Monday, September 26, 2011

Sunday Sermon - 15 Pentecost, Proper 21A (09/25/11)

September 25, 2011 – 15 Pentecost, Proper 21A
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Philippians 1:2-13; Matthew 21:23-32
© 2011 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon will be available soon.

I grew up in a long, ranch-style house set in the middle of a fairly big yard—a yard that kept most of us busy on Saturday mornings. Often, my dad would ask me to rake or mow in the backyard while he used the weed-eater or hacked away at some bushes in the front. And, more than once, having consented to his request, I snuck around back, walked in the back door, and sat down on the couch in front of the television.

My father was often disappointed with my efforts in the yard, but he was never more disappointed than when he walked around back and peered in the den and found me hiding on the sofa. Sweaty, covered with grass clippings, and wearing a scowl, my father saved his greatest frustration for those times when I had told him I would help out but had skived off instead. Those moments conveyed a real sense of betrayal. Although he probably knew better, my dad had trusted that I would be in the back yard, working away, while he was toiling in the front. In some small manner, I had given him my word and then had broken it.

Jesus’ parable about the two sons in today’s gospel lesson is pretty easy to for us figure out. One son agrees to help his father but then doesn’t. And the other son tells his father, “No,” up front but then changes his mind and goes to work. “Which one of the two did the will of his father?” Jesus asks. His audience, like us, automatically knew the right answer. This is one of those “too-obvious-to-miss” parables with a straightforward message. What makes the parable challenging, therefore, is not its interpretation but its application.

We know that agreeing to follow Jesus but then sitting idly on the couch is not what it means to do God’s will. We know that God wants us to be Christians not just in word but also in deed. We understand that giving lip service to our faith isn’t good enough. But that’s not what this story is supposed to teach us.

The chief priests and elders who came up to Jesus in the temple in order to test him weren’t religious good-for-nothings. They were the elite of the Jewish faith. If anyone knew what it meant to live out one’s relationship with God, it was they. They were the ones who fasted twice a week. They said their prayers multiple times every day. They gave alms to the poor and never missed a holy festival. Yet they were the ones to whom Jesus said, “John came down to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him.” Their problem, you see, wasn’t one of action. It was one of content.

Just as it had been with John the Baptist, the dispute of the chief priests and elders with Jesus wasn’t over how he practiced his faith. They were troubled by those with whom he shared it. Jesus had made his company with tax collectors and sinners. He had eaten at table with prostitutes and the outcast. The religious authorities couldn’t get their minds around the fact that this holy man from Nazareth spent most of his time with the scum of the earth. A real prophet sent by God should be keeping company with them rather than with the dregs of society. Yet this Jesus seemed to be preaching that God’s kingdom was reserved for those very people whom the religious elite preferred to keep out.

And that’s precisely where they missed the point. God’s message of salvation wasn’t reserved only for those who made their living through reputable means. God’s love was offered to everyone. And that was the real challenge. John the Baptist had preached a message of repentance that invited everyone to come to the waters of baptism, but the religious leaders couldn’t buy into it. Jesus had brought that same message to the tax collectors and prostitutes with whom he ate his meals, but the chief priests and elders wouldn’t accept it.

The good news of salvation is a message of universal inclusion that requires only a response of the heart. Those who heard John and were baptized understood that fact. Those who heard Jesus and followed him understood that fact. Naturally, those who couldn’t accept that God was offering salvation to everyone were threatened by the message of John and Jesus. “How could God love these outcasts as much as he loves us?” they asked themselves. Indeed, how could God love those people out there as much as he loves us right here?

It’s easy for you and me, who worship in a place like this, to mistake ourselves for the religious elite. As Episcopalians, it’s easy to think that we have it all figured out and that we are the keepers of God’s truth. But the gospel message in its purest form is that those who think they’re in are usually left out. And those whom the “insiders” would prefer to exclude are the ones whom Jesus has actually invited to the table.

It’s not hard to practice one’s faith, but it’s hard to get that faith right. Saying our prayers isn’t difficult, but praying for our enemies is a real challenge. Loving God isn’t all that demanding, but loving those who hate us is nearly impossible. Inviting the stranger into our Christian community isn’t that tough, but welcoming into our hearts those who stand for everything we reject is likely asking more than we can muster.

The lesson in today’s gospel reading isn’t one of turning our faith into action. It’s that those of us who call ourselves Christians must actually do the will of God. And what is God’s will? That the whole world might be saved and that we, if only through our total humility, might also accept God’s invitation to everlasting life. Amen.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Missing Grace

In today’s reading from the Old Testament (2 Kings 5:19-27), the story of Naaman shifts into the story of Gehazi. Once Elisha had bid farewell to the Syrian general, refusing to accept any of his gifts of silver, gold, or festal garments, Naaman turned and started back toward his home country. His encounter in Israel had been an overwhelming moment of grace. He had been cleansed from his leprosy through a clear, simple, and powerful act of God. The fact that the prophet had not accepted any payment for the healing underscored God’s role in the transaction.

Gehazi, however, didn’t want to let the opportunity pass by without receiving some sort of remuneration. When Elisha wasn’t looking, Gehazi followed Naaman, and requested on behalf of his master some of the wealth which had been intended for Elisha. Naaman was eager to oblige. When he returned home, Gehazi hid the booty, but he was unable to escape Elisha’s notice. “Where have you been, Gehazi?” he asked. “Your servant went nowhere,” Gehazi lied. It was too late. The plot was discovered. In the end, Elisha commanded that Naaman’s leprosy befall Gehazi and his descendants, and immediately he turned white as snow.

I think the power of this story is in the transmittal of the leprosy from Naaman to Gehazi. More than a punishment for Gehazi’s deceit, the illness represents a separation from God and from God’s community. When he was cleansed, Naaman became a follower of God, renouncing any other god in the universe. By following after the general and asking for ill-gotten wealth, Gehazi had misinterpreted the divine healing as an interaction between a prophet and a foreigner. He failed to see that what had actually taken place was an exchange between the Almighty and one of his new-found children. By trying to put a price on that, Gehazi had bastardized a holy moment. He had blinded himself to God’s grace. And so that which had become the means by which Naaman recognized the identity of the one, true God became the means by which Gehazi would be cut off forever.

There’s danger in missing a holy moment and counting that which is sacred as profane. That’s not because God will punish us for missing his presence in our lives. Instead, if we bury our heads in the sand of worldliness, it becomes impossible for us to even recognize when God is acting in the world and in our lives. Gehazi’s leprosy reminds us that God is working to disclose himself and his love to the world in countless ways. If we chose to tune out, we run the risk of cutting ourselves off from an awareness of that love.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Simple Is Best, But Simple Is Hard

I love the story of Naaman (2 Kings 5:1-19a). There are so many different things being communicated to us in that lesson. For starters, we see a foreign general of significant power being healed by the God of Israel—no insignificant feat. By the end of the story, Naaman acknowledges that there is no other god in all the world except the God of Israel. His is a total conversion that we should admire. We also read a story of great humility—how Naaman is forced to obey the simple instructions of God’s prophet rather than follow his own path. But the aspect that hit me this morning is the straightforwardness of God’s plan.

Naaman is a leper. Despite all his accomplishments, he remains a social pariah. Imagine being an A-list celebrity who has a contagious disease that means you can’t come within 10 yards of another human being. Basically, he had control over everything…except his own health. Kind of ironic, huh? And, as “chance” would have it, a servant in his master’s house was an Israelite woman, who recommended that he go and see Elisha. So, having received permission for the journey, Naaman sets off with a truck-load of wealth. (At today’s silver price of $39.30/oz, the ten talents of silver alone are worth $429,843.75). He makes his way to Israel, and, after a brief meeting with the king, finds himself at Elisha’s house.

The fact that Naaman has brought all of this wealth should suggest to us that he is taking this encounter pretty seriously. He’s willing to do just about anything to be cured of his leprosy. So, when Elisha refuses even to see him and instead sends word that Naaman should dip himself in the Jordan River seven times, Naaman gets pretty angry. Before he storms off, his servant offers a word of wisdom: “You’ve come all this way. Why not try what the holy man said to do?” Naturally, when he does, he is healed, and his dramatic conversion follows.

How often do we ask God for something only to refuse to believe how simple the answer might be? “God, I’m in a real pickle here. Tell me what to do.” The answer is usually the same, “Trust me. I’ll take care of you.” But that’s often the hardest thing for us to hear. Trusting isn’t doing—or so it seems in our moment of crisis. I want to be active. I want to manufacture my own relief. But God won’t let it happen that way. He just wants us to trust him—to trust that things will work out right. But I have such a hard time doing that.

Naaman’s message to me is that God’s salvation is usually easier and more straightforward than I want it to be. I want to be saved on my own terms. “Surely it must be more difficult than that!” But God always says, “No, all you have to do is trust me.” Grace is free, but the fact that it’s free makes is hard to accept.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Holy Cross Day

Have you ever had the sort of occasion or moment that needed an extra celebration? The other day, someone told me that she was taking a whole month to celebrate her birthday. I don’t remember whether that was a particularly momentous birthday (i.e., the kind that ends in a “0”), but it seemed to me that she needed some extra time to come to grips with the fact that she is another year older. And I guess that is true in some circumstances—sometimes we need a second or third go-round to figure it out.

Holy Cross Day (HCD) is one of those days—or so it seems. We already have a day commemorating the crucifixion. Good Friday is the day when we remember Jesus’ death on the cross. But we also have today—another celebration, another chance to remember the cross.

I know that HCD has its own separate history. Apparently, as legend has it, Constantine’s mother went to Jerusalem and found a piece of the actual, original cross upon which Jesus died. She brough that piece back to the capital of the Roman Empire, and a cathedral was built around that relic. The translation of that piece of wood became known as HCD. Now, I don’t really know how important it is that we remember the work of good old Constantine’s mother, but I do think it’s important that the church take another opportunity to study the cross.

And perhaps that is the chief way in which HCD is different from Good Friday. Today, HCD, we remember the cross itself. Perhaps it’s silly to think that one can remember or celebrate the instrument of death and not have in mind the person who is almost exclusively associated with that form of death, but I think it’s an important distinction. We aren’t celebrating the fact that Jesus died for our sins. Today, we celebrate the instrument itself. The symbol. The cross.

In today’s (optional) reading from Galatians, we read that Paul plans to boast only in the cross of Christ. And we read that because of the cross, nothing else matters. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision. In light of the new creation—that which was wrought through the hard wood of the cross—nothing else matters. And that’s significant. The cross itself is its own part of the story. The cross is what makes the crucifixion a new moment in human history.

Although it’s true that the crucifixion itself is a distinct moment for salvation history, the cross itself has something else to say. Good Friday is always tied to Easter. They are inseparable. But we need to linger longer at Calvary in order to get the full statement that the cross itself represents. The message of the cross is this: God could have chosen any method to deliver his message of universal, limitless love to the world, but he chose the cross. Not a throne—a cross.

God disclosed himself to us in weakness rather than in strength. God chose suffering over success. God chose shame over glory. And that’s no accident. God’s nature is most fully revealed in suffering. (I’m not suggesting that God suffers. Instead, that God is to be found in suffering.)

The heart of God’s self-disclosure is suffering itself. Paradox of paradoxes! The cross is the sign to the world that God isn’t absent in a moment of suffering. God is fully present in that suffering. In fact, it might even be said that the closest we can get to God is in our own moments of anguish and pain. God is near us…not so much when we pray but when we feel pain.

HCD is a reminder to us that suffering isn’t godless. God isn’t absent in our weakest moments. Instead, as Bonhoeffer writes in his Letters and Papers from Prison, God chooses suffering to show himself to us. Suffering is in and of itself holy. That doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to put on a happy face and pretend that everything will be ok one day. And it also doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to give up our eschatological hope that one day all suffering will be removed. We do cling to that hope. Instead, HCD means that our suffering isn’t empty. It does not represent a moment when God is absent. Quite the contrary. God is with us most fully through suffering. What a message of redemption!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Stumbling Block or High Hurdle?

I’m from Alabama. I grew up in Fairhope. I suppose technically I was born in Georgia, but I moved to Alabama when I was 6, so I claim it as my home. Like many Alabamians, I grew up going to church. It was assumed that my family and I would be in church every single Sunday. In fact, I honestly cannot remember a single Sunday morning when my family was at home that we did not wake up and go to church.

For those of us who grew up in the American south, going to church every Sunday, it’s hard for us to accept just how unacceptable the Christian story might be to others who were not submerged in it from an early age. But the central message of our faith—that the savior of the world was executed on the cross in order that we might go with him to heaven—is pretty hard to get our minds around.

I’m not talking about the challenge of understanding the mechanics of salvation. One needn’t be expected to understand the differences between substitutionary atonement (Jesus took our place) and incarnational salvation (Jesus took on our nature so that we might take on God’s). I mean the simple fact that, at the end of our story, our hero died. Now, of course, for Christians that isn’t the end of the story. There’s Easter. Jesus rises from the dead. But we Christians who have known this faith for our entire lives can’t separate those two aspects of our faith—cross and resurrection. But I think the rest of the world has a hard time getting to the third day. I think they’re still trying to figure out why the son of God died on the cross.

Paul’s ministry was exercised in a very different time and place (of course). Whenever he was preaching the gospel or writing letters to churches, he was doing so in a context that didn’t accept as given that the savior of the world would be crucified. In fact, he was dealing with the exact opposite. “Wait, you mean you’re asking me to believe that the messiah was crucified? That’s silly. God doesn’t let his chosen one be crucified. The only people who end up with that kind of punishment are those who really ticked God off. He must have deserved it—at the divine level.” In other words, what we don’t realize is that the cross was a really, really hard thing to accept back then. And I think it still is today.

In today’s epistle lesson (1 Corinthians 1:20-31), Paul writes, “We preach Christ crucified—a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Paul knew his audience. He knew it would be hard to convince people that salvation came through shame and torture and death. But he also knew that that was how God worked. God’s ultimate expression of his identity came through a message of selfless, sacrificial love rather than through a message of amazing, unequaled power.

We preach Christ crucified. But I don’t think we do a very good job of it. I think we’re still under the impression that people just want to hear that message. I think we’re scattering the fact that Jesus died on the cross around on the ground as if the chickens will gobble it up. But that’s a hard pill to swallow. “You want me to associate my concept of the all-powerful with an agonizing death? Then how is God supposed to still be God?” But that’s precisely who God is.

I think the church (including yours truly) needs to do a better job of bringing the message of the cross to a place where people can grab hold of it. It’s too counter-intuitive to expect people to be attracted to its paradoxical beauty. (It’s hard to worship a paradox.) We need to tell the world that we have the most wonderful news to share, but we need to admit that that news is a little weird. In order to believe it, one needs to let go of his expectations about God (power, majesty, might) and start with the love of the cross. Then we can get to Easter. Then we can get to resurrection. Then we can get to true life.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Rock Star Priest?

This past weekend, a friend and fellow-priest showed me his prayer book. It’s a well-worn book with crinkled and stained pages. In fact, he’s had it so long, he even went to the trouble of having it recovered. Like a favorite old sofa, this prayer book seems to have invited a special attachment to him. He showed me why.

Inside the book, written in tiny penciled script, are names and dates. On the pages for the Burial of the Dead, there are many, many names, dates, and causes of death—each a reminder of a relationship from the past. On the pages in the marriage service, there are a number of names, and each one of them represents a different love story. On the baptismal pages, wrinkled and crinkled because of accidental splashes, there is a fairly long list of names—mostly those of babies but also several of adults—and each one of them holds such promise as they represent the beginning of a Christian life.

In today’s epistle lesson (1 Corinthians 1:1-19), Paul recalls (sort of) the names of those people whom he baptized in Corinth. Mainly, however, he’s recalling all those people he didn’t baptize. Apparently, some distinctions and contentions had arisen in the Corinthian community about who was baptized by whom. Having experienced regularly parishioners who cross the aisle to receive Communion from a different priest, I can imagine what sort of arguments broke out in the nascent church in Corinth: “I was baptized by Paul,” brags one convert. “Yeah? Well, Apollos dunked me, and everyone knows he was the real evangelist here.” Silly? Maybe…maybe not.

We often develop attachments to the people ministering to us. I have a favorite Sunday school teacher from my childhood. (I certainly have least favorites.) Some of my youth ministers were more compelling than others. Some of my seminary professors inspired me, while others seemed to weigh me down. That’s fine. We can have favorites. But we can’t allow ministry to become about the minister.

Also, this weekend I had a chance to watch a few of Rob Bell’s Nooma videos. I love the format and the content. I also love Rob Bell—his voice, his hair, his image. But can I hear the good news of Jesus Christ if I’m obsessing about the guy who’s preaching it? I’m supposed to fall in love with the message—with God—and not with the person delivering that message. That’s the classic case of the mega-church pastor (cf. Rob Bell’s own career path), the small-church youth minister, or even the average-church priest.
There’s a danger that ministers of the gospel become too popular. And there’s a danger that we allow ourselves to focus too much on the preacher. Paul’s experience in Corinth suggested that we are supposed to build relationships…but only to the extent that those relationships point others to the gospel. In other words, I’m allowed to make friends in my ministry, but I need to remember and to remind others that I’m only a stand-in for someone more important.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Collect for Labor Day

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I’m not sure it’s fair to call Labor Day a “Feast Day” in the Episcopal Church, but we do have defined propers for the occasion. And, even though we aren’t opening up the front doors to the church building in order to usher in the crowd that is looking for a place to worship on Labor Day, the church does have something to say about labor. This year, with our national focus so squarely fixed on jobs (or the lack of them), Labor Day seems a particularly appropriate time for religious reflection.

The collect for Labor Day, which is found at the top of this post, says some remarkable things about our common labor. First, a word about collects in general. Collects are a special form of prayer, which are designed to bring together (hence the name “collect”) all our prayers on a certain occasion into one articulation. Usually, this type of prayer begins with an ascription of divine identity—saying something about who God is. Next it makes a petition—asking God to do something. Then it envisions the fulfillment of that petition—stating what we hope will happen as the petition is granted. Finally it concludes with the familiar acknowledgment of God’s triune reign over all creation. We don’t make it very far into this collect before we encounter some bold theological assertions about our common toil.

We pray, “Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives…” Do we believe that? Do we really believe that everything we do impacts the lives of everyone else? When was the last time you contemplated the global (if not intergalactic) impact of your daily life and work? If we really believed that our lives were that causally linked, would that change the way we approached this period of economic challenge?

As the prayer reaches its climax, we say, “make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work.” For the most part, the anxiety and worry I have felt during recent months/years has been personal. “How will this affect my life? What will this do to my portfolio? How will those I love handle this downturn? What will this do for our stewardship drive or our capital campaign?” But I think this collect envisions a deeper and broader concern for the welfare of others. How has this economic crisis affected all of us?

For many of us—especially those of us in the American south—socialism is a dirty word. It suggests a particular political-economic system as the “right” way to run a country. In the context of the gospel, socialism is something different. It’s a way of living in Christian community. Is it practical for the federal government to operate as the apostles did in the earliest days of the church—holding everything in common and dividing up labor and resources according to the needs of the entire group? No, surely the bible isn’t asking us to replicate the communal policies enacted in Acts at the federal level. But as Christians we are supposed to recognize our common life together. And, if we are truly aware of how intimately tied together our lives are, wouldn’t we choose to govern our personal lives more like the apostles?

Labor Day is a chance to celebrate our common life together—how each of us contributes for the good or ill of the rest of humanity. Some might conclude that it’s impossible to separate the political and religious spheres of life. Others think government and religion must have separate interests. Either way, as Christians we are called to acknowledge the ways in which we are linked together and then live accordingly.