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.