretty ubiquitous (hence its popularity in film). As far as I can tell, sons want their fathers to love them and be proud of them, and fathers want their sons to look up to them and be proud of them. No wonder hard emotions so often plague that relationship.

In today’s lesson from the Old Testament (2 Samuel14:21-33), we read about the continuing saga between David and his son Absalom. Although we haven’t quite reached the emotional (and tragic) climax of the story, today’s reading is full of the same tension and emotional release that I enjoy experiencing in the cinema. Having been reminded by Joab, his servant, of his love for his son, David brought Absalom back into Jerusalem to live. This was a substantial gesture as the relationship between the two had grown quite cold. Absalom had killed another of David’s sons, avenging the honor of his sister. Three years had gone by, but David was moved by his love for his absent son, so he sent for him.

Yet David could not be in the presence of Absalom. The pain of their broken relationship was too much for David to bear. His pride and anger lingered. But Absalom grew tired of living down the street and not seeing his father. Not even David’s servant Joab would speak to him. Absalom did the only thing he could think of—he set Joab’s field on fire to get his attention. When Joab came to Absalom to ask about the fire, Absalom said, “Why have I come from Geshur? It would be better for me to be there still. Now therefore let me go into the presence of the king; and if there is guilt in me, let him kill me.”

It was a critical turning-point in their relationship. Absalom decided that he would rather be killed than live in the same town as his father without being allowed to see him. The pain of dwelling in one’s hometown without having contact with one’s family was too much. So he put all his cards out on the table. He was betting with all that he had—convinced that he would either be reconciled or killed—and his gamble paid off. When David saw him, the king kissed his son. And, if it were happening on screen, I’d be weeping at this point.

Whether it’s our father, our son, our sibling, or anyone else—there are some relationships in our lives that we need to be right. Like Absalom, we live too close to them in order to experience that estrangement on a daily basis. It’s too painful to be reminded of that brokenness with no end in sight. Eventually, that pain outweighs the risk of coming to that person and, as Absalom did, throwing ourselves down and hoping for reconciliation. Those quickening moments, by which a relationship either crumbles forever or is rebuilt anew, are dangerous, risky moments because the threat of permanent rejection is so close. Like teetering on the edge of a cliff, we stand before the person we have loved to test finally whether that relationship can be mended—will the gust of wind send us over the edge or bring us back to sure ground?

God, it seems, pursues us with the same reckless abandon. It is risky, perhaps, for God to reach out to his people over and over in the hopes that we will accept his embrace. God, of course, does not need us to be complete. Perfect and complete in every way, he is not at all desperate for our love the way we are for his. But still he pursues us as if he were. Unlike an earthly parent, God’s promise of acceptance and forgiveness is certain. He is defined as the one who always loves the prodigal son or daughter.

How, then, might the story of Absalom and David remind us of God’s infinite love and mercy? Like Absalom, we’re often estranged from our heavenly father—having created distance between us through our sin. Yet unlike some human parents, God is waiting eagerly for us to return. There is no risk in our part. We know that he will open the door and kiss us. So why does it take us so long to knock?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Got Adultery?

In today’s gospel lesson (Mark 10:1-16), Jesus is put to the test by the Pharisees, and he responds in a way that tests me and my faith. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” they ask him. His reply leaves little room for consolation, and, when he later explains his teaching to his disciples, he speaks in even harsher words: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

This is the kind of passage that preachers love to get. Divorce is a part of life. It’s unfortunate. It’s terrible. It’s representative of our broken humanity. But it’s still something we must deal with. And to those who claim that contemporary society’s devaluation of marriage has resulted in a divorce rate that is skyrocketing out of control I would simply point out that this was a controversy in Jesus’ day. Apparently, people have always thought that there was too much divorce.

And then we get to the end of the lesson and everything gets mixed up. As he finishes explaining how divorce and remarriage are never acceptable, he turns and sees his disciples trying to keep children from bothering him, to which he interjects the famous line, “Let the litter children come to me…whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” In staff meeting today, someone brought up how seemingly opposed those two sentiments are. On the one hand, Jesus suggests that the moral law is unbreakable, but he also says that we must come to the kingdom as children—surely unburdened by such concerns as divorce and remarriage. So which is it?

Poor Jimmy Carter and his Playboy interview. Citing another passage in which Jesus talks about adultery, Carter admitted in the pages of the gentlemen’s magazine that he had committed adultery many times in his heart for having lusted after women. I’m sure the throngs of evangelical Christians who subscribed to Playboy appreciated the nuanced position of his confession. The rest of America didn’t get it. Carter, of course, was right. And I think he was as close to getting into the kingdom as a child as anyone.

We are all adulterers—whether we’re married, divorced, remarried, single, or anything else. We are by our nature betrayers. We betray the love that others (including God) have shown us. We cannot be faithful. Jesus’ teaching on divorce wasn’t intended to tighten the noose around the necks of the divorced. But it also wasn’t an attempt to loosen the noose either. The simple and universal fact of the matter is that we are all adulterers. We are all sinners. The law, Jesus notes, was written so that shallow-minded men could divorce their wives and get away with it. If we, like the Pharisees, are relying on that excuse, there is no getting away with it. That goes for the “Matthean exception,” too. The only way to get out of the hangman’s grasp is to recognize that no matter what our marital status we’re already in it. That's what it means to approach God like a child. Children don't care what the letter of the law says. They are in touch with their need for forgiveness and in touch with their belovedness at the same time.

I remember the first time I advised someone to get divorced. I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of my mouth. As they came out, it was as if I could see them and could all but grab them in my hands and stick them back inside, whence they came. But, upon reflection, the counsel I offered was good, Christian counsel. Some people are yoked in a relationship that is anything but holy. In some circumstances, divorce will bring both husband and wife closer to God. Does that mean that they aren’t committing adultery if they remarry? Nope, they are. Just as sure as a no-good, cheating spouse. But does it matter? Not if they realize that their need for forgiveness is just as real either way.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Evangelicalism Renewed

Yesterday in the Sunday-morning adult forum, we discussed John Stott, the recently deceased British clergyman who was at one point the generally acknowledged leader of the Evangelical Christian movement. Even though Stott was an unapologetic Evangelical, I loved him and what he represented without equivocation. Despite his unwaveringly conservative approach to the Bible, there was something about his understanding of the Christian faith that made him approachable by both progressives and fundamentalists.

In the forum, we did look at the life and work of Stott, but the real purpose of our conversation was to investigate the Evangelical Christian movement and to ask what it might best be able to contribute to contemporary Christianity. After given some opportunity for discussion, each table reported back that their conversation on the issue had mostly focused on distinguishing between Evangelicals who usually make headlines (e.g., Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell) and those who bring the good news more gently (e.g., John Stott). The link between the two, it seemed, was an emphasis on the bible as “good news”; the difference was what we then do with that good news.

In today’s lesson from Acts (20:17-38), we read Paul’s farewell speech to the elders of Ephesus. Among his words is a line that reminded me of yesterday’s conversation: “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” Paul was an Evangelical of the first order, and he understood implicitly how his role as bearer of the good news was supposed to work. He shared the saving news of Jesus Christ to everyone he met, but, as this line indicates, he knew that God was the one who did the saving. It’s one thing to tell someone the good news; it’s quite another to tell them exactly how the must respond to that message. And that, I think, is the difference between being an Evangelical and being a fundamentalist.

We do have good news—the best news. We know that God loves the world and that he wants the world to be saved. How can we not share that news unapologetically? The label “Evangelical” has gotten such a bad reputation in our culture that we now shy away from sharing with others the message of salvation. To say to someone, “I’m a Christian. Have you ever thought about becoming one?” is little more than a gentle invitation, but the baggage that preachers on television and the radio have attached to evangelism have made it nearly impossible to issue such an invitation. When I say, “Are you a Christian?” people are preconditioned to hear, “If you’re not the kind of Christian I think is right, let me show you how you’re supposed to believe.” But that’s not evangelism—it’s oppression.

John Stott and the apostle Paul both understood that there is salvation in the good news of Jesus Christ, and they also understood that the evangelist’s job was to preach that message without owning how the message would be received. “I planted the seed; Apollos watered it; but God gave the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6). If we are to recapture the label “Evangelical” and make it a good thing, we need to refocus our efforts on studying the bible, sharing the good news, and trusting that God will change people’s hearts accordingly. If I’m worried about tallying up “number of souls saved,” the good news I’m preaching becomes an oppressive sales pitch rather than a gentle invitation.

I’m an Evangelical Christian, and I’m proud of it. I believe that there’s good news to share with the world, but I also believe that God is using that message of salvation to transform individual lives and the whole world in ways I can neither control nor appreciate. Being an Evangelical isn’t about reproducing one’s version of the faith in the hearts of others. It’s about sharing good news and watching what happens.

Sunday Sermon - 8th Sun. after Pentecost, Proper 14A (08/07/11)

August 7, 2011 – 8 Pentecost, Proper 14A
1 Kings 19:9-18; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33

 © 2011 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon to follow soon.

“If we don’t screw up now, we’ve got it made.”

Early in my time here at St. John’s, a parishioner taught me that funny little phrase, and it’s stuck with me ever since. I imagine I’ll keep it with me for a long time: “If we don’t screw up now, we’ve got it made.” Occasionally, we’ll bandy it back and forth here in the office, saying it to one another in a half-joking, half-nervous tone that expresses pretty well how things work around here. On the one hand, that phrase implies that right now things are going great guns, and, indeed, they are. But it also reminds us that we’re only one or two mistakes away from disaster.

But isn’t that true in almost every area of our lives?

Given our gospel lesson for today, Peter, it seems, could have learned from that. This story immediately follows the feeding of the five-thousand. As he prepared to disperse the multitude, Jesus sent his disciples back across the lake in a boat, afterwards retreating by himself for some quiet prayer. A few hours later, Jesus returned to the seashore to find that the disciples were struggling to make headway against a strong wind, so he rolled up his garments and started walking out to them on top of the water. Mistaking him for a ghost, the disciples were terrified at the sight of their master, so Jesus gently reassured them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then, everything looked as if it would be just fine…until Peter opened his mouth.

But that’s why we love Peter, isn’t it? His boldness was always getting him into trouble. In this story, the brazen apostle, whose reckless, blundering faith we both admire and disparage, called out to Jesus, saying, “Lord, if it [really] is you, command me to come out to you on the water.” In that moment, someone should have reminded him, “If we don’t screw up now, we’ve got it made,” but it was too late. I don’t know whether Peter really wanted to confirm that the apparition was Jesus or whether he just wanted to show off in front of his friends. But, either way, by the end of the story, those friends got quite a laugh. I can imagine that the sight of a frightened, embarrassed, half-soaked Peter made for some good-natured ribbing when he and Jesus climbed into the boat.

It’s true in life that things usually work out pretty well until they don’t.

I had the luxury of growing up in a family that reminded me over and over that their love for me was absolute. My parents often told me that they were proud of me—even when my piano recitals weren’t that great and when I struck out yet again in little league. From before I can remember, I always knew that my parents loved me. During my childhood and adolescence, I gave them plenty of relatively inconsequential reasons to be disappointed in my behavior or in the decisions I made. Like any child, I tested the waters of rebellion, pushing back on their love to see how far I could stray before my parents would snap me back into line. Yet each time I wandered a little off the appointed path, they always received me back lovingly. But that was only because I had never done anything to really disappoint them.

At the end of my sophomore year in high school, I was elected to statewide office in Key Club, a position which earned me a place at that summer’s International Convention in Miami, Florida. The first night we were there, the other three boys in my hotel room and I got into the worst sort of mischief that four teenage boys in Miami might be expected to get into. I never even made it through the opening session of the Convention. I still remember the feeling in my stomach when I looked up and saw our advisor beckoning me to accompany him out into the hallway. When I saw the three other culprits standing there, staring at the floor, I knew we were caught. What I didn’t yet know was how bad things would get.

One by one, we stepped into the advisor’s hotel room where we called our homes to tell our parents what had happened. The phone rang once or twice before my father picked up. The only words I got out of my mouth before I started sobbing were “Is Mom there?” In that moment, more than anything, I needed some sort of reassurance that I was loved and that I hadn’t permanently jeopardized my relationship with my parents. No longer was I at all interested in testing the waters of rebellion. I knew that I had disappointed my parents, but that almost didn’t matter. I just needed to know that they still loved me.

Peter and the other disciples were in the boat, struggling against the wind. When they saw Jesus, they were frightened, but Jesus identified himself and told them not to be afraid. Then, Peter seized that moment as an opportunity to test the limits of his master’s love and fatherly protection. “If it is you, command me to come out to you on the water.” It’s as if he wanted to see just how far Jesus’ promise of salvation would stretch. “If he can save us here in the boat,” he thought, “I wonder whether he could save me out there on the water.”

“If…,” Peter said—if. It was a conditional request--a test, a desire for confirmation. Well, Peter got what he asked for, and the next thing he knew he was standing out on the water’s surface. But then the reality of the situation sank in, and Peter himself began to sink. The wind was howling, and the white-capped waves were crashing around him. Suddenly, Peter wasn’t sure of anything anymore. “Help!” he cried. “Lord, save me!” Now faced with a real crisis, Peter was no longer interested in pushing up against the boundaries of his salvation. He was desperate, and he needed his master to rescue him.

Often, we go through life gently exploring the hypothetical limits of God’s love. We stretch the boundaries of salvation, taking it for granted. And as long as everything is under control, things are just fine. We live a life we enjoy—going to church when we feel like it and saying our prayers when we remember them. During those times, we trust that God, like a loving parent, is out there, somewhere, and we have no reason to question his love for us.

But, then, every once in a while, we find ourselves in a situation that surpasses our ability to handle it. And those are the moments when conditional requests like Peter’s no longer apply. In a real crisis, we never think to ask Jesus whether it is really him because, when we’re sinking beneath the water’s surface, we can’t afford for Jesus’ answer to be “No.”

The funny thing about God is that whether we appreciate him or not, whether we are confident in his love or doubt it to our core, God’s promise of salvation remains unaffected. God’s ability to save us doesn’t depend upon our confidence in him. God is always bigger than our doubts. So whether we’re enjoying the luxury of a relationship with God that allows us to test its limits, taking him for granted, or whether we’re desperate for his salvation, uncertain whether he’s still out there, God is still God, and he will still save us.

Wherever you are this day, remember that God loves you and that he always will. Don’t let that be an excuse to take your relationship with him for granted. But, if you have, don’t worry—he loves you anyway. Amen.


Here's a post for Saturday (08/06/11), the Feast of the Transfiguration.

Sometimes an event from the bible takes on new significance to me when I discover what other lessons it is paired with in the lectionary. For example, today is the Feast of the Transfiguration—that moment when Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James, and John. His clothes become a dazzling white, brighter than any fuller could bleach them. Principally, this feast is about that singular moment when Jesus’ divinity shone through, becoming visible to a select group. That moment from the gospel is so profound that it is assigned its own major feast (one of only ten days in the church calendar that take precedence over a Sunday). But I’m only just now learning (or maybe re-learning) about the other significances of the event that show up in the other readings.

In the Daily Office, today’s New Testament lesson (2 Corinthians 4:-16) reveals that there’s another light shining through. As Paul writes, “For what we preach is nor ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” I’ve read that last sentence five or six times this morning, and the more I read it the easier it is for me to see that God is trying to shine a light in my heart—to bring the same light of God’s divinity (as revealed on that mountain top) into the darkness of my soul.

I’ve never really thought of it this way before, but the Transfiguration is as much about our transformation as it is about Jesus’ laser-light show. He didn’t just go up on that mountain top to show Peter, James, and John his true nature—to let the divinity burst through its human covering. (Note the implied heresy in that false statement—Jesus was not merely God in a human costume.) Jesus took PJ&J aside to reveal to them that they too might have the light of God shining in their lives.

The Incarnation happened behind closed doors. Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit, and, although I’m no expert on divine insemination, I’m pretty sure that, however it happened, it wasn’t a public event. God became flesh in a private moment. The only signs we get of that are those shown later on in Jesus’ life. But the Transfiguration was intended for others to see. PJ&J were able to see the consequences of the Incarnation—what happens when the light of God comes to dwell in humanity. It’s an invitation for all of us—that God’s glory might somehow come to us and shine within us.

The Transfiguration is a reminder that God is eager to share his divine nature, and that’s a remarkable thing to believe in. God seeks to give himself—his very essence and being—to the other. Before Christ came, no one on earth had ever imagined that would be possible. “God is completely other,” we had always thought. And although that is true—God is ontologically different—God seeks not only to disclose himself to the world but to share himself with creation. We are invited to be transformed so that we might also be transfigured. God shining the light of his glory into our hearts isn’t just a moment of peace for us to experience and leave behind. God is showing us that he wants to live within us—to take up residence in our personas, to transform us, to unite himself to our fragile humanity, and to make us new.  

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What Good is Half a Life-Saver?

I remember a television program (not quite a documentary) that I saw several years ago about how the brain works. For an experiment, some scientists took a college student and totally blacked out her vision—so much so that absolutely no light got in. They even put photo-sensitive paper in the blindfold just to make sure. After spending several days in total darkness, the scientists tested to see how much better she might be able to use her other senses—particularly the sense of touch. By projecting braille patterns on her fingers and asking her to discern what they were, they tested to see whether her brain would have rewired itself to compensate for the loss of vision. They were amazed. Those parts of her brain that were only days earlier used for sight had been reassigned to augment her other senses. When scientists used a strong magnetic field to “deaden” the part of her brain that was once used for sight, her ability to discern with her fingers the braille pattern diminished significantly.

And then they took the blindfold off.

I’ve always wondered what that felt like—to have been blind for days and then have one’s sight restored. If the human brain had rewired itself, how did it handle re-exposure to visual stimuli? How bright were those lights? How long did it take to adjust? Was her vision blurry for a few days until her brain caught up?

In today’s gospel lesson (Mark 8:22-33), we read about a man who was blind and the strange, two-step healing Jesus offered him. Taking him aside, apart from the crowds, Jesus spit on his eyes (gross) and touched him and asked, “Do you see anything?” The man replied, “I see men; but they look like trees, walking.” So Jesus tried again, and this time his sight was restored. Why the miracle in two parts? Why didn’t Jesus get it right the first time? Was he tired that day? Was this man’s cataracts particularly thick? Did the optician need to try a different setting—“which one is better, one or two or are they about the same?”

But that’s a silly way to approach this gospel lesson. Stop for a second and imagine what it must have been like for the man to see anything at all. Blurry or not, a blind man had just had his vision restored. What were those first rays of light like? How excited must the man have been? The brightness of day shines in on what was once total darkness. Who cares whether things are clear? A miracle has happened.

Well, Jesus cared. Blurry restored sight wasn’t good enough for him even if it would have been good enough for anyone else. The life Jesus came to give us isn’t just a miraculous gift. It’s a perfect gift. And the sight he came to give us—the ability to see and appreciate how much God loves us—is perfect vision.
What does partial redemption look like, anyway? Sometimes I forget that God’s intentions for me aren’t just average or even above-average. The quality of God’s redemption is incomparable. Partial salvation isn’t his game—no matter how miraculous that might be. For some, it would be enough to receive deliverance from the perils of this life. For most, we would be content if God would even rescue us from some of our troubles. But salvation isn’t a partial thing. The story of the twice-healed blind man reminds me that I can’t hold anything back from God’s salvation. If my life is to be remade, it must be remade completely. The transforming power of God’s love doesn’t allow for some parts of me to be saved while other parts remain behind. It’s all or nothing. Perfect and complete is the only way God works.

Bottomless Pit of Blessings

A reflection from yesterday (08/01/11).

It’s an old, somewhat ridiculous hypothetical situation: a father and his son are on an airplane that is about to crash, and there is only one parachute—who gets it? I don’t know anyone who would give the parachute to the father, so there’s not much to work with there. That’s kind of the premise behind today’s Old Testament reading (2 Samuel 7:1-17). In the story, we find David in a place of comfort and security. Israel’s enemies have been subdued, and God’s people have established their homes in the land that had been promised to their ancestors. God had taken care of his sons and daughters. They got the parachute. But now what?

David says to Nathan, his friend and prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent…maybe we should fix that.” Perhaps a better hypothetical situation would be this: a father gives up every spare minute of his life to help his son become a talented basketball player, and, when that son signs his first multi-million-dollar contract, he looks back at his father and says, “What should I do for him now?” That’s the way David’s concern sounds to me. He and his people have been given so much by God that they want to respond by giving God a permanent place to dwell. But sometimes good intentions don’t work out as we expect them to.

Nathan initially responds to David, “Yeah, that sounds like a great idea. Go ahead and do what you’re thinking. I like where this is going.” But that night, God surprises Nathan in a dream and says, “Wait just a minute. Would you build me a house? I’ve been living in a tent this whole time. What’s wrong with that?” And then the story gets really strange.

God says to David (through Nathan), “You want to build me a house, but instead I am going to build you a house—not a house made of wood but a house…an heritage that I will establish forever. I will establish you on the throne and make sure the house of your ancestors reigns on that throne forever.” It’s as if David looked at his life and in a moment of gratitude tried to figure out what he could do for God to repay him for his generosity, but God replied with even more generosity—not as a reward but out of his loving nature.

Often, when I come up against the magnitude of what God has done for me, I feel the need to pay God back. It’s kind of like when a neighbor surprises you with a home-baked loaf of bread—it’s hard not to want to give something back to them. But God doesn’t work that way. He doesn’t take turns. God never accepts the only parachute. He continues to save and deliver and bless his people. And it’s not a reciprocal relationship.

Yes, we are called to give back to God, but we don’t do so in order to repay him for his goodness—that debt can never even approach repayment. We give back to God (stewardship) so that we can appreciate just how limitless God’s mercies truly are. Just as David’s effort to build God a house only led him to discover how much God would continue to bless him, our gifts are designed to show us the one who cannot be repaid is always eager to give even more. That’s the remarkable thing about our God. He doesn’t wait for us to honor him with sacrifices or offering before bestowing his blessings upon us. His gifts never cease, and my fragile, limited attempts to pay him back only reveal how rich his blessings really are.