Wednesday, November 30, 2011

St. Andrew's Day

It’s St. Andrew’s feast day, and that makes me think about Scotland. I love Scotland—not as much as others (e.g., Jonathan Chesney)—but I do love a good bagpipe (when outdoors and at a great distance) and a good haggis (when accompanied by a goodly quantity of Scotch whisky). But I’m actually a little embarrassed that I think of Scotland first when I remember it is St. Andrew’s day.

St. Andrew never went to Scotland. His bones made an unexpected pit stop, which led to the founding of the city in Scotland that bears his name, but his ministry was never focused there. In some ways, the connection between Scotland and St. Andrew is a happy accident. I don’t know about the connection between Andrew and Russia, another nation for which he is the patron saint, but I’m willing to bet he never made it to Moscow either.

All of that to say that there are better reasons for us to remember Andrew, and I think today’s gospel lesson bears that out. In Matthew’s version of the calling of the disciples, Andrew and Peter are the first whom Jesus calls. In that account, we get scant details about the background—Did the disciples know who Jesus was? Had they heard enough about him by reputation that they were willing to follow him so readily? Had they met him in a previous, undisclosed encounter? I think the answer is no…or at least it’s not supposed to be yes. Matthew tells the story this way because he wants us to be most impressed with Andrew’s willingness to say yes.

Honestly, we don’t know a lot about Andrew, which is why his connection with things like Scotland dominate our remembrance of him. He’s mentioned several times in the bible, but always as a disciple or apostle and never about what he did after Jesus ascended into heaven. Early church leaders record that he went to places like “Cappadocia, Galatia, and Bithynia” before being crucified on a supposedly X-shaped cross (hence the flag) ( But what we do know about Andrew is that he said yes, and he did so without hesitation.

What does it mean to remember St. Andrew? What does it mean to have faith like his? Well, what is Jesus calling us to do? And are we willing to drop everything and follow? If we want to remember Andrew, let’s start by asking how we might follow in his footsteps—not to Scotland or Russia or even Bithynia—but out of whatever boat we’re being called from and without hesitation.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cause and Effect

Does God cause bad things to happen? Amos thought so.

I read the lesson from Amos this morning (3:1-11), and I was astounded. Not only is it clear that God is responsible for disasters—“Does disaster befall a city, unless the LORD has done it?”—but Amos suggests that such a horrific-in-the-21st-century conclusion should be obvious. He writes, “Does a bird fall into a snare on the earth, when there is no trap for it? Does a snare spring up from the ground, when it has taken nothing?” In other words, he says, “It’s obvious, folks. God is behind everything that happens. Can’t you see that?”

But I’m not sure that’s where we are as contemporary Christians. In fact, whether Christian or not, I’m not sure that’s where many contemporary humans are. It’s hard for us to figure out how God can be both all-loving and the source of things like earthquakes, famine, floods, and tsunami. Why was that so much easier back then?

Do you think it’s because Amos and his compatriots didn’t believe that God was all-loving? That might be the easy answer—just to assume that ancient Israel thought of God as an angry, mean-spirited torturer. But that’s not the case. Look at the first few verses in today’s reading: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” God identifies Israel as his own family. He’s not out to get them because he doesn’t love them. God’s love must be more complicated than that.

And that’s where I think the real gap exists through the centuries. We have grown and matured as a people. We understand that earthquakes are the result of tectonic plates shifting, submerging, and abutting. We don’t automatically assume that an earthquake is God’s punishment for his people. But that doesn’t mean the two concepts are completely divorced from each other. And that’s what I think the role of the prophet is.

Did God cause the nations around Israel to rise up and attack his chosen people, sending them into exile? Well, sort of. But it was mostly the natural result of geopolitical developments in the 8th, 7th, and 6th centuries BCE. The real question, however, isn’t whether God caused it to happen but what are we supposed to make of it. Prophets aren’t about telling the future—though sometimes they can see good or bad things on the horizon. Prophets are about making sense of the world around them and calling God’s people to make those connections.

Did God cause Hurricane Katrina to flood New Orleans and kill so many people? That’s a repugnant question—and I don’t seek to answer it here. But an appropriate question for us is this: How can such tragedy point us to God’s presence and will for the world? Is it fair to ask where God was in that devastation? Absolutely. Is it ok if the answer is nowhere? Sure. Should our ultimate conclusion be that God abandoned the people of the lower 9th ward? No. Our history throughout all those centuries—as exemplified by Amos’ task—has shown that God repeatedly reaches out to his people in good and bad times. It’s easy to find God when things are great. It’s hard to figure out where God is when things go wrong. And that’s why we have prophets. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Passport Photos

Sometimes the best way to read and study a bible passage is simply to allow it to take your mind wherever it wants to go. I’m not sure this is a good example of that, but, when I read this morning’s Old Testament lesson (Amos 2:9-16), I thought about passport pictures.

The prophet writes God’s word to his people, “And I raised up some of your children to be prophets and some of your youths to be nazirites. Is it not indeed so, O people of Israel? says the LORD. But you made the nazirites drink wine, and commanded the prophets, saying, ‘You shall not prophesy.’” God reminds Israel that he had given them spiritual leaders only to have their leadership rejected. But, in this case, not only were they ignored (what we usually do to a prophet), their precise gift was rejected by the people.

Nazirites are those who adopted a strict lifestyle of holiness (think John the Baptist), whose public stance on things like alcoholic beverages and radical haircuts was a witness to others about God’s will for the world. By forcing the nazirites to drink wine, God’s people were thumbing their nose at what it meant to be holy. Prophets, of course, are easier for us to understand. They are those who have been sent to deliver a message from God. But turning a deaf ear to a prophet is different from commanding that a prophet cannot speak. Israel didn’t even want to give God’s chosen messengers the opportunity to exercise their ministry.

I accept the fact that I cannot know what it is like to be forced to remove a religious veil worn for divinely commanded modesty before having my passport photo taken, but I wonder whether there’s a similarity with this passage. State Department guidelines allow for hats or headscarves to be worn even if they obscure the hairline as long as they are worn daily for religious purposes, but the face-covering veil cannot be worn. And that makes sense. We still rely on visual face recognition to identify individuals passing through immigration checkpoints. But what does it feel like to be forced to give up something that defines your religious identity (your relationship with God) in order to meet government obligations?

I realize that this comparison only goes so far. Its real purpose is to invite further reflection. In what other ways are we inhibiting God’s people from showing us his will? What other cultural, political, or institutional practices are preventing prophets or nazirites or other religious people from speaking God’s word or demonstrating his will? A better question: in what ways have I refused to allow a prophetic witness to speak to me because I’ve dismissed it before it even reaches me? Honestly, there are lots. Prophets don’t usually come with name badges that identify them as such. Nazirites are usually weirdos with whom we don’t like to spend time. What might I be missing?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving Day Sermon - Year A (11/24/11)

November 24, 2011 – Thanksgiving Day, Year A

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

I remember how I felt the first time I led worship at seminary. From time to time, people ask me if I get nervous when I preach or preside at a service in church. Usually, the answer is no. Occasionally, something special will stir up inside of me, and I’ll feel those exhilarating butterflies in my stomach. But, when it comes to leading worship for a bunch of future priests, nervous doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Here in church, everyone is watching and paying attention to what I say or do, generally just interested in how the service will go. In seminary, everyone watches with a hypercritical eye, waiting to pounce upon the slightest error with that smug sense of clerical superiority. They might not say it, but they all think that they can do a better job than everyone else. And, when I wasn’t standing up here, those thoughts weren’t far from my mind.

Only in my second month of seminary, I hadn’t been around long enough to appreciate that fact, so, when I noticed that November 27 was available, I signed up to lead worship that day without really thinking about it. That year—2003—November 27 fell on a Thursday. For an American like me, that was Thanksgiving Day, but, for the rest of the seminary residents, it was just the fourth Thursday in November. I saw it as a chance to bring a little American holiday observance to Cambridge.

As I prepared for the service, I told some colleagues that I hoped to mark that occasion by incorporating elements of the Thanksgiving holiday into our usual morning worship. The response I got caught me off guard. “Why would you do that?” they asked. “That’s typical of Americans, isn’t it? Needing to set aside a special day to be thankful. Aren’t we supposed to give thanks every day?” I panicked. How could someone not like Thanksgiving? What is there not to love about it? Turkey and dressing and pilgrims and Indians. Come on, it’s Thanksgiving? But, then again, maybe they were right. Do we really need to set aside a national holiday in order to induce a sentiment of communal gratitude? Shouldn’t we be thankful every day?

In our Old Testament lesson, we get a glimpse into why structured observances like Thanksgiving Day are not only good but also necessary. With more than a hint of foreshadowing, Moses said to the people of Israel, “Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinance, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses…do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord.” What happened? Of course, it was exactly what Moses had feared. The people did forget. They moved into the land that God had given them, and they built their fine houses and ate their rich foods and amassed their great wealth, and then they forgot that it was God who had given it all to them in the first place.

There’s something about human nature that causes us to take more credit than we deserve. Just as Moses warned, our tendency is to say to ourselves, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But, of course, that isn’t true. Behind every success and beneath every accomplishment is God’s gift. It all comes from God. And that’s easy to remember when it first happens. We remember to say thank you to God when we land that new job, when our child is newly born, or when that first lottery check comes in. But, once we’ve lived in that place of plenty long enough, the real source of our blessings gets buried beneath our own self-importance. “Look at what I’ve done!” we say to ourselves. But that’s a long way from thanksgiving.

We forget to give thanks because that’s our nature. Remembering to be thankful takes one of two things. Either the bottom falls out, and we become thankful out of necessity, or we set aside ritual observances through which a greater sense of gratitude can develop. In the former case, the motive has less to do with thanksgiving and more to do with fear. When the markets crash and we have nothing left, we suddenly realize what it means to depend upon God’s generosity. When the doctor walks in and gives us bad news, suddenly everything in life is worth being thankful for.

But, thank goodness, those moments are rare. And I think you’ll agree that it’s better for us to be grateful when things are plentiful than to wait for catastrophe to hit. So what does it take to be thankful when everything is going well? What do we have to do to stay in that place of total gratitude even though it’s our tendency to forget the source of our blessings? I think it starts with days like today—with appointed occasions for giving thanks.

In order to help them remember the source of all that they had been given, the nation of Israel had a host of obligatory gestures of thanksgiving. Offerings from individuals and the whole nation were appointed for everything from the birth of a child to the ingathering of a harvest. Each day, people would give to God an offering of thanks as a reminder of all for which they were grateful. I’m sure that some of those offerings were more heartfelt than others, but that’s not the point. The purpose of having a regular, ritualistic pattern of thanksgiving is so that habits of thankfulness can form. That’s why Moses told his people not to forget those statues and ordinances—because once we stop going through the motions of being thankful, gratitude itself begins to slip away.

What are some ways in your life that you are regularly and routinely thankful? And I hope the answer is something more than observing the fourth Thursday of November as a national holiday. How have you incorporated a practice of gratitude into your life? Do you write down those things for which you are most grateful in a daily journal? Do you thank God each day in your prayers for all that he has given you? Have you decided to give back to God the first ten percent of all that he has given you—that stewardship practice known as the tithe?

My friends in England were right about one thing: we are supposed to be thankful more often than once a year. But getting to that place of true gratitude starts with a pattern of thanksgiving. Adopt a practice of giving thanks to God for all that he has given you. Often the practice itself is what leads to heartfelt gratitude. Amen.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Apples and Oranges

Just when I think Jesus has a zinger left in his quiver, he goes and gets soft on me. Today’s gospel lesson about it being harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle (Matt. 19:23-30) is the perfect place for Jesus to shatter Peter and the disciples’ worldly expectations of success. But then, right when the moment comes, Jesus tosses them a softball instead of a high-and-tight, 95-mph, better-duck-or-your-career-is-over fastball. What happened?

Jesus is continuing on from his encounter with the rich young man (see yesterday), and he explains what has happened (why he sent the man away discouraged) by making the hyperbolic comparison with the camel and needle. It’s the ultimate teaching that those who hold onto their wealth can’t fit into God’s kingdom. That’s a hard teaching, and it’s supposed to be hard. We’re supposed to be challenged by that. We’re supposed to finish this lesson and squirm in our seats more than just a little uncomfortable at Jesus’ words. And we can tell that the disciples were there—they were right at that point. Peter says, “How then can anyone be saved?” And Jesus’ initial reply should be enough—“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” But then he keeps going.

Peter, hoping to make himself feel better, asks Jesus, “Master, what about those of us who have left everything to follow you?” And Jesus replies, “Those who have left their earthly life and all the stuff that comes with it behind will inherit treasure in heaven—100x what they left.” That’s nice and all, but it caters to my human need for physical remuneration. And I don’t like that part of me. I want to know what sort of reward I’m going to get.

Do you remember that great moment in Field of Dreams when Kevin Costner’s character looks at the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson and says, “What’s in it for me?” It’s a moment when the main character breaks down a little bit and shows his human side in an almost repugnant though still endearing human quality. That’s not what we’re supposed to do. We’re not supposed to follow Jesus just to get a heavenly reward. I hate to say it, but this isn’t the kind of equation that lends itself to a cost-benefit analysis. You shouldn’t become a Christian because you think the heavenly reward will be 100x richer than your earthly life. That’s like trying to fit a camel through the eye of a needle. God’s kingdom doesn’t work that way.

There is a reward, and that reward is far greater than anything we have on earth. I think that’s what Jesus means when he uses the 100x multiplier. It’s an image rather than a calculation. But the quality of eternal life in heaven is so completely magnificent that it doesn’t lend itself to a comparison with earthly wealth.

But this is supposed to be a comforting passage. We’re supposed to realize that there is a good reason for giving up our earthly life. And Jesus is using whatever words we can understand. In this case, it’s about reminding us that there is a reason we accept the sacrifice of the Christian life. There is something more wonderful waiting for us. But it’s not as simple as more money or more happiness. It’s immediate fellowship with God. But how do you describe that?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Why Children?

Why children? That’s the question on my mind today. In this morning’s gospel lesson (Matthew 19:13-22), we have the familiar and sweet, “Suffer the little children unto me.” The crowd is bringing children to Jesus, but the disciples don’t like that, so they try to stop it from happening. But Jesus intervenes and says, “Let them come—for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” And then he lays hands on them and moves on with his day. So why children?

This passage is in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), but why? Why is this important? Nothing happens. No one is healed. No dramatic revelation about the nature of Christ or the nature of God is given in this conversation. There is hardly a teaching here (kingdom of heaven belongs to children). Why this passage? There are lots of stories about Jesus that didn’t make it into the gospel, so why did this one make it in? I don’t think it’s because Jesus is sweet, and we need to think of him that way. I don’t think it’s because Jesus was good with children—though he may have been. I don’ think it’s because this encounter makes for a good story. So why children?

I think the answer lies in all the other stories around this one. And it’s interested to me that this passage is part of a longer stretch of stories that is almost identical in all three synoptics. Let’s start with the rest of today’s reading: the rich young man comes to Jesus and says, “What do I need to do to get to heaven?” And Jesus says, “Keep the commandments.” The man seems to have done all of that, so Jesus says, “You’re missing one thing. Go and sell all that you have and give it away and follow me, and then you will have treasure in heaven.” Of course, as the story goes, that makes the man sad because he was rich. I believe that’s the reason for the children.

They are a contrast—a wonderful counterbalance to the rich young man. The man is approaching the kingdom the way every adult does. “What do I need to get in?” But the kingdom belongs to those who look at it like children—who just want to be close to Jesus.

Another example: have you ever tried to make a deal with a 5-year-old? I remember from my childhood that I could often convince my younger brother to make wild and foolish trades with me as long as I played the deal right. He was willing to give up every toy he had if I could make that one bucket of mud seem appealing enough. That’s because children don’t value things the way adults do. Children live in the moment—the immediate is all that matters. They don’t worry whether they have enough money to pay bills. They don’t care about account balances or stock markets. All they want is what they need right now. And that’s how the kingdom works.

Usually, I subscribe to the “simple is best” approach to biblical interpretation. Just read the passage and see what it means. But this time, I think we need to read this lesson in its broader context. Matthew, Mark, and Luke set these two stories right next to each other for a reason. The story about children is included to help us know how we are supposed to approach the kingdom.

If you have a minute, take a look at the other passages around this one. All three synoptics have very similar stories at this point in their accounts (Mark 10, Matthew 19, and Luke 18). There’s the teaching on divorce—what does God really want us to do? There’s Jesus’ prediction of his death. There’s the question of whether James and John get to sit at Jesus right and left in heaven. There’s the healing of the blind, and then there’s the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. This is all about the kingdom and how we’re supposed to approach it. The children play a lynchpin role in this series. They are the real teaching here. Why children? Because we’re supposed to learn a lot from them.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Good News

A few years ago, on Easter Eve, a buzz started spreading through the church. We were at the Easter Vigil, and Kedron Jarvis, the preacher, climbed down from the pulpit, ran back into the sanctuary, and whispered something to one of our acolytes. This move was totally unexpected, and the acolyte’s face revealed nothing but astonished confusion. Then, Kedron ran down the chancel steps into the nave and began whispering to a few members of the congregation. We all stood and watched and wondered. Of course, we all wanted to know the same thing: What’s she saying?

If I remember correctly, she was demonstrating how the good news that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead began to spread through the Christian community. It was good news indeed, and the women who followed Jesus and his first disciples began passing along the confusing, astonishing news that their master’s tomb was empty. It took a little while for the message to become clear, but eventually word got out. That news was too good to keep private. It had to be shared.

At the end of today’s epistle lesson (1 Peter 1:1-12), we read a wonderful, irresistible description of good news: “It was revealed to [the prophets] that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things which have now been announced to you by those who preached the good news to you through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.” It’s that last little bit that grabs my attention—“things into which angels long to look.” What great marketing! Peter writes about this wonderful revelation of good news that is so fabulous that even angels are eager to hear it.

He’s right, of course. The message of God’s gracious salvation through the life, death, and resurrection of his son Jesus Christ is good news of the first order. It’s life-changing, life-empowering good news. It’s the kind of news that is so good it just shouldn’t be kept quiet. So why are we sitting on it like it’s a secret to be kept?

For a myriad of cultural and personal reasons, evangelism is tough. We don’t like inviting someone to church because it may be politically incorrect to imply that we have an answer that someone else might not. We don’t like sharing our faith with others because we don’t exactly know what to say. We don’t like telling people that Jesus Christ is risen because the king of people who usually do that are the preachers on television with whom we’d rather not be mistaken. But if you’ve heard the good news as just that—good news—then why wouldn’t you be eager to share it?

Forget all of the religiosity that accompanies the Christian faith. Put aside all the tricks and sermons and bible trivia you might think go with Christianity. Start, instead, with your experience of faith. What do you think about Jesus? Why are you a Christian? To what extent do you think the good news is good for you? If you can get to that simple, straight-forward place, then you’ve got something to share. If you can get back to the good news, you will find something worth passing on.

In Peter’s day, the good news was new. It was shocking and powerful and life-giving. All of those things are true today. Our collective reticence indicates that we’ve let our faith get clouded by things that distract from the good news—guilt, hell, money, morality, sectarianism, politics, etc.. Yes, our faith has something to say about all of those things, but the good news needs to come first. Rediscover that message that even angels are dying to hear, and find someone with whom you can share it.

Sunday Sermon - Last Pentecost: Christ the King, Proper 29A (11/20/11)

November 20, 2011 – Last Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King, Proper 29A
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

About fifteen years ago, my father and I took a trip to Texas. I was nearing the end of my high-school career, and we headed west to look at Rice University in Houston and Trinity University in San Antonio. Since most of my college tours had been conducted with my mother at my side, a trip with my dad was a chance to mix collegiate investigation with a manly exploration of Texas culture. When we spent the night in San Antonio, it seemed appropriate for us to venture out to an authentic Tex-Mex restaurant.

We were glad to sit down at the table after a long day of driving and touring. Meals between a teenage son and his father are often uncomfortable, but this night everything seemed to be going right. My father ordered a margarita, and I ordered some sweet tea, and we began to look through the menu. “So many great choices,” my father said. I agreed as I scanned through the long list of dishes. Most of them were familiar to me, but a few were not. As I tried to hone in on my selection, my dad said almost to himself, “I can’t decide between the fajitas and the cabrito. What about you?” “Cabrito,” I replied, “What’s that?” “Baby goat,” my father said without hesitation, “It’s delicious.”

The seed had been planted. It germinated in my brain while I looked over the rest of the menu. Finally, when my father reached his decision, he announced that he would be ordering fajitas even though the cabrito sounded great. “Really? Cabrito?” I asked. “Sure, he said. It’s fabulous—especially in a place like this. But I can’t pass up the fajitas. I’m sure they don’t get much better than they are here.” “Ok, then,” I told him, feeling brave, “I’ll get the cabrito.” “Good choice,” was his reply.

After we both announced our selections to the waiter, who turned and walked away, my father let out a pronounced snicker. “What?” I asked him. “The cabrito,” he said, “I can’t believe you ordered it.” “Wait a minute,” I replied, “I thought you said it was good!” “I’ve never had it,” he exclaimed. “I just wanted to see whether you’d order it.” I had been tricked, and I had chosen poorly, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Later that night, having barely picked at the kid on my plate, my father ribbed me incessantly, asking whether I could feel the cabrito kicking all the way down. “Thanks,” I mumbled in reply, “Thanks a lot.”

That goat, for me, was an unwelcomed surprise. Actually, it was probably delicious, but I never would have known it because my father had played a trick on me. I thought I was ordering something fabulous—something he had enjoyed in the past—something I, too, would surely enjoy. But the dish I was served turned out to be something that I didn’t expect—something I wasn’t looking for. And it was the surprise that did me in.

Today’s gospel lesson is about sheep and goats, both of whom are surprised at how things turn out. Today is the last Sunday after Pentecost—the last Sunday before Advent—a Sunday that has become a celebration of the kingship of Jesus Christ. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been hearing lessons about what the kingdom of God will be like, and today we read about that great and glorious moment when Jesus finally takes his seat upon the throne. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory…,” Matthew writes, “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

I don’t know about you, and maybe it’s still my lingering fear of cabrito, but I get a little uncomfortable when I think about the day of Christ’s kingship being a day when people like you and me are separated like sheep and goats. And I’m even more uncomfortable when I read that those goats who were cast into the outer darkness were as surprised as I was that night in San Antonio to discover their fate. This gospel lesson makes me wonder whether I will be surprised on that day when Jesus comes. And, more importantly, I want to know whether that surprise will be pleasant or terrifying.

For me, the key to understanding this passage—and, indeed, the key to understanding what it means to wait for God’s kingdom—is held in the surprise itself. Both groups—sheep and goats—are surprised when Jesus comes and reveals to them their fate. The king says to those who are declared righteous, “Come, inherit the kingdom, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you gave me clothing, sick and you cared for me, imprisoned and you visited me.” But the righteous ones ask, “When did that happen? When did we see you in need and reach out to take care of you?” And the king says, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

The wicked also are surprised, though in the opposite way. The king declares that when he was hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick, and imprisoned they turned their back on him. “But wait!” they cry. “When did we ignore you? When did we fail to take care of you?” And the king’s damning reply reveals that every time they ignored even one who was in need they were ignoring the king himself. Both groups—both sheep and goats—are surprised to discover what it really means to be a part of God’s kingdom.

When that day comes, I think we’re going to be surprised. I think this scripture lesson tells us that God’s kingdom comes in ways we don’t expect or even realize and that, when we’re given the chance to look back, we’ll be surprised to see where the king of kings showed up. We are supposed to be waiting for the kingdom as if we were waiting for a surprise. But how do you get ready for something you don’t expect? The whole point of jumping out and startling someone is that they don’t see it coming. How, then, can we prepare ourselves for God’s surprising reign?

Well, we look for it around every corner. We wait for it in every moment. We search for it in every relationship, and we seek it in every encounter. This passage isn’t about waiting for God’s kingdom as if it is going to jump out and scare us. It’s about realizing that God’s reign is made manifest on earth when we approach every moment as if God were present and seated on his throne. The surprising truth of God’s kingdom is that it’s already here—all around us—and that God dwells in every moment of our lives.

What does it mean to be righteous? What does it mean to be one of God’s sheep? It means being surprised to discover that we are a part of God’s kingdom and that his kingdom is already here. If we go through life thinking that the kingdom only comes to earth on the last day, then we’ll be surprised to discover that we’ve been missing it our whole lives. We are already God’s sheep. We are his beloved children. So let your identity as God’s chosen and beloved so transform your life that every moment becomes an opportunity for God’s kingdom to be manifest here on earth. Celebrate the surprising arrival of God’s kingdom in every minute of every day. Rejoice in that wonderful surprise that God’s kingdom is already here and that you are already a part of it. Amen.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Heaven Is Like...

What a beautiful description of heaven in today’s reading from Revelation 21:9-21! And yet what a disservice to 21st-century Christians who read that description as if the most important promises about life everlasting are the physical descriptions of paradise. Although controversial, I suggest that the concrete, physical language of Revelation makes it harder for Christians to maintain hope and faith in the bigger picture—that one day God will make all things right and new and welcome us into his kingdom.

How often have you heard someone say, “Pearly Gates.” We read that each of the gates to the heavenly Jerusalem were made out of one, single pearl. I like oysters, but I don’t want to meet the oyster responsible for that. Of course, that is to miss the point. So, too, is our tendency to imagine ourselves walking down streets of gold, surrounded by walls of jasper, built upon 12-layer foundations of precious jewels. That’s not what heaven is like.

Well, actually, it might be what heaven is like, but that’s not the point. Revelation conveys a promised paradise that is as over-the-top as we could ever imagine. That’s the point. Think you know what paradise will be like? Nope, it’s even better. Think you can imagine what God’s reign will really fell like? Nope, it’s even better. Find yourself dreaming about the day when all war and famine and strife cease? Well, keep on dreaming because it’s even bigger and better and more wonderful than that. Heaven isn’t just what we read about in Revelation. Revelation is asking us to dream even bigger and then realize that our hopes are not tied to a specific image. Our hopes are in God.

What are we waiting for? What are we hoping for? If it’s puffy clouds and harp-wielding angels, we’ve missed the point. God’s redemption isn’t just that. It’s the healing of every brokenness we’ve ever experienced. It’s the promise of everlasting communion with God and with his saints. If it helps to think of jasper and gold and amethyst, then go for it. But I suspect that the more specific our expectations are the harder it is for us to believe and hope for the real fullness of God’s promises.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Well, Then Again...

In this morning's gospel lesson, we read what happens as soon as Jesus, Peter, James, and John come down from the Transfiguration mount, and it isn't pretty. As soon as they reach the bottom of the hill, a man comes up to Jesus and says, "Sir, would you please help my son. He has seizures that throw him both into fire and into water. I asked your disciples to cure him, but they couldn't. Can you help me?" And then we see a side of Jesus that we don't often see.

In a moment of seeming frustration and impatience and disappointment, Jesus says, "You faithless and perverse generation! How long must I be here with you? How long must I put up with you?" That didn't make a lot of sense to me until I remembered what had just happened on top of the mountain. In a miraculous moment, Jesus' clothes began to shine, and Moses and Elijah appeared next to him. Peter, for all his thick-headedness, says to his master, "Lord, can we stay here? Let me build three booths so we can remain in this special place." But, of course, that wasn't to be. God's voice thunders in the clouds, and the magical moment is gone.

But then Jesus has to go back down the mountain and deal with all the stuff that's waiting for him. And that's where we see Jesus asking, "Oh God! How long, how long must I really be here." I think he was reconsidering Peter's offer. I think he wanted to go back up and dwell in that place where everything was right. I think his cry is an acknowledgment that the world is a broken place and that there's much work to be done--perhaps too much work. But Jesus remains, and he heals, and the story goes on.

Jesus lived in two worlds. He was God, and he was man. He was stuck in an oddly liminal life of both divinity and humanity, and he worked to try to make God's presence and God's reign manifest on an earth that so often looks anything but godly. And that can catch up with you after a while. Being in those irreconcilable places can wear you down.

But at the end of the story is a call to faith. Jesus told his disciples, "If you had the faith of a mustard seed, you would be able to move mountains." Indeed, if you were able to live in the realm of faith and not only in the limited world we know so well, then you could do all of these things, too. In other words, we are called by God to live in this world but to maintain the sort of connection with God that enables this world to be transformed. That's what faith is. It's to live here and now--with all the sin and disappointment and physicality and brokenness that goes with this world--yet still be able to see the miraculous as possible.

I don't know if I could ever move a mountain. I'm pretty sure the answer is no. But I'm called to transcend the limits of this world by co-inhabiting the kingdom of God. Faith is that light in a dark place. Faith is that confidence in the midst of doubt. When everything else says, "No," faith says that through God we can.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sunday Sermon - 22 Pentecost, Proper 28A (11/13/11)

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25: 14-30

© 2011 Evan D. Garner

Not long after I found out that I was headed to seminary, I began to tell people that I was going to be a priest. Reactions to that were wide ranging. Some people were glad for me and excited for what that meant for my future. Some were surprised; others were not. Many wanted to know if that meant I could get married and seemed relieved on my behalf when I told them that I could. Most of the family and friends that I spoke with took it as an opportunity to celebrate with me, but one of my relatives had a different reaction. When I told my grandmother that I was going to be a priest, she wept, and her tears were not tears of joy.

My grandmother had plans for my life, and, in her mind, the priesthood was not compatible with those plans. She had watched me grow up, observing with those prideful, rose-colored glasses that only a grandmother can wear. Given her understanding of my gifts and talents—whether real or imagined—she had envisioned that I would pursue a career characterized by power and wealth. The gentle nobility of a calling to the ordained ministry just didn’t fit.

When she started to cry, she didn’t say much. She just shook her head in disappointment. The priesthood seemed like such a waste to her. In her mind, I had been given talents and abilities that would be better used in a grander fashion than this. To her, my choice meant that I was wasting those God-given gifts and thus forsaking a responsibility I had been given by God to be something bigger and better than a priest. Of course, that’s not the way I see it. But, since this is my first Sunday with you, I know that judgment is still out on whether I made the right choice.

If her motives had been more holy, perhaps my grandmother might have had today’s gospel lesson in mind. Jesus said, “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.” This is the parable of the talents: one was given five talents and earned five more; one was given two and earned two more; and the one who was only given one buried it in the ground and earned nothing. On its face, this gospel lesson is about doing something good with the resources and opportunities God has given us. It’s a warning not to waste those gifts by going through life overly cautious and taking the safer road. In other words, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

But it’s also more than that. This isn’t just advice on how to live our lives. Jesus tells this parable to give us a glimpse of how God’s kingdom works. The “it” that Jesus refers to in the opening verse is “the kingdom of heaven.” So this isn’t just a sermon about the value of making bold choices. It’s about whether or not we get to go to heaven.

That’s why, as a child, I was always scared of this parable. Would I be able to achieve the kind of returns that the first two servants got for their master? If my getting to heaven depends on my ability to double God’s investment, I’m in big trouble. In earthly terms, if my portfolio manager lags behind the market, then I just get a new manager. He doesn’t go to hell just because he didn’t perform well. Honestly, when I heard this parable and looked within myself, I was scared to discover that, given those kinds of stakes, I might actually respond more like the third servant, who buried his master’s money out fear.

But that’s the real message here, isn’t it? It’s not that we have to achieve a certain level of return on God’s investment. The point is that we are called to approach the kingdom of heaven not in fear but in faith. Jesus is telling us that in order for us to be a part of God’s kingdom we must embrace the opportunity we are given and not hide from it because we are afraid.

The kingdom of heaven is a like a man who, before going on a journey, entrusted to us a tremendous gift and the responsibility that came along with it. We all know that someday he’s going to come back and that he’s going to want to know what we’ve been doing with that gift. That gift, of course, is the gift of grace—of unconditional love and forgiveness. Jesus came to show us that God loves us no matter what and that he wants all of us to live with him in his kingdom. But when we get that sort of invitation—when we realize just how enormous that gift of grace is—it can be paralyzing.

What do you do when someone gives you something so tremendous and generous as that? There’s nothing we can do or say that could ever match it. There’s no thank you note that can express an appropriate level of gratitude. When we receive a gift as enormous as God’s love, the only thing that we can do is accept it and allow it to transform our lives. This parable is about the lavish gift of grace. It’s a story about God’s abundant love for each of us. When the master gives us something that amazing, it’s our duty to embrace it and allow it to grow within our hearts and within our lives.

What does it mean to live a life of grace? What does it mean to accept the responsibility of taking that gift and doing something with it? It’s not about earning a particular return on God’s investment. It’s not about whether we’ve chosen the right path for our lives. Living in response to God’s love is about living a life of faith instead of fear. The real mistake of the third servant is his fearful response. Had he even invested the money with bankers and earned an anemic return, his master would have been satisfied. But to take what God has given us and bury it in the ground is to reject what it means to live in God’s kingdom.

You and I have been given a gift. We have been loved by God without limit. That alone should give us the boldness to go forward with faith and not fear. If you are living in fear that the master will return and find you lacking then you haven’t understood what it means to be loved by God unconditionally. Truly, the only way we find ourselves left out of the kingdom is if we fail to believe that God can really love us that much. We have been given a tremendous gift. What will we do with it? Will we live in fear that we won’t use that gift wisely, or will we embrace it and allow it to grow? Amen.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Best of Times...the Worst of Times

This first and second lessons this morning (1 Maccabees 1:1-28 & Revelation 19:1-10) set up an interesting contrast. The former is a tale about the desecration of the Jerusalem temple and a foreign ruler marching to victory against God’s people. The latter is a vision of God’s complete and everlasting victory over sin and evil. It’s funny to me how they get paired together today.

There are moments in my life when God and God’s power are easy for me to perceive. And there are moments when God’s presence seems nearly impossible to discern. Yet the only variable in that is me. God is constant; I am changing. How can I live in both worlds and understand and believe that God is with me despite my inclination to ignore that?

Have you ever been a part of a group or church community that regularly shared the call and response, “God is good…all the time?” It’s a silly little practice, but there’s value to it. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that God is always good even when the world around us seems so wrong. I’m not suggesting that a little catch phrase can turn our darkest moments into bliss, but I do think it’s right for us to engage in regular and rehearsed remembrance of God’s goodness to us. (There’s a stewardship sermon in here, but I’m going to save that for another time.)

The bottom line is that we must be looking for reminders that God is in control, that God is taking care of us, and that God will never forsake us. Occasionally, we have devastating moments like that of today’s first lesson—when the very heart of who we are and what we love is ripped out. Rarely, things feel like the latter lesson—when victories in our lives feel like the rumbling of mighty thunderpeals. But God is still God in both. Faith—the kind of faith that sustains us—depends upon our ability to remember the latter in the midst of the former. How might we remind ourselves of God’s goodness? What practice might we take on to instill that belief more deeply in our lives so that we might cling to victory in a moment of seeming defeat?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

An Odd Moment to Celebrate

Today’s Old Testament Lesson (Nehemiah 7:73b-8:3, 5-18) is about surprises. The people of God gather together to hear and comprehend the Book of the Law, and, when they do, they are very afraid. “Oh no!” they say to themselves, “We had forgotten about all of this. What will God do to us now?” But Ezra and his fellow priests calmed the people and told them not to worry. “Do not weep or mourn. This is a holy day. Rejoice instead.” What a surprise!

Have you ever had a moment when you suddenly realized just how wrong you were? Usually, in those moments, I want to hide. And, if I’m feeling particularly noble, I feel the need to apologize and display an appropriate amount of public shame and regret so that the offended party will appreciate my remorse. But true forgiveness, like that modeled in this passage, is a restoration of the broken relationship by which any further moping about would be an insult to the act of forgiveness. This time, God didn’t wait Israel to wallow in misery. He wanted them to celebrate that their relationship had been renewed.

This moment in Israel’s history had more to do with the future than with the past. And Ezra and the priests were wise to help God’s people focus on moving forward. They had rediscovered the basis for their right relationship with God. They had been reminded of what it took to live as God’s chosen people. Sure, there were terrible implications for the past. And sometimes it’s good to stop and think about just how mistaken we were. But then we have to move on. If a relationship is worth saving, then it must move to that place where it is defined by its future potential and not by its past brokenness.

What relationships in your life are still defined by the past? Are you living your life with God as if something from yesterday will always be your defining moment? God is ready for you to move on. Be sorry, but then rejoice. The time for a new start is right now.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Falling Crumbs

What if Jesus wasn’t really a nice guy? What if he was a first-class jerk?

Today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 15:21-28) is ripe for wide-ranging and contradictory interpretation. In the story, we read that Jesus was not only dismissive of the “Canaanite woman” but also rude and perhaps even cruel. “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” he said when the woman asked him to heal her daughter. How do you make sense of that statement? How do you read that verse of scripture and still maintain your faith?

Some just ignore it completely and pretend Jesus didn’t really say it. Other prefer to believe that it wasn’t really what Jesus meant—he was just proving a point for the disciples. But what about the third option? Is Jesus really not the sweet, caring person we’ve made him out to be? Might Jesus have actually been a racist? Or might he at least have been having a bad day and shot off in impatience as all of us have at one time or another? We don’t like to think about those possibilities because they force us to admit something about Jesus (and about God) that we’re uncomfortable with—that some people are “chosen” and others are not.

This woman is described as a “Canaanite.” That’s an odd declaration for an individual in Jesus’ day. It was an anachronistic term that evoked the past conflict between Israel and the other inhabitants of the “Promised Land,” who fought each other over the years. Although I didn’t do my homework on this particular point, I’m pretty sure Matthew is the only one who uses this term to describe the woman in this story. Matthew wants us to read this story with all the conflict-laden history that existed between Jews and their neighbors. It’s into that context that the scene unfolds.

Jesus says no. He says it twice, and he says it quite harshly. Personally, I don’t think that Jesus intended to help this woman. I think he was genuinely surprised at the way things unfolded. I think he dismissed her on purpose, and the remarkable point is that the woman—least likely to be helped—ends up getting what she needs. And it all works according to God’s overarching plan.

The people of Israel are the chosen people. But chosen for what? For salvation? Well, yes…but it’s more than that. According to the promise made to Abraham, his descendants were chosen to reveal God’s salvation to the rest of the world. It starts with Israel and spreads to others. Matthew’s Jesus knows this. He lives it. He is the embodiment of the fulfillment of that promise. The bread is given to the children of God, and then the crumbs fall to the rest. Only by participating in the much-bigger story of salvation history can this Canaanite woman receive God’s saving help.

The problem is that we don’t like thinking of ourselves as dogs. We don’t like thinking that the banquet was prepared for someone else and that all we get to do is pick through the leftovers. But that’s where I think the image breaks down. Salvation isn’t “crumbs” in the way we think of them. Yes, it’s through Israel that we are saved, but salvation isn’t a cold half-eaten meatloaf. Salvation is still as rich and beautiful as we’ve ever imagined it to be. But it isn’t us-centered. We don’t get it according to our terms. Salvation is about humility. It’s a gift. We don’t get to preorder it the way we want it. The Jesus (and God) of salvation history isn’t a character in our own play. We participate in the story as God has written it, and for that I am grateful.

Israel was chosen for a purpose, and we (Gentile Christians) are the beneficiaries of that election. We don’t have the first claim on God’s love. But even a derivative claim is more than we could ever dream of. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Repeated History

I spent some time at home with my parents last week. It’s good to be home. It’s good to see them and be reminded of what I already know—how much I love them. One thing I discovered about ten years ago is just how inevitable it is that I will turn into my parents. Since learning that fact, I’ve seen it more and more with each visit. Words out of my mouth mirror those of my mother. Gestures and mannerisms are unconscious duplications of my father’s. I’m becoming my parents, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

In today’s reading from Nehemiah (9:1-25), we see that Israel has a habit of growing into the pattern of her parents. After declaring a fast, dressing in sackcloth, and putting dirt on their foreheads, the people of Israel come together to confess their sins and the sins of their fathers. They spend a quarter of the day in confession—three hours lamenting their transgressions. They recall aloud for God and the people to hear how often they have turned their back on God’s ways. They are truly sorry and humbly repent. But in the midst of their moaning and wailing, they remember something: God’s forgiveness is just as inevitable as their sinfulness.

Ezra prays, “But thou art a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and didst not forsake them, Even when they had made for themselves a molten calf and said, ‘This is your God who brought you up out of Egypt…’ thou in thy great mercies didst not forsake them in the wilderness.” Even after Israel had left the path that God had shown them, God did not withdraw the pillars of cloud or fire, by which they were led back to his ways and on to the promised land. No matter how far away they strayed, God was still leading them back—sometimes gently and sometimes harshly but always leading them back.

In Ezra’s prayer is an acknowledgment that God’s people will continue to sin. He understood that human nature dictates transgression. In human terms, God’s forgiveness doesn’t make sense. Would you forgive someone you knew would betray you a short while later? But God knows and yet forgives and is always ready to forgive. We repeat the shameful history of our forebears, but we also receive the same promise of forgiveness. God’s mercies outlast even our perpetual failures. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


In today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 13:53-58), Jesus goes home to preach and teach in the synagogue in which he grew up. As we read, homecomings aren’t always times to celebrate.

I was asked to return to my childhood home and preach once. It was before I went to seminary, and I had no idea what I was doing. I don’t really remember the sermon itself, but I do remember it wasn’t very good. Afterward, everyone came up and told me they thought it was great. What they really meant was, “I watched you grow up. Now, I heard you preach. That’s remarkable.” They hadn’t actually listened to my sermon. They had simply marveled at the local-boy-makes-sort-of-good. It’s hard for people to get past the things they know.

Jesus returns home after a ministry tour that had included miracles and sermons before great crowds. The multitudes seemed to hang on his every word. And then he goes home and discovers that he’ll always be that cute little carpenter’s son that grew up around the corner on Sycamore Street. It doesn’t really matter how well he preaches. Jesus can’t escape his hometown identity when he’s at home.

I’ve always imagined this story from Jesus’ perspective. In other words, when I read this story, I usually ask myself, “What do the people from my hometown say about me when I return? Do they recognize me? Do they still think of me as the nerdish chubby boy that grew up there?” Instead, I want to try something different. I want to think about this story from the perspective of the crowd.

Whom might I be misunderstanding simply because I grew up with him or her? Whose prophetic word am I unable to hear because I receive it couched exclusively in the terms of a shared childhood? Unfortunately, this episode says a lot more about my inability to leave behind my own limited world view than it says about the world’s inability to understand me. Whom might I be ignoring because I know him too well?

Sometimes it’s a parent, whose wisdom seems locked in my childhood. Sometimes it’s a sibling, who will always be a younger brother—no matter how old we both get. Sometimes it’s a friend, who will always seem obsessed with his date for the Homecoming Dance even though he hasn’t thought of that night in years. Often it’s those people whose names I can’t remember but whose faces I can still see in the halls of our high school. They’re the ones who in my mind will always be the clumsy adolescent they were when we last said goodbye. And it’s not always hometown people. Think of all the other prejudice I allow to color my judgment.  How much am I missing?

God often uses people in powerful ways. I often miss that completely because I’m still thinking about the world that revolves around me. But it’s not about me. And it’s not about you. What might God be doing in our lives that we’ve missed completely because we’re stuck in our own past? How might God be asking us to live into the possibility of newness? What does a fresh start mean in God’s kingdom?