Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Revealing Posture

Our seminary chapel at Ridley Hall was built in an era of formality, but, as the worship within had evolved to include many varied expressions, elements of flexibility like movable chairs and a projection screen had been introduced. Even though the altar rail itself had been removed, the raised step upon which it had once separated the congregation from the clergy still demarcated the space. During the weekly Eucharist, some of us knelt on that “altar step” while others stood. One evening, just as I was pondering why anyone would ever stand to receive Communion, I flopped down on my knees without thinking. I had forgotten that there were no cushions on that step—only thin carpet—and the sound of my bones colliding with the hard floor underneath echoed through the hushed chapel. The bruises that I carried with me for a week were penance for my self-righteousness.

Some of us like to kneel; others prefer to stand. Maybe those preferences are theological in nature, but they probably have more to do with tradition. Then again, for more than a few of us, things like artificial knees and arthritis take that choice away. Most of the time, when I receive the bread and wine, I am standing at the altar, so I look forward to kneeling whenever I get the chance to sit in the congregation. Ponder what your custom is and ask yourself why you choose that particular posture.

What does the way in which we receive Communion say about our experience of God in that sacrament? Do you walk up to the rail with downcast eyes, or are you looking around at the other people in church? Do you sing the Communion hymns softly to yourself? Do you belt them out? Do you prefer silence? Is the act of receiving the bread and wine an opportunity for self-reflection or a communal experience? Is your time at the altar rail an emotional engagement or a detached encounter?

In seminary, one of people who taught me how to be a priest had strong feelings about eye-contact at the Communion rail. “If they look up at you, searching for a connection, you should give it to them with a returned gaze,” he said. “But if they stare down at the floor or only give you a passing glance, don’t interfere with their piety. They may not want to see you but only to see God instead.” Those words are always in my mind as I put pieces of bread into outstretched hands. Personally, I would almost always choose to look down rather than at the priest. I don’t really know why, but I bet it says something about my understanding of who God is. Likewise, some of you like lingering eye-contact, and others prefer not to acknowledge me at all. Either way is perfectly acceptable, and I think it is worth noting what our own habits say about our relationship with God.

Several months ago, someone gave me some new advice. He noted that I usually place the morsel of bread into his palm gently, while Callie, my partner in ministry, likes to squeeze the bread down into his hand in a gesture of their connectedness. He compared her pastoral touch with a doctor’s bedside manner, recommending that I look for ways to express that same sentiment at the altar rail. His comments have completely transformed my experience of administering the elements. I never would have thought that a simple touch could make such a big difference.

Who is God to you, and how does that show up at the altar rail? What are you searching for, and where will you find it? We believe that God meets us in Communion—that we experience a part of the divine life as we break bread together. How that happens, though, depends on us.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Sunday's Gospel of Grace

My eighth-grade teacher, Mr. Hawes, taught our class a phrase of which he seemed very proud: “Post hoc ergo propter hoc.” Looking back, I can’t tell for sure whether he taught us that because he wanted us to know about logical fallacies or because he wanted us to be impressed. Or maybe it’s because he wanted our class to impress the other classes. Either way, it’s a little phrase that has stuck with me ever since. It means “after this because of this.” An example of this fallacy at work is to say, “It’s raining because I forgot to bring my umbrella to work with me.” We make little isolated statements like that all the time, and we usually don’t mean them. But sometimes we do.

In Sunday’s gospel lesson (John 14:23-29), Jesus says something curious: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them…Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.” When you read that text, what do you hear Jesus saying? Is he saying, “People who keep my words are the ones who love me?” Or is he saying, “People who love me are the ones who keep my words?” The text as it is given to us is plainly the latter. But how many of us assume the opposite to be true?

People who love Jesus are the ones who keep his words. That is a gracious invitation. Jesus did not say that in order to love him you need to keep his words. That would be spiritual blackmail. Think of a parent who says to a child, “If you really love me, you’ll make you’re bed.” That’s the other way around. That’s telling someone that your love for him or her is dependent on their performance. And there’s nothing gracious about that. But imagine if instead that parent says to that child, “Thanks for making your bed. I know you love me.” That might not be a guaranteed way to get the chores done, but it does say a lot about building a relationship that is founded on love.

When I hear Jesus say, “Keep my commandments,” it makes me nervous. Because I can’t. And I don’t. I try, but I usually fail. Does that mean that I have failed to love Jesus or that he and the father have withheld their love from me? No, of course not. But, if I keep my focus on the first part—the loving—then the second part—the keeping will happen on its own. That’s true with God. That’s true with spouses and children. That’s true in just about any relationship. We start with love. The rest falls into place.

Real love cannot be conditioned on the performance of the other. One does not say, “to have and to hold as long as you do X, Y, and Z.” We do not say to a child, “You didn’t behave like I asked you to. I guess we don’t love each other.” That’s parental blaspheme. So why do so many parents and preachers hold it out to be that way? Guilt is a powerful motivator, but it has nothing to do with the gospel.  

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Eucharistic Bounty

Since the invitation included the line “picnic potluck,” I did not really know what to expect—or what to bring for that matter. This past Sunday, all of the churches in the Tennessee Valley were invited to gather at Monte Sano State Park for a shared Eucharist and meal. This “Mass on the Mountain” was an opportunity to get together with other churches in the area for worship and fellowship. Like many church gatherings, this event was a wonderful idea that was still being formed as the worshippers took their seats in the amphitheater. When the announcement about the meal was made, several of us looked at each other nervously.

Although I had interpreted the “picnic potluck” to mean that each of us was supposed to bring a picnic-type food to share with the whole gathering, the organizers suggested that an absence of any tables would make it easier for each to enjoy his own meal and share with others as needed. A quick mental recount of the dishes that made their way to Monte Sano in our car led me to believe that I would be eating bean salad and pecan bars for dinner—tasty but nutritionally deficient.

When the Eucharist was over, the group from our church migrated to a part of the amphitheater where we could spread out our offerings on a row of seats. In addition to bean salad and pecan bars, we had fried chicken and pimento cheese sandwiches (of course), rotisserie chicken, smoked chicken salad, fried fish, baked beans, corn pudding, chips, chocolate-coconut cupcakes, cookies of several varieties, and more. Each of us had brought beverages, and it seemed that our bounty was overflowing. Relieved that I had not dragged my family to a church event where our children would find nothing palatable to eat, I began to look forward to our meal…until someone asked about plates and cutlery.

I had assumed that there would be a central supply of those sorts of necessitates, and now my false assumption meant that we would be spooning heaps of food into our hands and eating out of them. But, sure enough, an ingenious person suggested that we tear the pieces of tin foil that had covered the various dishes into plate-sized pieces and use them to hold our food. Someone else noticed that we could use the wheat thins that were brought with the chicken salad to scoop up just about everything else that couldn’t be eaten directly with fingers. The next day, one of us recalled that, when she noticed how an infant seemed undeterred by this primitive style of dining, she decided to dig in. Before long, however, someone pulled out a spare bag of assorted plastic forks and spoons, which made eating baked beans a lot easier. And, then, as if out of nowhere, someone produced a stack of paper plates and napkins. Abundance and civility had found their way to our little shared picnic after all.

For me it was a real loaves-and-fishes moment. There was no miracle-worker among us, but Christ was very present in our midst. Out of almost nothing came more than enough. The laughs and smiles and craziness of it all warmed our hearts and drew us closer together. I found it strangely humorous that the Eucharist before the meal ended up being a less tangible expression of God’s bounty than the thrown-together picnic afterwards. Upon reflection, however, it seems to me that they go together seamlessly.

Breaking bread and sharing wine in the name of Jesus Christ is the primary expression of our unity. We are held together by the one who has given us this meal of remembrance, and the celebration of that feast is part of what unites us in his name. Even in ways of which we are unconscious, the gift of Eucharist binds us together. As I approached the altar with hands outstretched to receive the bread, I had no idea how God would show up later than evening, but I was able to recognize him when he did because I had shared in the body of Christ with everyone else.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunday Sermon - Belonging Always Precedes Believing

April 21, 2013 – 4 Easter C

© 2013 Evan D. Garner

It’s been a strange, sad week. By the time I heard the news that there had been an explosion at the Boston Marathon, it was almost time for Vestry. Although I wasn’t dismissive of the tragedy, a full day without any time in front of the television or a computer screen meant that I wasn’t able to absorb the impact that the bombings would have on our country. Then, as the days unfolded, I—like almost everyone—became increasingly obsessed with the incident. I listened with a deep emotional connection to reports of the injuries and deaths. I watched and waited for news of the perpetrators and stared intently at the television when the video clips were released by the FBI. All day on Friday, while the citizens of Boston were hiding in their homes, sheltering in place, I left the news on in case something exciting enough to pull me away from my Friday-routine happened. I live in Alabama; I had that luxury.

On Thursday morning, I woke up and read of the explosion at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas. Actually, I saw a video of it first—that clip of the man in the blue jeans sitting in his car and filming the flames just as the explosion ripped through the air, turning over his car, and leveling buildings all around. Instantly, I thought of Boston and wondered which tragedy would be more devastating. A conversation at Theology on Tap later that night revealed mixed feelings among our parishioners. Some of us were touched more deeply by the threat of terrorism, while others felt especially vulnerable to an accident in a manufacturing plant. Ultimately, of course, there is no way to compare the significance of disasters. Body counts and reconstruction costs can’t convey the real loss we all experience when things in the world go wrong.

All week long I’ve been interested in how people deal with incidents like these—tragedies that happen in far-away places yet leave their mark here at home. With a terrorist attack, are we supposed to stop everything and give it our full attention in order to honor the suffering of our fellow Americans? Or are we supposed to go about our lives, refusing to allow the terrorists to disrupt our routines any more than necessary? I felt mixed feelings when I saw a news channel show an entire hockey arena singing the National Anthem in an overwhelmingly patriotic display. In this time of national vulnerability, was that populist appeal only supposed to boost ratings, or was it intended to boost morale?

On Friday, as I listened to NPR, I heard a story of two senators that really grabbed my heart. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas reflected on a visit he paid to Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. I don’t have to tell you that these days senators from Texas and Massachusetts don’t really agree on much. As the commentator made clear, these two elected officials represent opposite poles of a widely divided electorate, yet Cruz focused on what held them together. He talked about how strikingly similar Warren’s sentiments were to his own as each dealt with disaster in his or her own state. And that’s the message that has carried me through these last few days. I don’t have a lot in common with Bostonians or the residents of West, Texas. I don’t always gush at sentimental displays of patriotism, and I often disagree with the politics of senators from all states. But, no matter what I believe, I’m still an American and a human being, and that’s what unites me to those who suffer in Massachusetts and Texas.

So why can’t Christians be the same?

One winter, during the celebration of the Dedication of the Temple, which we now call Hanukkah, Jesus was walking through the portico of Solomon. Some of the religious authorities came up to him and asked, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus looked at them wistfully and said, “I have told you, and you do not believe.” And why didn’t they believe? Because, as Jesus said to them, “You do not belong to my sheep.”

This story comes in the middle of Jesus’ earthly ministry. For quite a while, he had been explaining to the people where he had come from and why God had sent him. But he wasn’t telling them what they wanted to hear. As the Feast of the Dedication would suggest, his interrogators were hoping for a political and military leader—one sent by God to overthrow the Roman occupation. But Jesus came to preach peace, and his words fell on deaf ears. So no matter how hard the religious authorities tried to make sense of this Jesus of Nazareth, they were not able to recognize him for who he really was.

But the same can be said for us.

What does it mean to believe in Jesus? How can we make sense of a messiah who came to save the world but died trying? What does it mean to believe in a king whose crown was made of thorns and whose throne was a hard wooden cross? We say that Jesus came to deliver the world from sin and death, but sin and death still seem to reign in places like the finish line of the Boston Marathon and the factory floor of that fertilizer plant. We’re supposed to believe in a God who is all-powerful and all-loving yet who watches tragedies unfold every day without reaching down to stop them. How are we supposed to make sense of that? How are we supposed to believe?

Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” Being a Christian isn’t about believing the right things or making sense of who God is and how he works in the world. Being a Christian is about belonging to Jesus. It’s that simple. It’s about hearing him say to us, “You are mine. You belong to me.” We can’t follow Jesus until we recognize that we belong to him. Belonging always precedes believing. Jesus’ isn’t asking us to figure everything out before we can call ourselves his disciples. He’s claiming us for his own and asking us to believe because we belong to him.

We don’t have to be able to make sense of weeks like this one. As Christians, we aren’t supposed to understand why these things happen. But we are supposed to know that, no matter what occurs, we belong to God, and he will never forsake us. God is with us in the midst of our tragedies. Nothing can separate us from his love. And that’s the place where belief begins. It starts when we know what it means to belong to Jesus. He chooses us before we choose him. No one stands at the front door of the church and turns away any who aren’t able or willing to profess the Christian faith. Instead, we open wide our doors and welcome any who come in because in Christ God has called each of us by name and made us his own. We are Christians—not because of what we say or what we believe. We are Christians because we belong to Jesus. Amen. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Peter Who?

I doubt I’ll preach on the Acts reading this Sunday, but it’s too good to pass by without comment. Actually, the event it describes isn’t all that interesting—just the revivification of a dead girl. Normally, that would be incredible news, but it is so similar to the story of Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter that it seems like Luke could find an original story to tell. But the remarkable thing about the passage is that it isn’t Jesus who’s doing the healing. It’s Peter.

The Book of Acts builds the case for the Holy Spirit leading the apostles to carry on with the work Jesus had begun during his lifetime. We see the church taking shape, taking the good news to ever-widening circles of evangelism, and taking on the role of Jesus himself. This story of Peter and the dead woman in Joppa is supposed to show us that even lowly Peter is able to do the fullest miracles that Jesus himself did—raising the dead. But the real miracle in the story is how the community reacted to it.

When they heard what Peter had done, they kept their focus on Jesus. As Luke writes, “This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.” They didn’t believe in Peter. They didn’t come to him and carry him off to be a king. They heard what he did and focused on Jesus. That’s amazing. If you were able to give life back to my dead loved one, I wouldn’t ask where the power came from. I’d simply seek you out and pay you whatever I needed to in order to have my own dead family member brought back to life.

Sometimes we fall in love with the messenger and forget the message. Sometimes we remember our youth minister more than the stories he told. Sometimes we care more about our preacher than we do about Jesus. But, if everything is going the way it’s supposed to, that minister could raise the dead and we’d still be talking more about Jesus than about her. How is that possible?

I’ve never met someone who could raise the dead, but I’m guessing that that kind of power comes from a life and ministry so firmly rooted in the power of God that a witness couldn’t help but see it. As a minister of the gospel, am I that deeply planted in my own discipleship that God’s work in and through me overshadows anything I might bring to the table? Can I develop and grow in the spiritual life in order that I lose myself that fully? I don’t expect to raise the dead. I can’t even get over my own allergies. But I can disappear and point others to God’s power rather than my own abilities.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Two Messiahs, One Jesus

I haven’t cracked open any commentaries on John 10 yet, but it seems that “the festival of the Dedication,” which John names as the scene for this Sunday’s gospel lesson, may play an important role. Nowadays, we call that celebration Hanukkah, and the search for a messiah probably felt a little different during the celebration of the dedication of the Temple.

I am not an expert on second-century BCE Palestine, but I gather that the Jerusalem Temple (version 2.0) was desecrated by Antiochus, provoking a strong reaction from the inhabitants of Judah. During the revolt that followed, the Temple was cleansed and restored, and the always-burning menorah was relit. At the time, however, only enough oil for one night’s burning was available, yet the flame stayed true for eight nights—until more could be procured. Yes, Hanukkah is a festival of lights, but it’s also a festival of Jewish victory over oppression.

So, in this Sunday’s gospel lesson, when the Jewish authorities come looking for Jesus and ask whether he’s the messiah, they don’t mean, “Are you the one to come and shepherd the lost sheep of Israel?” They mean, “Are you the one to come and defeat the Romans like Judah the Hammer did two-hundred years ago?” Jesus’ reply shows that the problem isn’t that they refuse to recognize his authority but that they’re looking for the wrong kind of messiah in the first place.

If you’re looking for an anointed one who is going to lead a rebellion against the unholy Roman occupiers, Jesus probably isn’t the right guy for your cause. Now, he shows promise. He’s saying lots of exciting things about God’s kingdom. He’s performing some pretty amazing feats. The crowds are starting to flock to him. But something’s missing. He doesn’t have that killer instinct. It’s easy to understand why the leaders missed Jesus’ messiahship. And that means it’s easy to understand why we miss it, too.

What sort of messiah are you looking for? Although I’m not Jewish and can’t quite identify with the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple, I have my own messianic needs that aren’t really what Jesus has in mind. I want to be noticed. I want to be affirmed. I want to be successful. I want to be right. And I want Jesus to want all of those things on my behalf. I want him to win my own personal victories. But that’s the wrong Jesus. That’s the wrong messiah.

Jesus looks at his interrogators and says, “I have told you, and you do not believe. I do works in my Father’s name to testify to me, but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.” I’ve heard what sort of messiah Jesus really is. I’ve read about the miracles and feats of wonder. And I know they’re all pointing to his messiahship, but none of it has been about my own need for victory. Belonging to his fold—being one of his sheep—means accepting a different sort of messiah.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Skip Church and Go Fishing

I grew up on the coast, and now I live on the Tennessee River. In both places, people like to fish…a lot. And in both places people use the excuse, “I feel closest to God when I’m out fishing,” to explain why they don’t come to church more often. Usually, I’d say “Bullshit,” but this week (John 21:1-19) it seems they may be right.

The resurrected Jesus shows up in a net full of fish. After a long night of casting and dragging and hauling and coming up empty, a stranger calls out to the boat as it approaches the shore and invites them to try one more time. Bingo. That there’s a metaphor, and it’s one we almost have to go back down to the water’s edge to understand.

I know that fishing isn’t completely luck. Some people are better at it than others. Trust me: I went fishing with my father dozens of times and never caught a thing. Though I understand that, for some professional fisherpersons, the catch is a matter of putting food on the table for a family, I still don’t grasp why fishing is a professional sport. But it is, and that means that knowledge, skill, and ability are all involved. And, for these disciples, many of whom made a living on the sea, fishing, though relaxing and therapeutic, wasn’t just a hobby. So these guys weren’t in the boat for the first time. They knew what they were doing, yet still they had a bad night.

Bad nights happen. Even the guys who fish in shiny boats and are shown on ESPN occasionally come back with nothing. No matter how good you are at fishing you can’t force a fish to jump into your boat. You have to coax it. You have to fool it. You have to convince it to take a bite (or surprise it in a net). And sometimes, no matter how good you are, you come back empty handed. And that’s when Jesus shows up.

For John, this is a resurrection story. This is about Jesus showing up and proving to his disciples that he had risen from the dead—that God can and has and will win the ultimate victory over death. And how does he show up? By inviting the exhausted and frustrated disciples to cast their nets one more time. Bingo. Resurrection.

Death comes first. Defeat precedes victory. Emptiness occurs before abundance. You’ve got to know what it means to come back empty-handed before you can know what kind of celebration is appropriate for a haul of 153 fish. If you’re looking for resurrection, don’t ignore the moments of frustration or defeat. New life springs where life seems absent.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Why William Law Matters

Normally, I ignore the lesser feasts in the church year. Unless there is a “red-letter day” on the calendar, I like to read the Daily Office, and, if I’m preaching at a weekday service, I use that text—regardless of whether a Eucharist is celebrated. Today, though, I paused long enough to see who William Law was, and, at least on the surface, I find him intriguing.

In the late 17th century, Law was an well-educated, up-and-coming Anglican clergyman with a teaching position at Cambridge. According to a Christianity Today article, he was the “son of a prosperous business man” with a “solid future” ahead of him (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/131christians/innertravelers/law.html). Then Queen Anne died without an heir, and George I of the House of Hanover took over the throne.

Apparently, there were many, many closer relatives to Queen Anne than George of Hanover, but all of them were Roman Catholic. A series of Parliamentary acts, the latest of which was the Act of Settlement 1701, had made it clear that none of them were entitled to ascend to the throne, so it passed to the German Lutheran George. The House of Hanover replaced the House of Stuarts, and William Law didn’t like it.

As a matter of conscience, Law refused to swear the oath of allegiance required for him to maintain his position in the University. By advocating for the Jacobites, he lost his job, lost any chance to progress in the Church of England, thus losing all sense of professional direction. He spent the rest of his days as a curate without a notable cure, writing theological texts that were cited as foundational by many 18th-century theologians (e.g., John Wesley). I haven’t ever read any of his works, and, given what I’ve read about them, I doubt I would like them all that much, but that’s not the point.

I must confess that as an avowed Protestant I find Law’s political position of supporting the Catholic claim to the English (and later British) throne troubling. But, as a Christian, I find his willingness to give everything up for a matter of conscience encouraging. I don’t know what his motives were, but I have respect for someone who is Anglican and yet is willing to give everything up to support what he thinks is a legitimate Catholic claim to the throne. He wasn’t Catholic, yet he stood up for what he thought was right.

It’s not very often we have the opportunity to do what Law did in a public arena like his, but we have the daily opportunity to give up our own claim to center stage on behalf of the gospel. I read a post today from the Mockingbird blog on Erik Spoelstra’s recent decision not to set the final play for his Miami Heat (http://www.mbird.com/2013/04/thank-you-for-not-coaching/). The post points to a humility that is rare in sports—rare, even, in human experience of all arenas. How might we do likewise? How might we care less about ourselves and more about the principle of the gospel, namely putting God’s kingdom first? What might we give up? How, as today’s gospel lesson exhorts, might we practice our piety in secret for a purely heavenly reward?

Monday, April 8, 2013

Eventually Believing the Virgin Birth

Well, it’s about time. Poor Mary has been waiting and waiting for the angel Gabriel to come and tell her that she’s going to be the mother of Jesus, but she’s had to wait a few extra weeks. March 25 fell in Holy Week, so the Annunciation was transferred to the first open day in the calendar, which isn’t until today. Happy conception day, Mary!

The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." (Luke 1:35-37)

There’s a window in our church that shows an image I haven’t seen (or at least noticed) in any other setting. I’m sure it’s out there in other churches or in artwork, and I’m curious if others have seen it. It’s a depiction of the scene from the Annunciation when the Holy Spirit actually comes upon Mary and, we assume, impregnates her with the child to be Jesus. In the window, you can see Mary kneeling down. The angel Gabriel is standing next to her, having finished his announcement. And from the sky is a ray of light that beams down from a dove and hits Mary on the head. (I wish it were hitting her in her midsection, but the artist didn’t ask my opinion.) The whole thing is frozen in time for all of us to see.

When I first saw it (several years before coming to this church as rector), I noticed it and found it remarkable. I even gave it an inappropriate title with  connotations unfit for public consumption (let the reader understand!). But, as remarkable as the overtones are, what really startles me is the factual, literal, concrete, tangible depiction of the conception. We’re not talking metaphor, here. This is the real thing. If Joseph had been a jealous fiancĂ©e, this would have been the incrimination photograph. For all of us who see the window, there can be no doubt: this is how Jesus was conceived.

The Virgin Birth is a remarkable doctrine of the church. It’s important—I think essential—but it hasn’t gotten high billing in recent years. Maybe that’s because we’re a little squeamish when it comes to talking about sex. Or maybe it’s because we’ve learned that in the 21st century it’s hard to attract someone to the faith by asking them to believe in a virgin birth narrative. For whatever reason, I think we’ve buried the story. It gets mentioned in the creeds. We Christians know it’s a part of the faith whether we believe it or not. But, for the most part, no one stops and asks us to believe the virgin birth in the same way we are asked to believe that “Jesus died for our sins” or that “He is risen!”

As a minister who is interested in making the good news relevant to a seeking, skeptical audience, I don’t think we need to lead with the doctrine of Mary’s virginity (perpetual or not). I think as an evangelistic, pedagogical method, we should start with the bigger truth that the Virgin Birth points us to and then work our way backwards. We should tell people that God loved the world so much that he wanted to take on its nature. God wanted to show us who he really is and could only do that by becoming one of us—not just in appearance or by adoption but by total, full-on birth. How is that possible? Well, when we get to that point, the answer is shown in the window. But let’s start somewhere else.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Preaching the Collect

Sometimes, when I’m trying to figure out why three particular lessons have been stitched together for a Sunday reading, I go back and read the collect. Although it isn’t always true, more often than not I can see in the prayer a connection between the readings. If you’re preaching this week, go back and read the collect again. There are at least three sermons waiting there.

Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ's Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

#1. In the Paschal mystery, God has established a new covenant of reconciliation. As I wrote about two days ago, I have a hard time preaching on Thomas and not saying the same thing each year. Usually, I read that text and think, “Disbelief is a reasonable but erroneous conclusion,” and I go on to try to build a systematic view of resurrection certainty based on Thomas’ transformation. But, as the collect suggests, is the encounter between Jesus and Thomas an example of reconciliation? Are they made one? Is the disbelief that held Thomas from giving his heart fully to Jesus a fracture in their relationship that can only be restored through the power of the resurrection? Is our own disbelief an example of brokenness in our relationship with God that can only be overcome through the Paschal mystery?

#2. We are reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s body. What is the church? Why do we gather? What do we proclaim? We are the fellowship of the resurrected body. Thomas’ encounter with Jesus reminds us that we are body-focused. It is the body of Christ that defines our community of faith. It is the body of Christ that gives us the faith that holds us together. And I don’t just mean Communion-body, but I mean that, too. Back in the early days, the Christian community was a weird society of body-obsessed people who seemed to outsiders like cannibals. Of course we’re not. But there was such an other-worldly, mystical, resurrection-centeredness that it gave the church some “street cred.” Maybe we need to get that back. Maybe we need to embrace the reality of being a church that gathers around the body of Christ—not just as a metaphor but as a physical reality.

#3. Our prayer is that we might show forth in our lives what we profess by our faith. When we encounter the disciples in the upper room, they aren’t really doing it. They’re hiding out of fear. The doors are locked. What are they waiting for? What are they expecting? A week later, even after they’ve seen Jesus, heard his “go-forth” command, and received the Holy Spirit, they are still in the locked room. Again, what are they waiting for? If we claim to be Christians (and most of us do), we believe that God has sent us out to do the work he has given us to do. We are disciples. We are apostles. How many of us are still waiting behind locked doors…and for what? When is Jesus going to say something or do something that finally get us to show forth in our lives what we claim with our lips? Lives and lips—there’s an interesting dichotomy for a sermon.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Knowing through Experience

Last night, we had a dish for supper that is pretty common in our house—Kung Pao chicken—but this time, we added an unusual-for-us ingredient to the stir-fry: mushrooms. The dish almost always comes with chicken, onions, bell peppers, peanuts, red chili peppers, and the sauce, but, because we had a surplus of edible fungus on hand, we decided to add mushrooms to the dish.

“What is this? Is it chicken?” my three-year-old asked as he speared a quartered mushroom with his fork. Not wanting to dissuade him from eating it, I replied, “What do you think it is?” He said chicken, and I said ok, and he popped it into his mouth. He chewed. We watched. “It tastes more like a mushroom thing. Is it a mushroom?” Busted. We told him what it was, and, even though he ate the first bite without any objection, he wouldn’t eat anymore.

His mother explained that the mushrooms didn’t taste like anything other than the sauce that they were in, but that didn’t help. Then our five-year-old daughter joined the conversation. Searching for affirmation and thus siding with her parents, she wholeheartedly confirmed that the mushrooms indeed did taste like the sauce. I took that as an opportunity to distinguish between taste and texture. A short vocabulary and culinary lesson ensued. We talk about different textures and noted that, although some things may taste alike, they often have different textures—like mushrooms and chicken. “What sort of texture does a mushroom have?” I asked. We didn’t get very far. How do you explain in words to a three-year-old and a five-year-old the difference between textures? By comparison. “Is anything on your plate crunchy? Is anything creamy?” In the abstract, I got nowhere, but, when I focused on the experience of dinner, our conversation became fruitful. And that got me thinking about the resurrection.

On the road to Emmaus, Jesus meets some downcast disciples. He engages them in conversation and seems appalled when they don’t understand that the messiah was supposed to be betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed before rising on the third day. So he starts with Moses and explains how the Hebrew scriptures point to this.

But still they cannot see him.

Only when they are sitting at table and Jesus breaks the bread are their eyes opened and they understand who he is. The same is true for us—not just that we experience the risen Jesus in Holy Communion, which we do, but that we must experience the resurrection to know it. When the two disciples make their way back to the eleven in Jerusalem, they explain “how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” Known. They know him by experiencing him. Not in hearing the scripture. Not in listening to an explanation. Although their hearts burned when they heard it, they didn’t recognize him until they experienced it.

How will you experience resurrection this Easter? You can’t know the risen Jesus until you experience him. No amount of explaining or talking (or preaching) or pointing or studying will get you there. You have to experience the resurrection. We spend 50 days in the season of Easter for just that reason—to remind us that we have to experience it to understand it. Where will the empty tomb show up for you this year? 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Looking for a Different Thomas

I’ve been writing my 2 Easter sermon for six weeks. Why? Because for me the gospel text that is used this coming Sunday (John 20:19-31) is even more expected than last Sunday’s resurrection narrative. In case you haven’t been to church on the Sunday after Easter Day in the last 30 years, the text is always the story of “doubting Thomas.” Perhaps it’s because I’ve preached on ‘Low Sunday’ a lot in the seven years I’ve been doing this (5 as a curate/associate), but I feel like I have “put your hand in my side” down pat. In my mind, I’ve been preparing for (and trying to avoid) a sermon on this ultra-familiar text.

Does anyone have any surprises out there?

That’s the real trouble for me. I want to be surprised like Thomas. I want to have my expectations rocked to their core. I want to read this gospel text and not hear myself preach the same sermon. Anyone have anything new to say?

I like what Steve Pankey wrote today. Thomas didn’t doubt; he had unbelief. Steve points out that what was lacking wasn’t faith but relationship. That helps me get a fresh perspective on it.

What about others? What’s the preacher’s message to the faithful (and I do mean faithful to show up on 2 Easter)?