Wednesday, December 19, 2012


In most weeks, I spend Friday with my family. Unless a funeral or conference or some other immovable obligation comes up, Friday is the day when I get to take my kids to school, to work around the house, to have lunch with Elizabeth, to pick the kids up from school, and to spend the afternoon with them. Perhaps I am compensating for the rest of the week, but I really enjoy devoting my Fridays to our family. Last week, I made it through most of Friday blissfully unaware of the news that eventually captured everyone’s attention, but, midway through the afternoon, I checked a newsfeed on my phone and discovered what much of the world had already learned.

I confess that I am the kind of person who prefers to deal with pain and sorrow privately. Although I am puzzled by individuals who use television or radio interviews to express their grief, I recognize that this horrific event has touched nearly every single one of us—silent or not. Regardless of how you are dealing with the death of those twenty-eight human beings, twenty of whom were first-graders, I expect that the images and reports from that community have given you some sense of sorrow, confusion, and vulnerability. For a few of us, this particular tragedy has awakened within us other feelings of loss, and, as the season of Christmas approaches, coping with those dark emotions can be crippling.

Every Christmas, there are those among us who feel sadness more strongly than joy. While the rest of us are singing carols and exchanging presents, they wake up to a day that reminds them of the losses in their life. As Callie preached a few weeks ago, there are some in our congregation whose Christmas cards are a reminder of who is not pictured in them—absent faces of those who have died or who have been separated from us because of broken relationships. Although our whole nation will hold in our hearts the echoes of the pain of Newtown, most of us have a hard time imagining just how painful the holidays can be.

Over the weekend, I used social media like Twitter and Facebook to observe how other preachers and their congregations attempted to deal with Friday’s massacre. The posts that touched me most deeply were the various ways in which individuals and groups expressed the inexplicable hope that is the very foundation of Christianity. The words that resonated most clearly in my heart were those which sought not to explain the tragedy nor predict how or when healing would come but that still articulated the most profound mystery of our faith—our resolute belief that somehow new life springs from death. As I think about the other ways in which people are hurting this season, I find that those same words speak directly to that pain. We do not know how or when, nor do we seek to understand why, but we always cling to the hope that God knows our pain and promises us true healing.

Kingdom-Colored Glasses

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Sound advice, right?

When my wife became pregnant for the first time, I had a hard time keeping it a secret. I was so excited that I wanted to tell anyone and everyone who would listen. Prudence, however, advised reticence—at least until the pregnancy was well established. Eventually, everything worked out well, and our daughter was born.

With our second pregnancy, I was equally excited, and I managed to convince Elizabeth that the same people with whom we wanted to share our joy would also be those with whom we would want to share our pain if anything were to go wrong, so, after a month and a half, we started to tell our closest friends and family. A few weeks later, however, the pregnancy ended with a miscarriage. Since we were still in the early days, the emotional pain was real but not overwhelming, yet, when we eventually learned of another pregnancy, we approached it with caution.

According to Sunday’s gospel lesson, Mary, the mother of Jesus, seems to throw caution to the wind. Still early on in her pregnancy—perhaps only a few weeks after hearing from the Angel Gabriel that she would bear God’s Son—she comes to visit her cousin Elizabeth and exclaims, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”

As her song continues, she recounts the great deeds that the Lord has done—lifting up the lowly, bringing down the powerful, filling those who are hungry, and scattering the proud. Mary doesn’t speak as if these things may or even will someday happen. She proclaims them as if they are already fulfilled—even though Jesus was still several months from being born.

As I read of Mary’s encounter with Elizabeth, it seems to me that the bond shared between these two women—the older who immediately recognizes that Mary is carrying the savior and the younger who is emboldened by the other’s faith—is what gives Mary the strength to see what God is already doing through her and her to-be-born son. As a young, inexperienced mother, Mary astounds me by her confidence and recognition that God’s Incarnation plan is so powerful that nothing—no fear, no doubt—can get in the way.

Mary carries a great potential inside of her, yet she looks out and sees fulfillment. We, too, believe in a great potential—that one day all things will be made right by God. But we also have seen the reality of that potential as expressed in the Incarnation. As we prepare for the second-coming of Christ, I am encouraged to see the world the way Mary does. That means I’m not supposed to look around and notice all the ways in which this world is not like the kingdom of God but to see it as defined by the already-fulfilled promises that God has made to his people. If I were able to see the world the way Mary saw it, how different would my life be? 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

I'm Blessed

The phone rings. I answer it. On the other end is a long pause. Then, the audio kicks in, and a muffled voice surrounded by background noise asks, “May I please speak with Evan Garner?” I know this won’t be good.

“This is he.”

“Hello, Mr. Garner,” the voice from nowhere I know continues. “How are you today?”

“I’m fine. How are you?” (I ask the question as a reflex—no thought goes into it, and no real care for the answer is intended.)

“I’m blessed. Thank you for asking.”

Uh oh. Things just got a whole lot worse.

Why do people say, “I’m blessed?” What do they mean? Do they mean that their state of being at that moment is primarily defined by an appreciation of God’s blessing? Or do they say that with absolutely no consideration for what it means but simply want the hearer to know that they are a person of faith? Or do they say that as a way of upping the faith-based ante: “I’m blessed…and, since you didn’t say it first, clearly you’re not a real Christian.”

I hate it when people tell me they are blessed. Maybe my cynical side is creeping in even more strongly than usual, but when did it become appropriate to answer a common pleasantry by raising the nature of the conversation to a whole new and decidedly religious plane?

There was a different preacher on the same golf course I mentioned in a blog post last week who, when greeted by a clergy colleague from another denomination, answered his friendly greeting by saying, “Oh, I’m blessed.” I hope he shanked one out of bounds on number 8.

Despite whatever I think about people identifying themselves as recipients of divine favor, it seems clear that Mary—of all people—was entitled to give such a reply. In this Sunday’s gospel lesson (or canticle, if you’re reading it), she declares, “My soul magnifies the Lord…Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me…” I know it’s my jaded self-righteousness creeping in again, but, until this year, I’ve always heard Mary’s song, the Magnificat, as an overwhelming expression both of humility and arrogance. Every time I hear it, even though I know she’s earned it, I ask myself, “What kind of person gets to declare that all generations will forever call her blessed?” Mary, of course.

But this year I hear something different. I bet most Christians have heard this all along, but this time I hear Mary saying, “Wow! What an amazing gift! Anyone who looks at me will surely call me blessed for God has done all of this for me!” And that brings me to a theology of blessedness.

What does it mean to be blessed? Where do blessings come from? God, of course, is the answer to the latter question. And I think that’s the point of asking the first one. We are only blessed because of an outside agent. We can’t make ourselves blessed. It’s the kind of thing that has to come from somewhere else.

So that’s what I need to learn to accept when someone says to me, “I’m blessed.” Maybe he isn’t saying, “Look at me and at how good I am! I’m blessed!” Instead, maybe he’s just saying, “God has blessed me, and I’m grateful for it.” Well, even if that isn’t what the person means, perhaps I’m supposed to think it on their behalf.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

I Prefer Cheap(er) Beer

Not long ago, finding specialty beer in Alabama was hard. High-gravity brews were not allowed in the state, and bottles on store shelves were pretty well capped at 6% ABV. Then, an advocacy group called Free the Hops helped change that. One of my favorite places to get a beer in Montgomery began offering a long, long list of beers from around the globe, which ranged in price from $2.50 for a cheap American macrobrew to over $10 for dark, complex beers that come from places like Belgium and Germany. Soon after the list was expanded, a friend of mine reported turning in an expense report from having a beer there with a client only to have his supervisor ask how he could possibly rack up a $50 bar tab before 5:45 p.m.. Well, it happens.

Maybe you noticed yesterday that a Trappist monastery in Belgium released a small number of bottles of its world-famous and extraordinarily difficult-to-get beer in the American market. NPR reported thatselect stores were offering the 15,000 six-packs for $85 apiece. That’s a lot. When I splurge and buy a six-pack of one of my favorite local brews, it costs me $9, and I flinch at that. $85? Really?

The monks of St. Sixtus Abbey need a new home, so they are offering this one-time release to rake in the cash. I’m guessing that most beer lovers who heard the story—even at 5:45am—started thinking about what it must be like to have even one of those precious bottles. But for me the real story wasn’t about the beer. It was about the monks.

The reporter stated with a voice of astonished admiration that these monks spend all day in prayer: “The monks rise at 3 a.m. to start the first of seven sessions.” It was still dark when I heard the story, and I wondered how many other people listening thought about those monks who got up even earlier than they did…and for what? Prayer. The tension in the story was between the monks who, despite sitting on a gold mine of brewing fame, choose only to make 3,800 barrels a year and only to sell it in their brewery store, hidden in the western countryside of Belgium. Once this release is over and they have their new abbey, they’ll go back to business as usual. What does that say to a world that is driven by consumerism?

This is a story about evangelism. It’s the perfect story for a world that would rather hear an invitation to spend $85 on a six-pack rather than a call to a life of prayer and simplicity. Although it wasn’t reported, I wonder whether the monks consider each bottle a way of sharing the good news. I hear that there are people in this world who love God so much that they would let go of the world’s ways and, through their craft, invite others to partake of the same.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Incomprehensible Preaching

We were sorting through left-over Halloween candy the other day. Not much was left. All of the Reese’s peanut-butter cups and the fun-size Snickers had long ago been consumed. We really had to scour the bowl to find anything worth eating. Our five-year-old daughter picked up a small piece of candy with a purple wrapper. “What’s this?” she asked. I looked. It was a Mega Super-Sour Warhead—something I knew right away that she wouldn’t like. And, in that moment, I had a choice.

I could simply tell her that it wasn’t good to eat and ask her to throw it away, ignoring the fact that some people inexplicably do actually like Warheads before quickly moving on to another option. Or I could describe what it really was—a super-sour almost-inedible piece of candy that some people like but that she almost certainly wouldn’t. I chose the latter.

It took longer than I thought—three or four seconds—before her face shriveled up uncontrollably and far longer than I thought—ten or twelve seconds—before she spit it out. “That’s yucky!” she resolutely declared. And a week or so later, when we were looking through the bowl again, I asked her if she wanted another one, and she quickly said, “No thank you!” She had learned an important lesson—sometimes candy isn’t good.

There are lessons in life, it seems, that one must learn by screwing up royally. We all know some of them—bad girlfriends, bad haircuts, bad menu choices. Even though someone might tell us that we’re about to make a bad choice, sometimes our own experience is the only thing that will get through to us. Usually, we learn that lesson as individuals—one painful mistake at a time. But what happens when a whole nation needs to learn it through a painful experience that will last generations?

Today’s reading from Isaiah articulates what I like to call “a theology of obfuscation.” The Lord says to the prophet,

Go and say to this people: 'Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.' Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed. (Isaiah 6:9-10)

In all honesty, that’s one of the most difficult passages of scripture to interpret and explain that I know. Why would God send his messenger to prevent the people from hearing his message? Why would he keep their eyes and ears shut so that they would walk into apostate disaster? The only thing I can think of is that it’s because he knew they needed to learn the lesson the hard way.

What if they had heard the prophet’s call to repent? What if they had stopped their sin and said, “Dear God, we’re sorry. Please forgive us?” How long would that last? Until the next generation had a chance to screw it up all over again? Whether it’s as individuals or as an entire nation, sometimes we need the hard, sharp lessons of life to ensure that we won’t make the same mistake again—even for generations to come.

Looking at it from the other side—the historical-critical side—we might conclude that God didn’t actually want the people to ignore him. Instead, the prophet looked at the situation (repeated refusal to repent and impending disaster) and made sense of it by creating a theology of obfuscation. (As a prophet, you kind of need a back-up plan if the people won’t listen to you, and one way to keep your job is by claiming that God didn’t want the people to listen.) But the end result is the same—we are supposed to learn from our mistakes so we won’t repeat the same mistake over again.

But here’s the really tricky part for me—this is the Old Testament passage used at presbyteral ordinations in the Episcopal Church—at least the first half of it. We don’t get to the “do not comprehend part,” but it’s there—just verses past where we stop. What does that say about my role as preacher and teacher and, yes, even as prophet? Is my job also to stop up ears and harden hearts? No, I don’t think so. I think that’s just human nature. Instead, I think it’s my job to help us realize that we’re supposed to learn from our mistakes and not repeat them. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Back in college, some friends of mine who played on the baseball team had their own little code. When sitting around the cafeteria table, one of them would toss out a word or phrase, and the rest would laugh and nod in agreement. One of the words they used that always got a particularly powerful response was “helmet.” My curiosity got the better of me, so I asked what it meant. “When someone gets defensive,” an insider explained to me, “you tell him ‘helmet’—as if he were putting on a verbal helmet to defend himself.” The effect of that one little word was astounding.

Over the coming days and weeks, I listened more carefully to the team’s banter, and I noticed that when someone called “helmet” one of two things happened: either the individual being accused of defensiveness shrugged his shoulders and let it go or, far more often, he bristled at the accusation and began to defend himself more vigorously. Almost Abbott-and-Costello-like, one player would say, “Helmet!” to which the other player would reply, “I’m not being defensive,” which only solicited a further cry of “Helmet!” Try defending yourself for not being defensive. It won’t work.

Defensiveness is a trap that I know well. Sometimes the littlest things set me off, touching a nerve that produces within me an ardent desire to clear my name. Each of us has tender spots where a vulnerability lies close to the surface. Even the slightest hint of doubt or questioning of that one issue immediately puts us on the defensive: “No, I’m not an absent father!” “No, I’m not careless with money!” “No, I’m not an alcoholic!”

In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul famously encourages his readers to “put on the whole armor of God,” including the “helmet of salvation” (6:11, 17). He has in mind a different sort of defensiveness—one that starts not from within us but as a gift of God. The vulnerability is still present, but, instead of attempting to cover it by ourselves, we are encouraged to let God’s salvation protect us from whatever might be attacking us. We are not asked to toughen our skin but to let down our guard and allow God’s promise of salvation to be our only defense.

This time of year is stressful for many of us, and clergy-types are not immune from that stress. When I am stretched thinnest, I find myself particularly prone to defensiveness. A gentle reminder intended as a message of support is heard instead as a criticism of my forgetfulness. A friendly, “How are you doing?” is taken as a questioning, “What’s wrong with you?” A supportive offer to help out is received as an indication that I can’t do it on my own. But my attempts to cover up and compensate for my weaknesses only draw further attention to my vulnerabilities. Instead, I need to learn to trust in God’s defense, which promises to save me from all my failings.

What is it that has the potential to set you off unnecessarily? What are the “helmet” moments in your own life? Name them to yourself and to God. Bring those weaknesses to the feet of our savior and trust that he will take them and make them whole. Only in him is it possible for us to be saved. Ultimately, there is no such thing as a fully sufficient self-defense. Our true hope is found not within the illusion of our own strength but in the strength of him who takes our weakness upon himself.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Viper? Who Me?

Who are you calling vipers!?!

A friend of mine tells a story of playing golf at a country club that has several holes that border busy city streets. I use to play there often, and I know well how thinly those fairways are separated from those streets by little more than a chain-link fence and some scraggly bushes. The drivers who pass by and the golfers who hit driver from the tee say the same prayer: “Please don’t let that golf ball hit a car.” Occasionally a ball flies into the road, but, even though I have hit more than my fair share out of bounds, I’ve never seen anyone actually strike a car. But back to the story.

One day, my friend was on one of the greens that is situated right at a busy intersection, where cars often sit and wait for the traffic light to change. As he and his playing partners were finishing up the hole, an aggravated motorist yelled out, “You rich bastards!” to which my friend quickly replied, “Who are you calling rich!?!” I’ve always liked that story. The subtlety of accepting the designation of a “bastard” while rejecting the label of being “rich” reminds me that the social categories an outsider might use to describe us can say a lot more than the categories we might use to describe ourselves.

In the gospel lesson for Sunday, John the Baptist looks at the crowd who has gathered around to hear him preach and says, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” I wonder how many of them thought of themselves as vipers. Surely that can’t be a positive thing—to be called a snake. I don’t have any polling data to back this up, but I’ll bet that a survey of Americans would reveal that 75% of us think that we’re nicer than 75% of everybody else. And that means that some of us are lying. We’re not as nice as we think we are. But it’s not our opinion of ourselves that really counts, is it?

John cuts through all the social etiquette and says what he thinks—that the people around him are like snakes in the grass. In my own ministry, it amazes me how often people are drawn to a sermon that points out how sinful they are. People like hearing about sin. They like it when a preacher lays it all on the line and tells it like it is. They don’t like being hit over the head with a message of guilt week after week, but, every once in a while, it’s nice to be reminded just how viper-like we are. It gives us something to ask forgiveness for.

John helps the crowed see what God would see if he were looking at them: vipers, traitors, cheats, and liars. That’s a hard mirror to stare into, but the good news is that that’s not where the message stops. After calling them out, he invites them to change: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” In other words, he tells them that they are a bunch of rich bastards but also tells them that it doesn’t have to be that way. All that talk of wheat and chaff sounds scary, but there’s gospel hope at the heart of his message.

If I really am that bad, what can I do about it? In the pyramid of turpitude, tax collectors and soldiers were near the top of the stack (or bottom, whichever is worse). Their whole livelihood was based on extortion and threats of violence. Of all the people gathered there, they were the ones most likely to think of themselves in the terms that John used. But, when they asked him what to do about it, the prophet simply said, “Do your job and nothing more.” He didn’t tell them to undergo a radical transformation. He didn’t tell them to leave their jobs and look for new, more meaningful work. Instead, he told them to make a new start right where they were.

Taking a long hard look in the mirror of our sinfulness doesn’t have to be a bitter, hopeless task. Instead, as John preached, such self-examination is the first and hardest step in the life of redemption. You don’t have to change everything about yourself—just one important thing. 

Sunday's Sermon - Advent 2C - December 10, 2012

December 9, 2012 – Advent 2B
Malachi 3:1-4; Canticle 4 or 16; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

© 2012 Evan D. Garner

Sermon audio is available here.

I’m in trouble. And I bet you are, too. According to the National Geographic Channel’s Doomsday Preppers website, I have a “prepper score” of 14. That means my family and I would survive for about a week following a cataclysmic disaster. Honestly, the only reason it’s that high is because Elizabeth is a nurse. As I went through each question of the survey, the reality of my unpreparedness kept sinking in more and more deeply. How many gallons of water do you have stored? Does my Brita pitcher count? How many firearms do you own? I wonder how well I could defend my house with a pellet gun. Do you have any nuclear, biological, or chemical protection gear? Yeah, right.

The show Doomsday Preppers is wildly popular, and I think that’s because there are a lot of people out there who worry about the end of the world as we know it. But I like Doomsday Preppers for the same reason I enjoy watching South Park: it’s fun to see people get things so out of proportion that I then realize how I do the same thing in other ways. Honestly, I have zero desire to be prepared for a terrorist attack or a nuclear holocaust. I don’t want to be one of those fanatical few who live to repopulate the earth after 98% of the rest of us are gone. I don’t need a “bug-out location” or training in the use of tactical arms. But those aren’t the issues I lose sleep over. The kinds of things that keep me up at night don’t make for good reality television.

I set three different alarms on the Saturday night before Daylight Saving Time. I get to church at least two hours before the service to make sure everything is in place. I send Elizabeth e-mails to remind her of things she invariably remembers to do on her own, and I make lists on post-it notes to remind myself of things I’m already too worried about to forget. I always park in our garage so that people don’t drive by and wonder why I’m not working hard enough. I lie in the dark mentally replaying every phone call and e-mail exchange to make sure that I didn’t say something that might have been taken the wrong way. Actually, now that I think about it, being unprepared for a “global cataclysm” might have its advantages. I’d be too busy hauling water up to our house from the Tennessee River to care about all those other things.

What are you afraid of? I’m not talking about spiders or public speaking or heights. I mean those fears that really consume your life—those deep-seated anxieties that force you to take irrational steps to make sure that you’re in control of them. What is it that has you lying in your bed at night really wondering what it will take to make sure everything will be ok? If National Geographic were to make a show about your obsessions, what would it be?

Two-thousand years ago, a priest named Zechariah had a vision while he was serving in the Temple. An angel of the Lord appeared and told him that his wife Elizabeth would have a son who would grow up to be a great prophet—one who would prepare the people of God to receive their savior. But that was a hard thing for Zechariah to believe. First of all, his wife was an old woman who had never been able to have children. But, more importantly, the people of Israel had been stuck in a bad place for so long that a vision like that must have seemed impossible.

For over 700 years, Israel had lived under the tyranny of one neighbor after another with only brief moments of independence interspersed between rulers. Most recently, they had suffered for sixty years under the brutal occupation of the Roman Empire, who had squeezed just about every remaining drop of hope from their hearts. “How can this be?” Zechariah asked the angel, unable to imagine a world in which the promises God made to their ancestors were a reality. And, because of his doubts, the angel struck him dumb.

For nine months, Zechariah was unable to speak a word. Finally, on the day his son was named John, his mouth was opened, and his tongue was freed, and Zechariah broke out into a song like none that had been uttered among God’s people for generations:

            Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior,
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets God promised of old,
that he would save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us,
To show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.

He sang those beautiful words of hope and promise to a people who had almost forgotten what it meant to live without fear. For centuries, God’s people had endured the oppression of their neighbors. Every day, they walked down the street with eyes downcast to avoid the ire of an occupying soldier. Every night, they wondered what sort of government might come to their aid if they needed help. Those kinds of fears, when they take hold in your heart and are passed on from one generation to another, make it hard to believe that anything could ever change. But the birth of John the Baptist meant that a whole new era was coming.

Throughout the bible, God’s promise of salvation is articulated in ways that make a difference to the people who hear it. To Abraham and his wife, God promised to multiply their descendants and bring them to a new land. To Moses and the captive people of Israel, God promised to free them from bondage in Egypt. To Joshua and his fellow warriors, God promised to lead them in victory over their enemies. Over and over, God assures his people that he will save them from whatever threatens them—that he will deliver them from the source of their fears. But sometimes we find ourselves in a long stretch of time when the fulfillment of God’s promises seems like such a distant memory that we can’t even remember whether it’s possible anymore.

It is into that place of doubt and fear that God sent his son. To a people who had forgotten what it meant for God to fight on their behalf, God sent a message of hope that transcended any and all of the threats around them. To us—to a people consumed by worry and anxiety—God reveals his compassion and love like the dawning of a new day. God sent us Jesus so that we would know just how much he loves us. That was the message the angel gave to Zechariah. That was the hope that his son John the Baptist came to preach. God’s son took upon himself all of the brokenness of the world so that his people would no longer have to dwell in darkness or cower in fear. Instead, Jesus shows the world that there is nothing that can overcome God’s love—no fear, no anxiety, no crisis, not even death.

It may have been a long time since you felt like God’s salvation was near—perhaps so long that it almost seems impossible. Maybe you’ve forgotten what it means to trust that God will take care of you—what it means to give over to him all of the fears that consume your life. But God came down to earth to save us from those fears. He came and died and rose again to show us that his love is unbreakable. So give your heart back to God. Feel the relief that comes as he takes your worries away. And hold fast to his saving promises, which Jesus shows have already taken hold in the world and in your life. Amen.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

John the Baptist, 1968

In Luke’s gospel account, there are several powerful songs. The most poetic of the gospel writers, Luke preserves for us moments of emotional overflow—when the power of a moment becomes too much for an individual. Last night, I saw that Elf was on television…again. And, as I flipped past the channel, I paused just long enough to see Will Ferrell’s character barge into a meeting room singing, “I’m in love and I don’t care who knows it.” Although there’s virtually nothing holy about that spontaneous song, the point is the same: sometimes we’re too happy to keep quiet.

As I wrote about earlier, Mary’s song and Simeon’s song come later in Luke. Mary sings about God’s promises being fulfilled as the roles of the weak and strong are reversed as exemplified in the incarnation—God taking on human flesh and thus raising up humanity. Simeon sings about God’s promises being fulfilled as he knew he would behold Israel’s savior before he died. This Sunday, we hear Zechariah sing a song about God’s promises being fulfilled as the oath he swore to Abraham is completed through the birth of the forerunner (his son John) and the soon-to-be-born savior (Jesus). All three are songs about promises being fulfilled—ancient, powerful, longed-for promises that God made to his people.

And that takes me to this Sunday’s gospel lesson. We read it in staff meeting yesterday. Each time we do that, we read sentence by sentence, rotating around the table, and, without thinking about it, I asked the person next to me to start off: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea…” The list of names and places is daunting—especially for someone who wasn’t expecting to have to read them out loud. As she made it through the list (without any errors I could hear, by the way), I listened to the list and thought, “Why, Luke?”

And then I remembered the songs. Each of them is about God’s people being raised up. Each of them is about being “set free from the hands of our enemies” and “a light to the nations” and “he has put down the mighty from their thrones.” Luke didn’t waste time or paper or effort recording that long and largely unnecessary list of rulers. He wanted his readers (specifically his patron, Theophilus) to hear the promised salvation of God as revealed through the prophecy of John the Baptist in stark and intentional contrast to the powers (political and religious) of his day. By naming an emperor (worldwide power), a governor (regional power), rulers (local authority), and high priests (temple control), Luke brings to mind the total reversal that the fulfillment of God’s promises has in mind.

In a bible study yesterday, we spent a good bit of time on the canticle, but, when we got to the gospel, Zechariah’s song suddenly found it’s place: UC Berkeley, 1968. At a meeting I went to last week, we kept returning to 1968 as a particular moment in which the counter-cultural revolution was powerfully expressed in American society. Flags and draft cards were burned. Riots took place. The establishment was challenged by the demonstrators. That movement subsided, but Jesus’ did not. As God’s promises are fulfilled, the powers of this world are still turned on their heads.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Premature Birth Announcement?

As a theme for this week, I’m looking at the canticle thatis appointed for Sunday in place of a psalm. It’s the Song of Zechariah, and it’s one of my favorites. I wrote yesterday about the the compulsory use Benedictus as the gospel canticle for Morning Prayer. Now, I’d like to look at some of the text itself.

As you may recall, Zechariah was a priest who was struck dumb while serving in the Temple. He saw a vision of an angel who promised him a son, and, when he doubted that prophecy, the angel made him mute. Then, after his child was born and he confirmed his wife’s decision to name the boy John, his mouth was opened, and he immediately burst into song: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; he has come to his people and set them free.”

But then things get confusing. The second line of the song declares, “He has raised up for us a mighty savior, born of the house of his servant David.” But, of course, Jesus wasn’t to be born for another six months. What sort of timing is that? What sort of mighty savior did Zechariah (or Luke, the author of the gospel text) have in mind?

That might just be one of those editorial liberties that gospel writers took. In other words, it might not have an answer. I’m pretty sure that savior was indeed yet-to-be-born Jesus. I don’t know how to square that away. But I do think it leads to a better question: when are God’s promises fulfilled?

There are two ways to look at it. Either we wait until everything is accomplished to announce their fulfillment, or we claim that victory in process. The former suggests more than a lifetime of disappointment, while the latter proclaims the greatness of God already revealed even if not yet completed. As Christians, I think we are supposed to internalize Zechariah’s song and realize that God’s promises are already fulfilled even though they are still working themselves out.

Consider the nature of the one making the promise. When my wife asks me whether I will feed the dog or take out the trash, she’s really asking me to do it—not whether I’m willing. But, when I respond by saying, “I will,” yet remain occupied by my computer, cell phone, or television, the fulfillment of that promise is not accomplished until I get up and do the thing she has asked. Trust me, too often she ends up feeding the dog before I “have the chance,” leaving me embarrassed and disappointed in myself.

When God makes the promise, “I will,” there isn’t any doubt of its fulfillment—even if it takes generations or perhaps millennia for them to be realized. If God tells you he’ll do something, he’ll do it. The achievement of those promises, therefore, depends less on our waiting around and more on our willingness to see them taking place—to see the process itself.

The birth of John the Baptist signified a change in human history. Zechariah, who had heard from the angel what his son would do, knew that the ancient promises of God were being fulfilled in a process that was particularly active at that time. Even before that savior’s birth, he could see where God and his creation were headed, thus enabling him to declare, “He has raised up for us might savior,” even if that was a little premature. With God, there is no such thing as premature. As soon as you can see him at work, that work is done.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Saying It Every Day

Seminarians (and their instructors) like to experiment with worship. And I think that’s a good thing. Where else can you try out all of your wacky ideas to discover for yourself whether they work? By pushing the envelope (usually too far), people in seminary learn which new ways of worshipping can be moderated and then adapted for us in the parish.

When I was a seminarian, our principal was Christopher Cocksworth, now bishop of Coventry. He’s a liturgist by training, and, although he rarely intervened to put his specific touches on community worship at Ridley Hall, his attention to and love of good liturgy shaped all the worship that happened there. Like all seminary chapels, ours included elements that stretched from the oldest traditions of the BCP to the newest songs from contemporary musicians. We arranged the chairs in countless configurations. We used silence. We put candles on anything that would hold still. In short, we tried everything we could think of…except switch the gospel canticle for Morning Prayer.

For our principal, that was sacrosanct. Most of us who have said compline know that the Nunc Dimittis comes near the end. It’s the famous gospel canticle that goes with that service: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace…” And many of us know that the Magnificat, or Mary’s song, is the gospel canticle originally observed in Evening Prayer: “My soul doth magnify the Lord…” But I’ll bet that not that many people know that, just as those two canticles were fixed and said/sung every single day in their respective services, so too was the Benidictus originally bound to Morning Prayer without aberration.

Imagine finishing Compline with something other than the Song of Simeon. What would Evensong be without the soaring choir’s voices, singing Mary’s famous text? Morning Prayer? Well, in most worshipping communities (seminaries included), the canticles are chosen from the table on BCP p. 144. They switch every day. Not at Ridley Hall. Not while Chris Cocksworth was there.

There were exceptions. Actually, there was only one exception. The only time you could choose a different canticle was when Zechariah’s song happened to be the gospel text in the Daily Office. In that case, the Te Deum was preferred, though I don’t remember it being mandated. Any liturgy leader who strayed from the prescribed pattern and dared to use a different canticle was certain to receive a swift, firm, but gentle one-on-one lecture about the importance of the gospel canticle for Morning Prayer from the principal. You didn’t make that mistake twice.

This Sunday, in place of our Psalm, we have that great gospel canticle. There was a time when I could say it (the Common Worship version) basically in my sleep. I marinated in that text every day during seminary. I still choose it virtually every time I say Morning Prayer. The good news is that it’s the kind of text that lends itself to a lifetime of daily recitation without ever running out of substance for reflection.

I don’t yet know what the Spirit will lead me to preach on this Sunday, but I have a feeling it will be hard for me to avoid the Benedictus. Like all of Luke’s canticles, it’s a bold statement of God’s promises being fulfilled. Like Mary’s song, it tells of the victory of God’s people. And it has some of my favorite lines: “This was the oath that he swore to our father Abraham” and “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High.” Honestly, it doesn’t get much better than this. If you’re looking for a lesson in the good news, don’t look any further than this. It’s worth our attention.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Buried Lines

Some weeks all the action seems confined to one or two of the lessons, leaving a third out in the cold. My attention this week has been focused on the dramatic Gospel and timely Old Testament lessons. The Epistle has mostly fallen through the cracks.


In a lectionary bible study earlier this week, a participant kept pulling us back to Paul. When I read these lines from 1 Thessalonians, I ask myself why this is an Advent reading at all. Except for the last few lines, it has almost nothing to do with "the Lord's coming." Instead, it's a purely occasional text intended for a very specific audience--one who received this letter 2000 years ago. But this participant kept pulling us back to the text, asking us to consider how Paul is speaking to us--specifically to us.

"And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints."

After an hour of conversation, I asked the group what they would preach on if they were climbing into the pulpit, I heard a range of answers, most of which were focused on the question of when God's kingdom will (or has already) come. Then, our friend brought us back by sharing her response: "May the Lord make you increase and abound in love..." For her, it was the most important line in the week's lessons. She wouldn't let us leave it. She wanted us to hear what Paul says.

At first, I wondered why this lesson from 1 Thess. was included in the readings for 1 Advent. Yes, I get that the closing sentence mentions that the Lord is coming, but why else? Couldn't they have found a more Advent-appropriate text for this week? But if you dig a little deeper, I think you discover the Advent message in Paul's deepest wish.

The "holiday season," as our culture likes to call it, is recognized as a time set apart for sentimentality. Even the secular humanists among us feel the urge to reach out in love for others. Shouldn't that be our Advent message as well? Not because of the sentimentality of the season but because we are preparing ourselves to receive again the greatest expression of God's love the world has ever known?

I got a call from a friend and local newspaper reporter yesterday. She wanted me to talk about why our church observes the season of Advent. I told her that we don't think Christians can merely show up on one of the two biggest days of the year (Christmas or Easter) without preparing our hearts to receive the overwhelming love that gets expressed on those days. We need some time to get ready. And how can we get ready for Christmas? By orienting our hearts to receive God's love to the point of overflowing. That's the real message of Advent. And there it is--buried in Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

In Between the First and Second Coming

I’ve often thought that Advent is the perpetual season of the church. As the lessons for the first Sunday of Advent remind us, we’re still looking and watching and preparing for the coming of the Lord. That isn’t just true in early December, when the church remembers that sense of waiting. It’s true all the time.

So here’s my big question for the week: how is our waiting for the “second coming” any different from the waiting that the world did the first time around?

Jeremiah predicts the fulfillment of the promises made to Israel and Judah. One day soon, he declares, God will cause his righteous Branch to spring up—one to execute justice and righteousness for God’s people. As Christians, we have a tendency to read that in Advent as if it has already been fulfilled. Jesus was (and is) that righteous Branch, and he sprung up 2000 years ago. But that’s also what we’re still waiting for. We’re waiting for justice and righteousness. We’re still waiting for the promises to Israel and Judah to be fulfilled.

So what’s different this time around?

In the reading from Luke, Jesus predicts tough times—even the powers of heaven will be shaken. Yet I’ll suggest that the “first coming” means that we wait for the “second coming” not in fear but with joy. As Jesus said, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

In other words, the difference is how we are supposed to receive those troubling times. Over and over, the prophets of old predicted judgment against God’s people. Wrath and turmoil will be poured out upon the earth, and eventually God will sort everything out. That was a pretty scary prediction no matter who you were. But then Jesus came to remind that as the problems of the world are sorted out we discover not a God who hates us but one who loves us. We wait for the day of judgment not afraid of what’s coming but hopeful for our redemption.

When Jeremiah declares, “The days are surely coming…” we might wonder, “Have they already come?” and the answer is, “Yes and no.” The promise and foretaste of our redemption has already come so that when things do take a turn for the apocalyptically worse we can approach it with joyful expectation of the fulfillment of that redemption. In other words, Jesus shows us what sort of end we should expect, and the cross and empty tomb remind us that it won’t end with death—only with life.

Advent is about waiting for the “second coming” but doing so in light of Jesus first coming. Jesus came to earth to show us who God is and how God relates to the world. Will there be judgment? Yes. Will it be tumultuous? Yes. Can we be sure that despite all the trials that may come God will still take care of us? Yes. Jesus showed us that the first time around.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Who's Thankful?

Yesterday, I had a conversation about Thanksgiving with a vegetarian who works in our office, and, since there’s only one, she gets singled out a lot for questions about meat and why she doesn’t eat it. I asked her whether she’s seen the documentary that’s being shown on PBS lately called Eating Alabama. I asked because I wanted her to know that, when I saw them killing and defeathering chickens on the television, I was struck by that display and internalized some of the consequences of my meat-eating habits. Yes, I said, I know where my food comes from.

That led to a conversation about whether it’s right in principle to eat foods like lamb and veal. Another person in the office piped up and said that for her lamb was off-limits. “In fact,” she declared, “I’ve been in a restaurant when someone ordered lamb, and I called out, ‘Mary had a little lamb!’ to make sure they knew it.” I, on the other hand, love lamb and veal, but, in the spirit of Eating Alabama, I said to them that I would be comfortable looking that little baby animal in the face before killing it and eating it. I don’t think of animals raised for food as anything but pre-food. That’s how I keep a clear conscience when sitting at the dinner table. And I think we all need to be able to do that. We should know where our food comes from. We should be able to internalize the ethical and moral consequences of our diet.

This morning, when I read the OT lesson for the day (Malachi1:1, 6-14), I thought again about our food and where it comes from. In this passage, the prophet accuses the priests of offering to God the leftovers of the flock: “When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not wrong? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not wrong?” Apparently, the priests had gotten into the habit of keeping the best for themselves and going through the motions and empty gestures of sacrificing the dregs. But let’s be honest—why would God care?

God doesn’t eat. God doesn’t need the choicest lambs or doves or goats. When the fragrant smell of roasting flesh billows up toward heaven, God’s lips aren’t moistened. He doesn’t get hungry. He’s not going to eat what is put on the altar—surely the priests knew that. At the end of the day, the meat was still there. It didn’t magically disappear because God took a helping and put it on his dinner plate. So why does it matter whether they offered God the firstlings of the herd or simply what was left over?

It matters because they knew. When you get into the habit of simply giving God what’s left over, you forget where your food comes from. Like a city-dweller who thinks that ground chuck comes from the supermarket, a priest who sacrifices blind or lame animals forgets that God has provided all things. The point of giving God our best is to remember that God has given us everything to begin with.

Not that long ago, I was invited to a lavish dinner party that a woman threw for her doctors. She had been suffering from a potentially fatal chronic disease, and several times we all thought she would die. But she didn’t. She rallied, and she was thankful. She knew that she had been saved from death by a team of skillful doctors, and she was so filled with gratitude that she put on an extravagant party to show it. That’s being thankful.

Occasionally someone will say thank you to me by giving me a bottle of wine or a baked good after a baptism or funeral. No one has ever given me a half-drunk bottle or a stale, moldy cake. Why? Because that wouldn’t say, “Thank you.” That would say, “I’m not grateful enough to give you something nice.” Sure, my feelings would be hurt, but, since I don’t do funerals or baptisms in exchange for gifts, what would really matter is the disconnect in the relationship.

What are you giving to God? Honestly, he doesn’t care whether it’s a leftover crumb or a blind sheep. God only wants a relationship. So what will that relationship look like? Will you take it for granted, or will you honor it by being truly thankful. Remember where you food comes from. Remember where your life comes from. Conscious of that, one would be hard-pressed to offer anything but his very best.

Monday, November 19, 2012

What--Me Worry?

The gospel lesson for Thanksgiving Day (Matthew 6:25-33) is all about worry. Jesus says, "Do not worry about your life--what you will eat or drink or wear. Isn't there more to life than food or clothing?" Funny, Jesus, those aren't the things I worry about.

I worry about my family. Am I around them enough? Am I supportive enough? Do they know how much I love them?

I worry about my friends. Will she recover from that illness? Will he learn to let go of his grief? Will they figure out how to live together and stay married?

I worry about my job. Am I working hard enough? Am I listening for the Spirit's guidance? Am I forgetting something?

I worry about our country. What happens if the economy doesn't turn around? What happens if we do go plunging off the fiscal cliff? Will those we've elected ever figure out how to do what's best for the people of this nation?

Jesus asks us to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. They don't worry, yet God gives them plenty to eat and arrays them in beautiful colors. Well, Jesus, go back to biology class. I've been watching the hummingbirds outside my window, and I can tell you that all they do is eat. All they care about is having enough food to make it long enough to find a mate. And the flowers? There's a reason they're so pretty--it's so that birds and bees will notice them and carry their pollen (genetic material) from one flower to another. If it isn't brightly colored enough, it will get passed over and won't have an opportunity to pass its DNA along to future generations. Sure, flowers don't worry because they're flowers; they can't. But, if they could, they would be worse than a sixth-grade girl: "Am I pretty? Tell me I'm pretty. Do you think the boys will notice me?"

So, let's start over. Flowers? Birds? Clothing? Food? Put all that aside and get back to the point. Don't worry. Let go. How? By realizing that God will take care of everything. Does that mean that everything will have a happy ending? No. Does that mean that your food and clothing will magically descend from the sky? No. But does it mean that even starving, naked people get to go to heaven? Yes, absolutely.

This gospel lesson is about perspectives. Keep the end in mind. Where are we going? To dwell with God for eternity. So does it matter how we get there? Not really. Sure, it's a lot easier if you have food to eat and clothes to wear, but, even if you didn't, the end of the story will be the same. But that means letting go of control and worry about whether I have what I "need" in this life. And that's not easy. But no one said it would be.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

How to Tweet in Church

What if we stopped telling people to turn their cell phones off in church and, instead, told them to use them throughout the service?

This summer, in order to save paper and preparation time, we trimmed our Sunday-morning bulletin from a tri-folded, ledger-sized behemoth to a slim, half-letter publication. At the top of our old version, a familiar message was printed: “Please turn your cell phones off or on silent.” Looking back, I wish I could say that we cut that line out of our bulletin in an effort to embrace the growth of social media, but, alas, it was axed simply because of space. Maybe that was the Spirit at work even though we didn’t know it.

Last night, I went to my first ever “tweet-up.” Honestly, I wish they called it something else because it was far more informative and productive than the name suggests. I kept looking around for giggling seventh-graders, but apparently a “tweet up” is a chance for Twitter friends to meet in person—hence the name. Actually, I did meet some people I’ve known on Twitter but not in real life, so it did accomplish that, but it was less a “meet and greet” than it was a brainstorming session for the future of ministry in the Episcopal Church.

At the session, I asked other, far more experienced lay and ordained ministers about the use of social media in church. Typically, I think we use Facebook and Twitter as a side-running commentary. It describes what happened, or advertises what is to come. From my perspective, most social media seems to be a separate, parallel conversation that is not at the heart of the event itself. Instead of being at the center of life, Twitter and Facebook are like a newsreel that records and characterizes “real” life—always commenting but never the focus itself. “How can social media become the center of what we do in church? How can we integrate Twitter, for example, into Sunday-morning worship or Sunday school or bible study?”

I could feel the array of light bulbs going off in my head. Several people answered with stories of preachers who accepted questions or comments on a sermon in real-time. Others talked about bible studies in which people were invited to ask a question or contribute their perspective through social media. One person spoke of attending a wedding that was tweeted in real time, and another mentioned an ordination where the same happened. And that got me wondering… What would a social-media-friendly worship service look like?

Good evening and welcome to St. John’s. Before our service starts, I’d like to invite you to take out your smart phone or tablet, if you have one, and scan the QR code on the bulletin. That will take you to a fuller version of the service sheet, some background information on the scripture lessons, and a calendar of upcoming events in our parish. Also, during the service, I will have the Twitter app up on my iPhone so that I can see some of real-time questions or comments that you may have. At this service, we consider the virtual exchange a part of our worship, so please treat it as such and, if you would like, explore the possibility of “doing church” through social media.

This happens to be the feast of the Consecration of Samuel Seabury, the first bishop of the Episcopal Church. Even before the American Revolution, Seabury wanted desperately for there to be a resident bishop in the colonies. In his opinion, we lost too many good men who sailed back to England for ordination. (They either died on the way or found life in London too pleasant to give up.) He probably was one of those clergypersons who dreamed of being a bishop someday, but I do believe he had good intentions in his heart. He knew that this new expression of church, which would become the Episcopal Church, needed its own leadership. He knew that we couldn’t grow if we were still doing things the old way.

Today’s lesson from Acts 20 is a parting word of encouragement and warning: “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.” Paul wants to make sure that the gospel message keeps getting preached even though he’s being carted off to Rome, so he tells the Ephesian elders to stay focused: “And now I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified.” That is a message for today’s church as well.

The good news of Jesus Christ is able to build us up. It’s a message that the world needs to hear. As a clergyperson, I still think of Sunday morning in the pulpit as the primary time for me to preach. What if Twitter became a greater preaching opportunity? What if people were drawn into worship and study because they now had something to contribute to the conversation? As Episcopalians, we’ve always been good at “active” worship—standing, sitting, kneeling, receiving Communion, etc.. Where would you rather go to church—a place where you sit and listen for 45 minutes or a place where you are invited to interact with the whole Christian community?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Turkey, Dressing, Fire, and Brimstone

A few years ago, a parishioner came up and looked at me with an intently knowing stare. “There sure have been a lot of earthquakes lately,” he said. “Wars, too.”  He paused, waiting for me to fill in the blanks, but, after a few seconds of my looking back at him blankly, he gave up and continued, “Do you think the end is coming soon?”

I hope I didn’t laugh at him. I wonder how many people have thought that things around them have gotten so bad that the end must be coming soon. As Alabamians, that parishioner and I live fairly isolated from the earthquakes and wars and other calamities that dominate the headlines. It never occurred to me that the end might be coming soon, and I don’t know what it was that triggered that line of thought in his mind, but it got me wondering: how bad must things get before we start expecting Jesus to come back?

This week’s lessons are particularly tricky. I tweeted to that effect, and a friend of mine replied, “Gotta love some apocalyptic preaching the week of Thanksgiving.” Yes, there’s nothing like fire and brimstone to put everyone in the thankful spirit. But, as I sort through them and let my focus fall to the gospel lesson (Mark 13:1-8), I hear that parishioner and I wonder how many other religions offer hope on the other side of chaos.

Chicken Little runs around screaming that the sky is falling. What do we do? If the sky falls it’s all over. That would be the end. But not for a Christian—not for Jesus. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come…This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” Jesus says that things are going to get bad—really, really bad. I think he’s exaggerating a little bit here but only to drive the point home. From time to time, life will get so miserable that you’ll think it can’t go on. But, Jesus says, that is only the beginning. Those are the birthpangs. It is out of strife and grief and torment that life is born.

I feel the earth shake beneath me, and I start imagining my own demise. My parishioner-friend reads about earthquakes and wars and starts dreaming that Jesus is coming back. He’s closer to the truth. No, it doesn’t mean that when things seem to get bad that we should expect Jesus to put on his super-hero costume and fly in to save the day. It means that, unlike anyone else in the world, Christians should see such calamity as a sign of hope. “The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Rejoice!” That might be an exaggeration—Jesus isn’t ignoring the difficulties, but he is asking us to see them as the beginning of something bigger. Maybe that is something to be thankful for this week.

Monday, November 12, 2012

On the Road Again with TEC

This summer I posted about being at General Convention on the Fourth of July. Apparently the Church likes having meetings on holidays because its Veterans' Day, and I'm on my way to another meeting. This time, it's as a member of the Standing Commission for Lifelong Christian Formation and Education (SCLCFE).

But this meeting is more than that. At this year's General Convention, we called for a new way of doing the administrative business of the church. So all of the CCABs are being called together for a joint meeting to both get their respective balls rolling and, hopefully, to figure out how to do what we do without so much expense, bureaucracy, and waste. Can it be done?

I went to General Convention expecting both to enjoy it and to sense that it was bogged down in controversy. I was right on the first part and wrong on the second. Our time in Indy was governed primarily by a spirit of unity and shared mission. I was surprised. I was shocked. And I'm hoping for more of the same this week.

By Thursday I'll know whether there is reason to hope that we can turn thing around radically or whether we can only hope for incremental progress. I'm hoping for huge, ground-swelling change, but I can't yet see how it is possible. But I still have hope.

The actual issues facing the SCLCFE are important and worth our attention. We need to be a church that forms and educates its people about the good news of Jesus Christ much better than we currently do. But that will always be the case. Right now, though, I'm waiting to see whether we can be part of the wider solution before we try to solve our own problems.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Two Copper Coins

It's easy to read this Sunday's gospel lesson as if it's all about stewardship--a widow gives everything she has, and we should to. Well, it's not. Also, it's easy to read this lesson as if it's not at all about stewardship--a widow only has two copper coins to live on because the scribes have been "devouring widows' houses." But that's not it, either. It's somewhere in between, and that's a much harder sermon to preach.

How is stewardship related to the oppression of widows? How can we link the scribes' empty piety with the widow's amazing display of faith and also tie in the clear emphasis of stewardship?

I think Mark crafts this passage by putting these two stories together on purpose. I think he wants us to consider the contrast between the scribes and the widow and see that the two copper coins are evidence of faith in a way that long robes and long prayers can never be.

What motivated the scribes? They were the lawyers of Jesus' day. They were the ones who crafted legal documents and interpreted contracts in that weird fusion of religious and civil law that a theocracy like Israel represented. And, like so many of the prophets from the OT declare, they were the ones who used their expertise to defraud the poor, widowed, orphaned, and otherwise oppressed. But, since they were quasi-religious figures, they do so in the guise of religion.

I can imagine a newly widowed woman receiving a knock at the door from a scribe and his "enforcers" who had come to evict her from her house because she wasn't entitled to own property. A real "Sheriff of Nottingham" sort, a scribe would hide behind his authority when taking from those in need. And I think he would let his love of money and power actually convince himself that he was doing God's will. "Of course it's wrong for this widow to stay in her house. The scriptures say that she must depend on the guidance of a husband or live on the charity of others. So out she goes. All according to God's word." But we see how preposterous that is.

So think again about what motivated the scribes. They confuse personal gain with God's will, and that's a dangerous concoction in any age.

Then there's the widow, who literally gives her last two pennies to the treasury. She has no idea where her next meal will come from. But she still gives over the coins because she's supposed to. It's the temple tax. It's what God asks of her. Of course, God isn't really demanding her last two cents, but she doesn't worry about the details. She hands it over, trusting that God will take care of her.

Faith in what? In our own ability to make money? Or in God's ability to provide for us? What's our motive? Are we confusing what God wants with what we want? We're supposed to want what God wants, but usually we get it backwards. "God wants me to be happy. He wants me to be successful. He wants me to be rich." Well, maybe...but probably not. He wants you to depend on him for everything, and you can't do that when you're mixing up God's will with your own.

Monday, November 5, 2012

You Get Paid for This Stuff?

I can’t find it online, but I remember seeing a Dennis the Menace comic strip in which Dennis asks the preacher on the way out of church, “What do you on all the other days besides Sunday?” I’ve actually been asked that question several times—most often by curious children who are surprised to see me somewhere in town besides the church. Although there are plenty of preachers out there who don’t work as hard as they should, most of us keep pretty busy. But busy doing what?

Today’s lesson from Sirach might have been intended as a word of encouragement for religious occupations, but it makes me nervous:

All these [manual laborers] rely on their hands, and all are skillful in their own work. Without them no city can be inhabited, and wherever they live, they will not go hungry. Yet they are not sought out for the council of the people, nor do they attain eminence in the public assembly. (38:31-33a)

It gets worse. Read the whole lesson and you realize that, although grateful for the work of artisans and craftsmen, the author pretty much calls them stupid, thus concluding, “How different the one who devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High!” Even if I pretend it’s true when no one is looking, I don’t like that label.

I must say, however, that I love my job—just about every aspect of it. I remember hearing my old boss say to a parishioner, “Being a priest is a great job—maybe the best job in the world—but only if it’s the right job for you. If you’re not suited for it, you’ll hate it.” That sounds about right. So little of my job is what people see on Sunday mornings. Although a good bit goes it to getting ready for a Sunday (study, writing, desktop publishing, moving tables and chairs, recruiting volunteers, changing HVAC settings, coordination, etc.), so much more happens during the rest of the week (late-night phone calls, meetings, hospital and home visits, crisis counseling, budgets, staff relationships, marketing, etc.). Like plenty of other occupations, it’s the kind of job that involves multiple skillsets, which keeps me both busy and interested.

Unlike most other jobs, however, being a clergyperson does mean that I get paid to read the bible and study God’s word. It’s my job is to pray. All those things that Jesus tells us to do—go out and make disciples of all nations, etc.—only a few of us can make a living doing that. The rest of you have to volunteer. So yes, it’s a great job. I love it. But what does that mean for everyone else?

I think the author of Sirach makes a more subtle point than “workers are dumb; rabbis are smart.” He writes, “How can one become wise who handles the plow, and who glories in the shaft of a goad, who drives oxen and is occupied with their work, and whose talk is about bulls?” And actually that’s a good question for us to remember—both priest and laity. When we are consumed with our labors, we can’t become wise. For a clergyperson, that means I can’t let the budgets and schedules take away from my time studying God’s word. And the same is true for people who don’t make a living in ministry. We can’t let the stresses, details, or minutia of work spill over into our relationship with God. All of us—plowman, potter, and priest—should be students of the bible. Every morning should begin with quiet, reading, and prayer. If we aren’t giving that time to God, how could any of us expect a relationship with him?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

No More Ejector-Seat Theology

We had a death in the parish early this week, and the funeral will be tomorrow morning. As I looked over the readings suggested by the Prayer Book for a funeral, it was tempting to steer the family toward Revelation 21 and John 11—maybe no one will notice that I am preaching the same sermon twice. But I ended up going in the other direction. I chose different lessons because All Saints’ Sunday isn’t supposed to feel like a funeral even if a funeral is supposed to feel like All Saints’ Day.

These lessons, as my friend Steve Pankey pointed out early in the week, are all about heaven. What’s heaven like? In my preparation for a Tuesday, lectionary-based bible study, I read about Wisdom of Solomon—a 1st-century-BCE text that was written by an anonymous Hellenistic Jew. Given its date and context, I’m guessing that it holds the view of heaven that was common in Jesus’ day: “Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself.” The reading from Wisdom seems to suggest that heaven is an escape from the pains of this world. The foolish, it stresses, are those who look at the suffering of a righteous person in this life as the end. Although it doesn’t mention the wise, it implies that they can see that beyond this painful, tragic life is hope for something else. The whole lesson gives me the sense that someday God will reach down and pluck us off this island rock and transport us to space.

The reading from Revelation takes a radically different approach: “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Instead of an Earth-to-Heaven salvation, it envisions paradise descending onto the earth and the whole creation being made new (see Pankey’s blog on this). What strikes me, though, is that the situation for the author and readers of Revelation was still very much like that of Wisdom—persecutions, suffering, occupation, oppression. What changed in between Wisdom and Revelation? What happened to help the theologians of the day realize that God’s promise of salvation isn’t an escapist hope but a confidence that this world will someday be made new?

The answer, of course, is Jesus. Jesus shows us that God is invested in this world—not as an accident but as a purpose. God doesn’t wait to take us away from this mess. He comes down, takes on the created nature, and redeems it. Both passages understand that our suffering is not the end of the story, but one of them gets the real message of hope. We are not waiting for an ejector seat that will rocket us up away from this mess. We are waiting for God’s reign to be established here so that all pain and suffering will go away. That means the world we live in is a sign of hope—not just a sign of brokenness.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why Death?

As I read the gospel for this Sunday (All Saints’ Sunday), I can’t stop wondering why. Why did Jesus wait before heading to see his sick friend? Why does he get so emotional at the tomb? Why does he raise Lazarus back to life but not bring back so many other people whose sisters and mothers and brothers and children missed them? Even more foundationally—why death itself? Why?

Preparing for a sermon this Sunday, I am reminded of some funerals I’ve been a part of recently. Although the context—like the readings—changes with each death, the message for the moment is largely the same. We have hope in the midst of loss. More directly, we believe that even death—the representation of our greatest loss—cannot withstand the life-giving power of God as revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Although this Sunday isn’t a funeral, it’s a chance to say the same thing.

The “why” questions go deeper than the ins and outs of the gospel lesson. Mary’s “why weren’t you here” becomes our “why did this happen?” And our puzzlement at Jesus’ weeping invites us to ask what good could possible come from the death of a loved one. But Jesus takes us to that point. He lets Lazarus die to help us answer those questions, but the answers we get aren’t direct. They’re subtle, round-about answers that point us to bigger, more important conclusions that a simple “why” would ask. Jesus shows us that, regardless of why a death happens, death doesn’t win. Why? Because Jesus has the power to defeat death. We might not ever know why someone dies just as we might not understand why Jesus let his friend die unnecessarily, but we do know that there is hope beyond this life.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Simon and Jude Who?

Sometimes advice isn’t really worth getting it. In John 15 (the gospel lesson for Sts. Simon & Jude), Jesus outlines for his disciples what life will be like because of their discipleship, and I wonder whether they wanted to hear it. “By the way,” Jesus explained, “if the world hates you, maybe you’ll be comforted in knowing that it hated me first.” Yeah, thanks a lot.

If you were trying to spread the good news of Jesus Christ to those who hadn’t heard it or at least hadn’t accepted a call as his disciples, how would you phrase the message? “Become a disciple of Christ and the world will hate you!” Hmmm, maybe not. And that has me wondering…why did the early Christians accept such a call—especially in a world in which followers of Jesus could have been tortured and killed because of their faith?

Many early Christians considered it a badge of honor to meet their death in Jerusalem just as their Lord had. Part of what it meant to really, really believe in Jesus was to accept a miserable fate in a world that hated them. And that might be true today in some parts of the world, but not many. Not that long ago (mid-19th-century), missionaries would leave home and head overseas expecting never to return. They considered it a badge of honor to give up everything to take the good news to undeveloped places. And that might be true of a few missionaries today, but not many. What happened to discipleship?

As I read Jesus’ advice for his followers and remember Simon and Jude, of whom we know virtually nothing, I feel God calling me to accept the anonymity and obscurity of discipleship. It’s easy to be a Christian in this world, but it’s hard to be a disciple. Discipleship is walking a path that isn’t of this world—so much so that the world might even hate us. That hatred might not be persecution or violence. It might be as simple as walking out of step with the values of society.

I like this quotation about Simon and Jude from

As in the case of all the apostles except for Peter, James and John, we are faced with men who are really unknown, and we are struck by the fact that their holiness is simply taken to be a gift of Christ…Holiness does not depend on human merit, culture, personality, effort or achievement. It is entirely God's creation and gift. (full text here)

Being a disciple means accepting a call that isn’t confirmed or validated by the world around us. The only status by which we are judged is the life of him who walked before us.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Learning to Listen Like James

How many public figures have had to dodge the bad press that comes from a notorious sibling? Didn’t Clinton have a half-brother, whom he later pardoned for a cocaine conviction in the 1980s? Likewise, there are plenty of Internet stories about Obama’s alcoholic half-brother, who lives in a Nairobi slum. Can these really be the brothers of presidents?

One day, while trying to teach in his hometown synagogue, Jesus was interrupted by the people’s murmuring: “Isn’t this Joseph’s son? Aren’t his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? Who does he think he is?” Even Jesus, it seems, was known by his siblings—a burden he tried to shake: “Prophets are not without honor except in their home town.” The backstories that everyone knew made it hard for them to believe in the otherworldliness of Jesus.

And then there’s James. Who was he? The bishop of Jerusalem? The author of the book in the New Testament that bears his name? Today’s reading from Acts suggests he was a leader of the early church. In the middle of a controversy, he spoke up with a clear and clarifying voice of reason—a gift the church needs today. As the debate over the role and identity of Gentile Christians  rolled on, James made a simplifying point: “…we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.”

Sounds simple enough. What must a Gentile do to become a Christian? Let’s keep it simple. Avoid meat sacrificed to idols, steer clear of fornication, and don’t eat strangled or blood food. Those three things should let us move forward as a church and get past this controversy. It was a case of adiaphora—determining what wasn’t important enough to fight over. If that word sounds familiar, it’s probably because the Windsor Report, which was developed in 2004 as a response to the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. What must we agree on? What can we just let go? Whatever your position on issues of human sexuality, I hope you can see an attempt to maintain the unity of the church in the Report’s language.

Again and again, we face challenges in the church—things that threaten to tear us apart. What matters? What can we let go of? James seemed to rise above his label as the unworthy brother of Christ. To the early church, he contributed by listening and sharing what he heard. He started with the scriptures, but he listened with an ear for what was needed to hold everything together. It was, in fact, a creative listening. He was willing to let go of some important things (circumcision) because he knew that unity in others (blood, fornication, idols) was more important as a way of holding the church together. Who out there is listening and reinterpreting the way James did? How can we all learn to listen like James? 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Next Stop: Jerusalem!

The season after Pentecost is coming to a close in a few weeks. Several things give that away. First, it’s almost November, the first Sunday of which is usually observed as All Saints’ Sunday. In most years, there are only three Sundays after that before Advent starts. Second, we’re up to Proper 25 this week, and there are only 29 “propers” (or appropriate, appointed lessons) for this season, so we must be close Finally, we can tell that we’re almost finished because this Sunday’s gospel lesson (Mark 10:46-52) also signals that Jesus’ life is coming to a close.

As Mark tells the story of Jesus’ ministry, he only includes one trip to Jerusalem—the final, triumphant, and tragic one. And, right before Jesus enters the city (Palm Sunday), Mark tells us the story of blind Bartimaeus. If you flip the page in your bible, you’ll see that the very next verse (11:1) begins, “Now when they drew near to Jerusalem…” So this is it. This is the very last story before the intensity of Jesus’ last days begins. The pattern of the Christian year is to take us through Jesus’ ministry during the season after Pentecost, leading us back to the cross in time for the final Sunday of the season. Although a conversation about it will have to wait for a few Sundays, in recent years, that Sunday has been called “Christ the King,” and we can see the tension between Christ’s kingship (expressed through the cross) and the kingships of the world (usually expressed through earthly power).

But back this Sunday’s reading. Mark gives us one last intentionally evangelistic moment before the chaos in Jerusalem unfolds. And this is the first time in Mark’s gospel that someone who is healed is invited to follow Jesus. Usually (think of the demon-possessed man who lived by the tombs), Jesus says, “No, you can’t follow me. Stay here.” But this time Bartimaeus gets up and walks the last few miles behind Jesus and into Jerusalem. Why Bartimaeus? Why now?

Every preacher who has had to preach more than once in the last six weeks is familiar with the “cost of discipleship” theme that seems to pervade Mark 9 & 10. We’ve had terribly uninviting lessons like “pluck out your eye” and “divorce + remarriage = adultery” and “sell everything you have.” If we’re going to treat this gospel lesson for what it really is—the last reading in this series—we can’t ignore that focus on how much it costs to follow Jesus.

Bartimaeus is in the unique position of literally following Jesus for a few steps (verses) before reaching Jerusalem. (Actually, Jericho isabout 34 miles away, but Mark doesn’t care. He’s never really been a good geography student, and he’s not going to allow this detail to get in the way of a good story.) Unlike all of the other would-be disciples, Bartimaeus won’t have a chance to get distracted. If he’s going to follow Jesus, it will be to the end. The rest may have only been interested in walking the path for a little while before letting disillusionment set it. This time, Bartimaeus won’t have a chance to get distracted. His discipleship leads straight to rejection, pain, torture, and death.

How long is it on our own path of discipleship before we reach adversity? For the last two chapters of Mark, Jesus has been getting his closest followers ready for the trouble that awaits them. And, if we’ve been taking his words seriously, he’s been getting us ready as well. If we’re going to follow him now, it will be through the hardship he’s been describing. Like Bartimaeus, some of us never get the chance to walk a comfortable road as disciples. Others walk a long way before we reach trouble. Either way, we are promised that the path won’t be easy.