Thursday, August 29, 2013

Dinner Guests

Each week in our parish staff meeting, we read the gospel for the upcoming Sunday. Although we don’t spent a lot of time talking about it, that practice does put us all on the same page as we approach Sunday. Children’s church, Sunday school, publications, EYC, financial work—it’s good for everything we do to be grounded in the gospel.

This week, as we read Luke 14:1, 7-14, someone invited us to think about a party at which “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” were the dinner guests. What would that party look like? Several others chimed in. How often do we spend money entertaining rich people? What would it mean to throw a lavish event for the marginalized? Is such a feast depicted in art?

I’d guess that homeless people in the first century were a lot like homeless people today, which means that the feast Jesus is calling for would have sounded just as strange to his hearers as it does to us. Fairly often, a homeless person will come into the church office seeking financial assistance. Occasionally, the inability of that person to engage in common hygiene practices means that he or she will stink. And sometimes that smell lingers in my office for a few hours after he or she departs. It is unpleasant. It is offensive. It is a good reminder to me of what heaven might smell like.

Jesus’ words aren’t just a demonstrative tactic. He isn’t speaking in hyperbole. He expects us to do what he says. If you invite the rich, they might invite you back, so invite the poor so that your reward might be at the resurrection. And what will that reward be? That when the poor, homeless people are seated at the heavenly banquet they might save a place at the table for you.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Seeing the Signs

All the way through John’s gospel, the author likes to use the word “sign” to describe the miracles that Jesus does. “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee.” “This was now the second sign the Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee.” And so on. That word choice, of course, isn’t accidental. John wants us to see that the miracles Jesus performed were signs that point us to something else—Jesus’ identity as the messiah, Jesus’ identity as God incarnate, and Jesus’ identity as the one with power over heaven and earth.

As Jesus performs one sign after another, the reader is left with the impression that there are two groups of people whom he encounters. Some in the crowds are able to see that to which the signs are pointing. They make the connection between miracle and the miracle worker and the one who sent him. Many others, however, fail to see past the signs themselves. Like a person who pulls of the interstate at the “Rest Area” sign and takes a nap at the base of the sign, they are the ones who get caught up in the feat of wonder without ever looking past it.

In today’s gospel lesson, Philip says something that really ticked off Jesus: “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” “What do you mean, ‘Show us the Father?’” Jesus snapped back. “How can you ask me that? Have you been with me all this time and still you do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Don’t you get it?”

The point is, of course, that it isn’t always easy to get it. Seeing the connection between the miracle and the miracle worker and the one who sent him isn’t always easy. Why? Because the miracles themselves are so nifty. It’s neat to see water turned into wine. It’s amazing to see a paralytic stand up. How many people do you know who, after being nauseated for days, worry about why they suddenly feel better? “Just give me the miracle. I don’t care where it comes from!”

But God asks wants more for us. He wants us to make the connection. He wants us to see that it’s him doing the work—that it isn’t just a magic man but the Son of God—that Jesus is more than a worker of wonders—that he’s our savior. But you know what? If you can’t get that far today, that’s ok. Sometimes recognizing God’s work as a gift is enough.

As his exasperation subsides, Jesus says, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.” Think about all the things God has done in your life. Bring to mind all of the good and wonderful things you have seen and heard and experienced. If you can at least see that there are amazing, beautiful, grace-filled gifts all around, that’s a start. And God can take that start and build upon it. First, recognize the gifts for what they are, and then see if you can discover the giver.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


This is a quick post on the Daily Office Old Testament track we've been on for a while. Today's lesson (1 Kings 1:38-2:4) is a continuation of a story about the transition of power from King David to King Solomon. I've been reading with renewed fascination as David struggles with his son Absalom, who led a rebellion against him. Absalom is killed in battle, and David's grief almost costs him his kingship. More recently in our readings, Adonijah gathered his supporters around him and named himself the new king. As the eldest son, he seemed a likely choice, but David had already promised that Solomon would succeed him. In yesterday's reading, David was informed about Adonijah's attempt to grab power, and he was forced to make a choice. Would he break his promise to Bathsheba and let Adonijah, who had rallied considerable support for his claim to the throne, stand as king, or would he risk another battle and confirm Solomon as his successor?

In today's reading, we see that the choice is made. David has Solomon anointed by Zadok the priest. The cry of celebration goes up, and, when Adonijah hears it, he knows that he is in trouble. All the guests at his coronation party trembled with fear and left him. Like a wrestler grabbing the ropes to get a brief respite from the attack of an adversary, Adonijah goes to the temple and grabs the horns of the altar--a gesture of anxious submission. Will Solomon kill him for his rivalry? What will come of them?

Tomorrow's lesson will show the answer, but we already know how it will end. It's been a rocky road thus far, and things were not likely to get better before they got worse.

Do you ever feel like you're stuck in a situation that you can't work your way out of? Maybe it's due to circumstances beyond your control. But likely  it's because of your own doing. Sometimes we have to stop and look at where we are and ask those tough questions. What did I do to get here? Was it beyond my control, or did I have something to do with it.

There's a reason confession precedes absolution. I don't think it's because God is waiting for us to say that we're sorry before he'll offer us love and forgiveness. God's unchangable nature is always to love and his property is always to have mercy. But we confess first so that the proclamation of forgiveness has meaning. In the service of public healing, which we use as our midweek service, the rubric states that a confession will be said before the anointing and prayers for healing are offered. (How about that for a rubric reading, Steve Pankey?) Why? Can healing not happen without confession? Sure it can. God can do anything. But will we be able to see it until we stop and stare deep within at our own shortcomings?

Monday, August 26, 2013

Earthly Advice or Heavenly Imperative?

Can we tell a difference between Jesus’ earthly advice and his heavenly advice? This Sunday’s gospel lesson (Luke 14:1, 7-14) takes place at a dinner party hosted by a leader of the Pharisees. Everyone, Luke tells us was watching Jesus closely, but Jesus was watching them, too. And, when everyone had taken his seat at the table, Jesus told them a parable.

“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet…” Luke calls it a parable, but it doesn’t really sound like one to me. It sounds more like plain old criticism. That Jesus says, “at a wedding banquet,” barely masks the fact that he’s talking to them. In fact, unless Luke named this as a “parable,” I wouldn’t have thought of it as such. I’ve always heard these words as good advice, and I’ve kept them as such.

When I go to someone’s house or a large function, I try carefully to discern where the head of the table or room will be so that I can sit myself as far from it as possible. Why? Because Jesus told me to. I don’t actually expect anyone to come up to me and say, “Friend, move up higher!” But, had I taken a seat above my station, I would expect them to say silently to themselves, “Look at him, sitting up in front.” Why? Because that’s what I say when other people choose a seat next to the host.

But my engagement with this text is stuck in the literal, earthly sphere. And I think it’s supposed to be a parable. I think Jesus is trying to get the dinner guests to think not only of that night’s meal or of future wedding banquets but of the heavenly banquet. And, as long as I’m reading and interpreting this text as “Ann Landers’ practical advice on how to impress other guests at a party,” I’m not reading the gospel.

Jesus is talking about the heavenly banquet. No, I don’t think there are class distinctions in heaven. No, I don’t think one person’s reward is greater than another’s. But I do think that making our banquet table look like God’s banquet table involves humility and radical inclusion. No, God isn’t going to come to you and say, “You’re sitting too close to the front; move down.” Nor is he going to say, “Friend, I have a better place for you up here!” But, if I’m going to live into the kingdom and recognize how heaven works, I’ve got to look at it through the eyes of humility.

Can you see how God is working in the world around you? When you sit down at a dinner party, do you recognize the kingdom? When you walk through the grocery story, do you notice God’s reign breaking through? Seeing it is as simple as having a heart that chooses the lowest seat at the table—not so that someone might surprise you with a better invitation but so that in so doing you might see that you’re already sitting at the kingdom table. 

Sunday Sermon - The Bent Over Woman

August 25, 2013 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16C

© 2013 Evan D. Garner

The audio of this sermon is available here.

She was the kind of person that you don’t really notice. In fact, even if she were standing right in front of you, you might miss her unless you were looking carefully. She made a habit of blending in. Usually, when we saw her, it was while we were driving in the car. She used to shuffle her way down the side of the street—even busy streets without sidewalks—and cars like ours would scoot over a little bit to give her enough room to make her way, one tiny step after another. In less than five seconds, she was gone, shrinking in our rearview mirror, heading who knows where.

We never knew her name. She was just the woman with the hunchback. She didn’t really need a name since her distinctive posture defined her. Once or twice, as we sped past in the car, one of us would ask a grown-up to tell us about that woman. “What’s her problem?” we would say. “What happened to her?” But the answers we got were just speculation. Maybe she was born like that. Or maybe she fell out of a tree when she was a child. Or maybe she contracted a disease that contorted her body, forcing her to walk through life while staring at the ground.

We assumed that she had no family because we never saw her with anyone. In fact, we never even saw her acknowledge the existence of another human being. She spoke to no one. She never turned her head as if to make eye contact. It was as if she lived in a bubble made of a two-way mirror. Everyone on the outside could stare at her and her deformity, but she just carried on, shuffling her feet with her body bowed down, as if no one else existed.

One day, we were playing in our neighborhood, running in between houses and hiding in azalea bushes. The game didn’t have name, and we didn’t know who was “it.” We were just running away from each other, laughing and screaming. I wasn’t as fast as my friends, so I had to stay close to trees and bushes, where I could hide if I heard someone coming. As I raced down a side yard toward the street, looking over my shoulder at a friend who hadn’t spotted me yet, I turned back around to see where I was going, and, when I did, there she was. At first I didn’t register what was happening, but I knew instinctively that I had to slam on the brakes. I skidded down onto the grass next to the sidewalk, and, when I looked up, I saw what I feared the most. The bent-over woman was standing right in front of me.

It wasn’t that she did anything threatening or represented any potential physical danger. Even as a child, I knew I could escape her grasp. But being that close to her was terrifying. She was strange. She was different. She wasn’t like us. And her otherness was petrifying. Because of her hunched-over posture, she had been labeled by decent society as unclean. Something was wrong with her—something more than just her posture. We all steered clear of her—not only because of her peculiarity but because we did not want to be associated with her strangeness. In an odd way, as long as she was at a distance, she made us feel safer, more secure, because she reminded us that something was wrong with her and not with us. She made us feel normal.

I screamed and ran. I didn’t turn around to see what she was doing until I had made it far enough away to feel safe. By the time I did, she was well on her way down the sidewalk, shuffling along as if nothing had happened. When my friends raced over and asked me what was wrong, I pointed down the street and said, “I almost ran into that hunchback woman. I don’t know why she’s in our neighborhood. I’ve never seen her near here before. It’s just not right—for people like her, who can’t even see where they’re going, to be walking down the street. Someone could get hurt.” My friends offered sympathetic amazement in response to my story of the near-miss, and then we went back to playing our game, and, by the end of the week, we had all but forgotten what had happened.

One sabbath day, while he was teaching in the synagogue, Jesus caught a glimpse of the bent-over woman through the open front door. He stopped in mid-sentence, offered no explanation, but walked down to the door and whispered something to the woman. Then, he took her hand and escorted her inside, bringing her right into the middle of the congregation. Everything happened too quickly for us to make sense of what was going on. We couldn’t believe what was happening right in front of our eyes, but we knew that something strange and powerful was unfolding. Then, Jesus laid his hands on her and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment!” and immediately the woman straightened up and lifted her head toward the sky and exclaimed, “Praise be to God above!”

While we were still trying to figure out what was going on, the boldest among us spoke up and said what part of our hearts were feeling. “This isn’t right!” he said to all of us. “This is the sabbath—the day of rest. There are six days on which work ought to be done. Come on one of those days and be cured.” But Jesus looked at him and at the rest of us and said, “You hypocrites! Who among you doesn’t take care of his animals on the sabbath, untying them and making sure they have water and food? Shouldn’t this child of God, whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage even on the sabbath day?”

And, in that moment, I knew. When I heard the words of Jesus, I knew that he was speaking to me. I had been the one to bind this woman—to keep her hunched over under the weight of oppression. My words and my thoughts and my disgust at her twisted figure had piled up on her shoulders, forcing her to bend over even further. And the further she bent down, the closer her eyes got to the ground, the straighter I felt. We had all done it. For eighteen years, we had all kept this woman on the outside so that those of us on the inside could feel better. We sucked the life and joy and dignity out of this woman so that we could have just a tiny bit more esteem. Every time we stared at her and silently gave her a label that read “Damaged Goods,” we were hiding the real truth—that every one of us was just as broken as she was, but, as long as no one else could see it and as long as she remained the source of our pity, we were safe.

But, when Jesus called her a daughter of Abraham—a child of God—he did something that threatened all of that. When he put his hands on her and said to her, “Woman, stand up straight!” he showed everyone that she was just like us and that we were just like her. The scariest truth is that each of us is just as bent over by the burdens of this life as that woman. Whether by illness or disability or unemployment or addiction or divorce or race or class or sexual orientation, we are vulnerable to the labels that other people place upon us, and, because of that vulnerability, we quickly slap a discriminatory label on someone else before anyone notices our own weakness. Often, in the name of our religion, we call that which makes someone different from the rest of us “unholy” and “wrong” and “sinful” just because we don’t want anyone to notice what is “wrong” with us. Even the most bent-over and broken among us would rather point a finger at someone else in the name of what is right than admit our own vulnerability.

But Jesus changes all of that. He takes the weakest among us and brings her right into the middle—the place of power—and says, “Stand up straight! You are a daughter of Abraham! You are a child of God!” And, when Jesus says that, no one can take it away. If you are broken to the point of being bent over—even if it’s in ways that no one else but God can see—know that God is still calling out to you in order to make you whole. And, if you’re so worried about what’s wrong inside of you that you’ve lost the ability to recognize the dignity of every human being, stop for a second and listen to what Jesus is saying to them and to you. You don’t have to be good. You don’t have to fit in. You don’t have to have your life in order. Still, God is calling out to each and every one of us, saying, “You are my child. You are my son. You are my daughter. Stand up straight!” Amen.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Who Is the Oppressor?

As a part of the Kenya Consultation, I recently participated in a small-group discussion on this Sunday’s gospel lesson—the story of the bent-over woman. Actually, I facilitated the discussion and, when I managed to hold my tongue, listened to a small group talk about this story that is dear to my heart. We were engaged in contextual bible study—the kind that Gerald West of the Ujamaa Center has written about. Using the “See, Judge, Act” model, we looked at the passage and explored the context of the story, connections between the story and our own contexts, and potential responses we were willing to make to what we had learned.

This is a passage I had spent a good bit of time studying, but the insights that the participants brought to the discussion made all my study seem elementary. (That shouldn’t surprise me—they were theologians of the first-order.) One spoke of a synagogue in Galilee that was two-stories. The women would have had to sit upstairs, separate from the men, but this woman, because of her condition, may not have been able to climb the stairs. Jesus may have seen her through a window or door standing outside, getting as close to the congregation as she was allowed. Another participant drew our attention to the preceding passage—the parable about the fruitless fig tree. He invited us to ask whether Luke positioned the tree in parallel with the synagogue leader and the religious elites he represented. Could the fact that the woman had been bound by a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years be a sign of the fruitlessness of their religious life?

As our conversation went deeper and deeper, these brilliant women and men of faith made connections between the ruler of the synagogue and the woman’s condition that bridged the two-thousand years between Jesus and us. Jesus’ healing of the woman was threatening to the leader of the congregation, but he was not willing to take his frustration out on Jesus or even on the woman he had healed. Instead, he lashes out at the whole congregation: “There are six days on which you should be healed! Come on one of those days instead of the Sabbath.” Jesus then eviscerates the man’s authority and hypocrisy by appealing to the common practice of watering one’s ox or donkey on the Sabbath, asking the rhetorical question, “Should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” As the narrator tells us, all Jesus’ enemies were put to shame, and the people rejoiced. Yes, this is a story about healing. Yes, it’s a story about recovery. But it’s also a story about power.

In a community like that one, the ruler of the synagogue would have held considerable power—the power to pronounce God’s will for his community. He was the one who made sure that women like that hunched-over, downcast, feet-shuffling woman knew their place and remained in it. When Jesus saw her, he called her over, bringing her from the outskirts of the community into the center of attention. By calling her over—by challenging the authority of the synagogue leader—he elevates one who was shunned, making her one who is celebrated. When he says to her, “Woman you are freed from your disability,” he essentially says to her, “Stand up straight!” That’s a point that Jeffrey John, current Dean of St. Alban’s Cathedral in England, made in his book The Meaning in the Miracles, which I highly recommend. Including a passage from a YWCA bible study, he helps the reader see that this is a story about liberation.

As our conversation came to the third part of our work—the “Act” part—we asked ourselves what we would do in response to this story. It was clear to us that the rules of institutional religion had been the very bonds that held this woman. It was the ruler of the synagogue and all the power that he represented that bend the woman over, forcing her to stare at the ground. If Jesus was challenging that hypocritical authority and giving the oppressed the ability to stand up straight, what would we do about it? How are our own rules hypocritical? How have our religious life and worship failed to bear fruit? How are we standing on the side of oppression, forcing others to stare silently at their feet?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Biblical Context

Today's post is also the blurb from our parish newsletter, The Church Mouse. To read the whole newsletter, click here.

At lunch yesterday I sat with someone whom I had not seen since I returned from Africa. “Jambo!” she exclaimed joyfully and boldly. “What?” I asked, having failed to process what she was saying. She repeated her exuberant greeting. This time, I paused, certain that I had heard her correctly but still confused as to what she was saying. Turning to her neighbor, she said, “He doesn’t speak Swahili.” “Oh,” I said, finally understanding what she meant. “Yes, hello to you, too, and, no, I don’t speak Swahili.”

Context is everything. Although my time in Kenya is still close to the surface of my mind, I do not walk into every room prepared to be greeted in Swahili. Even though people still ask me about my trip and even though I used the word “jambo” dozens of times while I was there, clearly I am caught off-guard when my familiar context bumps into one I am not ready for. In my mind, Swahili belongs in Kenya, and hearing it in Decatur sounds as out of place as “Roll Tide!” sounds in Limuru.

One thing I learned during my trip to Africa is that context is everything. Contexts are like permeable bubbles that we carry around with us everywhere we go. My bubble is filled with the things that define me. Some of them are fairly generic—American, Christian, husband, parent, college graduate, etc.—and some of them are very specific—Alabamian, Episcopal priest, eternally disappointed Cubs fan, etc.. When we meet and spend any considerable amount of time together, we share perspectives from our own context, and we hear others speaking from theirs. If our contexts are relatively similar, we are able to speak with one another seamlessly, but, if we come from totally different perspectives, we may need a cultural translation in order to make sense to one another.

I spent four days in Kenya talking with Christians from North America and Africa about human sexuality. Each of us tried to speak only for ourselves, acknowledging for the group how these issues related to our own experience of faith. As such, this was not an opportunity for debate but for mutual exploration. Even though almost all of us were Anglicans, we heard words like “family” and “marriage” and “homosexuality” and “faith” and “gospel” in very different ways. Halfway through the conference, having listened to theologians and church leaders from several different countries, I realized something: my context was closer to that of many of the African participants than that of the North Americans.

During a session in which the larger group split up by region, one of my American colleagues remarked that he had been “searching for Anglicanism” throughout the conference. He expressed frustration and bewilderment that we had focused exclusively on scripture and not brought the other legs of Hooker’s three-legged stool—tradition and reason—into the conversation. Silently, my internal voice screamed out, “Not every Anglican thinks that way!” What he had not realized is that even within the shared history and heritage of the Anglican Communion our experience of Anglicanism differs widely. And what I had not realized was how emotionally connected I am to the way we talk about the bible.

I come from a place where scripture is king. That is my context. Although the other warrants of tradition and reason are important, we lead with the bible. I am reminded that there is a reason we call the place in which we live the “Bible Belt!” Conversations with other Christians in our community must start (and usually end) with scripture. That is not true of other Episcopalians in North America. Even though I would guess that almost every participant in the conference would identify himself or herself as “progressive” or “moderate” and would agree on many of the issues we discussed, the way in which we carried out that discussion and the ways in which we used the bible to express our beliefs varied widely. That is because we come from different contexts, and the real discovery for me during the trip was that those contexts are not always contiguous with continental boundaries.

How do you read the bible? What role does scripture play in your faith? What role does it play in your daily life? Each of us is shaped by the influences around us—family, friends, politics, community, experience, etc.. All of those things work together to give us a context, and that context affects how we read the bible. Yes, we read the same words on the page, but what they say to us can be wildly different. As you read the bible or hear scripture read in church, what is the word of God saying to you? How are you hearing it? What does that say about scripture, and what does that say about you?

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Bent-Over Woman

When the lectionary made it to Luke 10 (back on July 7), I looked ahead to see when Luke 13 would make its appearance. I've been looking forward to this Sunday ever since. We only get one story from this chapter—leaving behind the blood of the Galileans that Pilate mixed with the sacrifices and the fig tree that hadn’t produced fruit and the mustard seed and the narrow door and the hen gathering her brood under her wings—but at least the one story we get is my favorite. The miraculous healing of the bent-over woman is my favorite miracle story in the gospel, and I’m feeling the pressure to preach it this Sunday.

I’ll probably post on this lesson each day this week, emphasizing a different part of the story. Today, I want to ask about her ailment. Why is she bent over? What “spirit of disability” has forced this woman to stare at the ground for 18 years? In what way has Satan bound this daughter of Abraham for such a long time? What is the true source of her hunched posture?

Perhaps it is a birth-defect, or maybe it’s the result of a fall. She might have started out with a slight slouch whose angle increased over time. Maybe the words of her peers—children who tease and taunt—continued to suck the life and joy away from her, forcing her further and further over. As she made her way through each day, perhaps the unwillingness of the religious authorities—like this self-important leader of the synagogue—to help her only added to her downward gaze. The more she was ostracized as an outsider—as one who does not belong—the more crooked her posture became. She was a testament to oppression—how Satan himself works among us to wear down those whom we target for ill treatment.

She “suddenly appears,” and, when Jesus catches a glimpse of her, he calls her over, bringing her from the margins to the middle of the synagogue. The drama builds. Everyone knows it’s the Sabbath, yet they suspect that this healer intends to heal this woman. That the healing takes place on the day of rest brings out for us the real source of her ailment. The synagogue leader is offended that her healing disrupts the accepted boundaries of decent society. But he doesn’t direct his anger at Jesus—the one who broke the rules—instead attacking the woman by instructing the crowd to come on the other days of the week to be healed. We see, therefore, that the real issue is the need of the synagogue leader and the religious elite whom he represents to maintain a social structure that separates the upright from the downcast.

How long would the woman have had to wait until she could be set free? Systems like synagogues and churches love having someone like this woman who stays in her place of burden. She is the person in the community who is beneath everyone else—the one who reminds them that they aren’t as bad off as she. If she gains the ability to stand up straight on her own, what will happen to the rest of us? Who are the people we have oppressed until they are bent over, unable to look at the sky? More about that later this week.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Where is Salvation?

There are two ways to read the gospel. Is God working to rescue the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, or is God working through them to save everyone else?

Today is Jonathan Daniels feast day—the anniversary of his martyrdom. On this day in 1965, he and several other people who had been arrested in Hayneville, Alabama, made their way from the squalid jail cells where they had been held to a convenience store. Standing behind the door was an unemployed highway worker with a shotgun. As the man prepared to fire, Jonathan Daniels pulled sixteen-year-old Ruby Sales, who was standing in front of him, out of the way, and he was hit by the blast of the gun.

Where was God in that moment? Was he in the hands of Jonathan Daniels, who saved the young woman from death? Was he in the death of Daniels, who gave his life for something he cared so much about—a cause he considered inextricable from the work of the gospel?

It’s easy for me to think that God’s work is reaching down to life those in need out of their poverty and bringing them to a life that looks more like mine—rich, secure, happy. But I think that misses the point. My premise of salvation is built upon the belief that my life is good and their lives are bad. (Where is Randy Newman when you need him?) But the story of scripture reminds us over and over that there is a holiness in the struggles of the underclass. They don’t just reveal God to us as they depart their place of struggle, but they show us God’s face in the midst of their pain.

Mary’s song says it all. She does not sing of the one-day salvation God will offer. She proclaims that God has shown strength, that he has scattered the proud, that he has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry. No, that doesn’t mean it’s all finished yet, but it does mean that God has already shown us his salvation. He has already demonstrated his love. And it’s not in “moving on up.” It’s in the realization that God is in the poverty, that God is in the tragedy, that God is in the shotgun blast.

We should stop dreaming of salvation as the moment when God makes the world look like the lives we already lead. If you want to see salvation, go to Hayneville. If you want to see salvation, go to the soup kitchen, go to the bread line, go to the chicken plant. If you want to see God at work, start with the poor, hungry, outcast, and oppressed. Their salvation isn’t achieved by bringing them to us. Our salvation lies with them.

Unexpected Endings

I once went through a real Thomas Hardy kick. I was travelling abroad and fell upon Jude the Obscure. I loved it and, when I finished, I sought out another. The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Return of the Native, and, of course, Tess of the d’Urbervilles. It did not matter to me that they were so similar. In fact, that’s what I loved about them. From the moment I began each one, I knew that things wouldn’t end well. Hardy’s running criticism of moralistic Christianity meant that every happy, passionate couple was destined to be torn apart by the demands of Victorian society.

So it is with the story of David and Absalom. Partly, that’s because I’ve read the story before, but I don’t think you need to have finished it to know how it ends. In today’s reading from 2 Samuel, King David agrees to let his servant Joab bring Absalom, the king’s beloved though estranged son, back from exile. Absalom, known for his beauty and treachery, had killed his half-brother and his father’s oldest son because he had raped Tamar, Absalom’s sister. When Absalom comes back, we read, he remained in Jerusalem though was not invited into the king’s presence for two years. Finally, unable to get Joab’s attention, the petulant Absalom set fire to his barley field in order to convince Joab to get the king to let Absalom back into the palace. The plan works, and Absalom comes into his father’s presence and does obeisance. But we know things won’t end well.

Sometimes we can just tell—whether in a story, in a movie, or in real life—that someone is destined for trouble. Maybe it’s a pattern of behavior from the past. Maybe it’s a preference for trouble-making company. Maybe it’s a penchant for poor decisions. But sometimes we just know that things will end up badly—an arrest, a divorce, a dispute, an estrangement, a death.

For those of us who are watching the predetermined tragedy unfold, the hardest part is the feeling of helplessness. What do you say to a wayward child to get him to change his wild ways? What can you do to pull a desperate spouse back from the edge of disaster? How do you stop the inevitable?

Well, we pray a lot. At least that’s what I do with people who come to me in a situation like that. Sometimes I’m asked what good it does, and I usually say I don’t know. The truth is that usually there is nothing we can do to change the situation of another person. For real change to happen, the individual mired in trouble will have to surrender to the fact that his or her life is spinning out of control. Prayer, perhaps, is a way of acknowledging that—that you can’t make things better on your own, that it isn’t your problem to solve, that God alone is able to save.

And that’s the remarkable thing—that, no matter how destined for destruction a person’s life might be, with God darkness is never the end of the story. There is no addiction, no compulsion, no drive so dark or evil or destructive that God cannot redeem it. Even if there is no peace in this life, this life is not the end. God sees beyond the limits of this life. God sees us not as hopeless train-wrecks waiting to unfold but as children he is determined to save. The story of Jesus—one in which all that is good takes on all that is evil in the world—was always destined to lead to the cross, but it was never going to end there. Yes, cross. Yes, death. Yes, tragedy. But with God there is always resurrection. Easter wins. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Parish Newsletter: Reboot

This is a repost of the opening article from today's parish newsletter, The Church Mouse. To read the current or other recent issues in their entirety, click here.

This Sunday, the Peace took a little longer than usual. Every week, in the middle of the service, we greet each other with a sign of God’s peace. After kneeling to confess our sins and hear the assurance of God’s absolution, we stand and shake hands or hug our neighbors and say to them, “Peace!” Most of us stick to a familiar path of friendliness, turning first to our spouse and then to our neighbors on either side before spinning around to greet those on the pews behind and in front of us. This week, though, people were all over the place, stretching across the aisle, walking all over the nave, laughing and talking as they went.

Usually, the Peace runs out of steam after a minute or so, but this Sunday I had to work in order to corral the worshippers and bring us back to order. I felt that the congregation was resisting my attempts to carry on with the service, and, in that moment, it occurred to me that many of us had not seen each other for a while. Summer is winding down. School is about to start (or has already started for some). We are back from the beach or the lake or wherever we have been hiding out for the last two and half months. If we are not ready for the rhythm of the fall semester to begin, we are at least willing to admit that it is fastly approaching. All of that means that it is time to reconnect with our church.

For the past two weeks, I have seen several unfamiliar faces in church. More to the point, I have seen some faces that I recognize but have not seen in several months—maybe even longer. I believe that there is something about the renewal of the fall schedule that awakens within us a desire to reboot. Beginning in August, we embrace routines that we have forgotten—earlier bedtimes, family dinners, exercise routines, coming to church. We see more visitors and wayward parishioners in August than any other time of year. I think that reflects a desire to start over and try again. Even the known trouble-maker starts with a clean slate on the first day of school. Perhaps coming back to church will remind you that, as Christians, we live with a clean slate—a God who is always ready to forgive and welcome us back.

Now is the time to come to church. Now is the time to rejoin a parish family that has missed you. Whether it has been two months or ten years, let this fall be a time for you to reconnect with St. John’s. Think about your routines and ask yourself what has been missing. Is this the right time to give your spiritual well-being the attention that it needs? How might you use this season as an opportunity to reengage your faith?

Over the next few Sundays, we will offer a series of events designed to welcome all of us back to St. John’s. This week (8/18) is the annual Blessing of the Backpacks, when we pray for all of our students and school teachers and give them a tag to affix to their backpacks as a reminder of our prayers. Next Sunday (8/25) is Rally Day, when we unveil the fall schedule and invite everyone to consider how they might become more involved at St. John’s. Then, on September 8, we begin our fall programs in earnest with worship, children’s church, Sunday school, and an afternoon Parish Picnic. Make plans to join us—not only for the next few weeks but also for the whole year as you consider how you might reboot for the months ahead.

Interpreting Dreams

How did you sleep last night? Did you have any dreams?

These two questions follow each other in our house. Every morning, when our children wake up, I ask them in quick succession. It’s as if they go together. They always went together in the house in which I grew up. My mother was always interested in what I had dreamed about—as if my dreams might reveal something significant about me or my engagement with the world. She got me in the habit of paying attention to my dreams, and I suppose I hope I give my children the same gift.

As I blogged about, I recently returned from a trip to Africa. Part of that trip took me to Ghana, where the need for a malaria prophylaxis is necessary. When I met with a local doctor, he indicated that I had a choice of prescriptions. Although the chloroquines wouldn’t work, that still left me a few options. But I knew which drug I wanted before I even walked in. “May I have the Mefloquine, please?”

My first trip to Africa was in 1999-2000. My family physician back then suggested I take Mefloquine. He remarked that it can give people strange dreams. During the month I was in Zimbabwe, I had some whoppers. I remember waking up unsure whether I was still dreaming. Many of the dreams were unremarkable except for their clarity—like everyday life was following me into my sleep. It was a fascinating and not-un-enjoyable experience. Since then, I’ve always asked for the malaria pills that can give you strange dreams. Apparently, they come with a risk of psychosis and suicide, but, so far, I’ve stayed pretty healthy.

With this latest round of anti-malaria medicine, I’ve had some vivid dreams. Most of them have been normal, but they’ve been easy to remember. Over and over, I’ve found myself sitting in a bible study or at the dinner table, suddenly remembering a dream I had. “Oh!” I exclaim, “That reminds me of a dream I had last night…” I’m not sure people are as excited as my mother was to hear about them, but there’s something about the confluence of a dream and real life that begs sharing.

In this Sunday’s Track Two OT Lesson, Jeremiah writes, “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, "I have dreamed, I have dreamed!" How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back?” That has me wondering. How do you know when a dream is a gift from God? How do you know whether there is a prophet’s message contained in your night vision? Sometimes a dream is just a dream. And sometimes it’s meant for holy interpretation.

Yesterday in a bible study on 1 Corinthians 13-14, we came to the issue of prophecy. “What makes a prophecy a prophecy?” someone asked. That’s a good question. When is my insight a comment from the Lord, and when it is just me being me? When should you pay attention to a dream for its Holy-Spirit origination, and when should you write it off as medication-induced? Jeremiah says, “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.” I think that means we share our dreams but let others figure out what they mean.

“What has straw in common with wheat?” the prophet asks. I think that means we’re supposed to be able to tell. But I think that means we need each other to figure it out. I speak what I’ve seen, and together we discern whether it is holy. Sometimes a dream is just a dream. And sometimes God speaks through them. The difference comes in the sharing. I let go of the ownership of my dream, and, if you pick it up and run with it, maybe there’s something to it. If you shrug your shoulders and move on, so be it. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Jesus and Mothers-in-Law

She died before I was born, but I grew up hearing stories about my father’s mother. Typically, however, those stories came not from my father but from my mother—her daughter-in-law. Apparently, my “Grandma Rubye” was a strong woman who kept the house and the family in order. Married to a surgeon whose career had more than its share of ups and downs, she managed to hold everything together. Like many women of her day, she took care of everything except earning a paycheck. In fact, as a dance instructor, she even did that.

When my mother speaks of her mother-in-law, it is with respectful, almost reverential tones. I don’t think that’s because she was particularly close to my grandmother. Instead, I think it’s because my mother was a little intimidated by her. The stories I hear from my mother are about times when my grandmother showed up late in the evening but still arrived expecting to eat dinner. They are stories about how loving and affirming she was but always in the context of being silently demanding. There was, I can tell, some tension between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, but I think that’s natural. Overall, though, it seemed to have been a relationship full of love and mutual concern.

When Jesus tells about the gospel as a sharp quickening agent (this Sunday's gospel lesson), he uses family relationships to describe how divisive it can be: “father against son / and son against father / mother against daughter / and daughter against mother / mother-in-law against daughter-in law / and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” The father-son thing I get. I have a father. I am a son. And there’s always been some tension between us. It’s supposed to be that way. I don’t have any sisters, but I can tell my wife and her mother have had their moments. Their hostility seems to have been more open than that between my father and me. But the bit about mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law…that really throws me for a loop.

Jesus did not come to earth to bring peace but a sword (Mark’s word). Division, as Luke puts it. In a household of five, three will be versus two. Even close family relationships will be split in half. In other words, the gospel doesn’t lend itself to mediocre reactions. Like modern art—you either love it or hate it. No one hears the gospel in its power and says, “Well, maybe.”

There is no stronger alliance in my family than that between my wife and my mother. Each has seen my failings. Both still love me. They share a (usually) unspoken knowledge of what it’s like to deal with me. Like my mother’s relationship with her mother-in-law, there is a deep sense of connection shared between the two. No, they aren’t best friends, but I’ve never seen them at odds with one another. Imagining that the gospel could turn that relationship on its head is hard for me to do.

Even the relationships that seem most likely to stand the test of time are subject to the division of the gospel. God’s work is powerful. It is not subject to human desires. It does not ask whether you’re ready for it. It shows up and causes strife. Usually, the “gospel” I hear preached in the contemporary church is the gospel of niceness. Jesus wants us to love each other and to be friends. Maybe. But that’s not what Luke 12 says. What sort of gospel should I be preaching? Though it should never be my goal, am I proclaiming God’s word with enough power to tear families apart?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Are You Afraid of Death?

Are you afraid of death? Is losing your life for Jesus’ sake or for the sake of the gospel the same thing as being unafraid of death? Is Jesus trying to show us that those who think that preserving this life is more important than entering the next will lose everything?

Death is a funny thing. It happens to everyone, but we’re still afraid to talk about it. The closer I get to death—the older I get—the easier it is for me to talk about it. But the closer you get to death—the older you get—the harder it is for me to talk to you about it. Why is that? Why is death such a sensitive topic?

Do you remember the movie Patch Adams? Yeah, it's been a while, huh? Anyway, there's a scene in the movie in which Robin Williams' character approaches an intractable man who has a terminal diagnosis. He's known for throwing things at nurses and yelling at doctors. Williams' character, Patch Adams, appears as an angel who begins asking them man about his upcoming death. Using one euphemism after another, the patient and Adams search for colorful ways to describe "kicking the bucket" or "buying the farm." In the end, of course, the man is relieved because someone was finally willing to acknowledge that he was dying.

I remember when I discovered that life was fragile. I was a teenager, and I was mountain-biking along a rural highway, following a path that weaved in and out of the woods along the road. I started down a steep decline when I suddenly lost control. Before I knew what was happening, I was careening towards the highway on a collision course with a truck that hadn’t seen me and wouldn’t realize I was there until the bump let him know he had rolled over something. Instinctively, I dove off my bike and into a ditch, and I lay there, realizing for the first time that my life was fragile.

I remember when I discovered that this life wasn’t everything. Some people call it a moment of salvation, but I recall that moment when I understood for the first time that no matter what happened to me in this life God would take care of me in the next. I wouldn’t say that the response to that discovery was foolhardiness, but it did come with a sense of relief. It made things like running with the bulls in Pamplona possible. And that willingness to yield this life to the next stayed with me for a long time.

Then, I had children. And suddenly I feared death again—not because of what would happen to me but now because of what would happen to them. That’s the place where I still am now. I’m trying to accept that God is able to take care of my family better than I ever could, but it’s an exercise in faith. I’m having to learn to let go of my attachment with this life all over again.

What about you? Are you more attached to this life or the next? Does it depend on your age? Does it depend on your circumstance? From what Jesus says, it also depends on our faith. Following Jesus is an exercise in faith. It means discovering and accepting and persisting in that reality that says that this life is worth nothing compared with the next. That’s the ultimate truth, and there are lots of little truths that point us there. Those are things like God’s preference for the poor, humility triumphing over arrogance, weakness displaying real strength. All of the counter-intuitive aspects of the gospel and the Christian faith are leading us to that one huge and scary reality—death is not the enemy; an over-attachment to this life is what we should really fear.

Are we following Jesus? Are we learning to accept the upside-down nature of our faith? Have we reached the point where we know that death is not something to fear but something to embrace?

Transfiguration - Glimmers of Joy

Yesterday's post a day late. 

On a quiet October afternoon, a couple sits on the end of a pier as the sun slips down below the horizon. Their children are spending the weekend with grandparents, and the time they have alone together is precious. Although not far from home, they feel as if they are on vacation in a distant land. Holding hands, they sit silently and share a moment of intimacy that neither has felt in a long time. “I wish we could stay here forever,” one of them says to the other, knowing that the magic will soon end.

There are moments that we wish would last forever. Part of that desire is based on the joy that they bring—experiences that we would gladly return to over and over. And another part of that desire is based on the fact that moments like those are beyond our control. If I could simply flip a switch and recreate the magic of a romantic sunset, I would not need for it to last forever. Part of our yearning to stay in that passing moment is a recognition that we do not know when a similar opportunity will come again and that, no matter how carefully we might try, we cannot orchestrate such an experience of deep joy.

You might not think of church as a place where those kinds of moments happen, but I experience them during worship all the time. Sometimes a hymn that everyone loves reverberates within the walls with exceptional energy. Occasionally familiar words prayed at the altar seem to reflect the enormity of God’s love in a particularly palpable way. Every once in a while a child giggles at just the right moment, sending ripples of joyful laughter throughout the congregation. We attribute moments like those to the work of the Holy Spirit because we know that something beyond ourselves is taking place. And, as much as I wish that simply picking the right hymn or saying the Eucharistic Prayer with the right inflection could reproduce those moments of holy amazement, I recognize that none of us can make them happen.

As Luke tells us, eight days after Jesus had predicted his upcoming death and resurrection, he went with Peter, James, and John up on a mountain to pray. While he was praying, Jesus’ countenance was transfigured before them, and he began to shine with dazzling white light. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appeared next to Jesus, talking with him. As the moment began to fade, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” The gospel-writer lets us know that Peter had not thought about what he was saying and instead was instinctively trying to capture the wonder of a fleeting moment.

Last night, a colleague and I were speaking about the nature of worship and how this past Sunday gave us glimpses of the Spirit’s transcendent work among us. I began to say something about wanting to hold on to those experiences and stretch them out in order to make them last, but then she smiled and reminded me about the Transfiguration, as if my own words were those of Peter—instinctive and obtuse. As the gospel reminds us, we are not meant to stay put in those moments. They are meant to come upon us in ways that defy our ability to manufacture or plan for them and then scoot away, leaving us breathless and amazed. Then, we are supposed to travel on with their memory tumbling around joyfully in our minds.

When was the last time that you wished that a moment would stretch on forever? The feeling itself is not wrong, but getting lost or stuck in that place can be. When I come upon one of those moments of rare bliss, I feel that I am supposed to appreciate them for what they are—gifts from God. But to imagine that they are all that life is supposed to be would miss the point. God gives us those glimpses of joy to propel us off the mountain top and back into the world. Those exceptional moments are what keep us going down the bumpy road ahead and bring us back to the mountain top in due time. Perhaps the consummation of God’s kingdom will be one everlasting moment of joy similar to the fleeting experiences of this life, but, until we welcome that kingdom in its fullness, the moments in which it breaks through into this world should not be destinations in themselves but signposts that point us to that greater reality.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Faith Takes Two

It takes two to communicate. During premarital counseling, I ask couples whether each is a better talker or a better listener. Often—and probably not coincidentally—a couple is made up of one of each. Some of us are better at expressing ourselves than giving time to receive the expressions of others. Some of us are better at giving another our full attention than articulating the true thoughts of our hearts. I am a talker than a listener. That comes from a mixture of extroversion, arrogance, and impatience. But, as I tell couples, all of us need to work on being better talkers and better listeners.

It takes two to communicate. As a natural-born talker, it’s easy for me to forget that. As a business class once taught me, communication involves formulating, encoding, transmitting, receiving, and decoding, and interpreting. At any part of that process, the communication can break down. Usually, if things go wrong, I fault the listener. Why weren’t you paying attention? Didn’t you hear me? That made sense to me; why didn’t you get it? Actually, though, it takes two to communicate. Sometimes things that make sense to me won’t quite make sense to you. It’s the curse of the over-eager preacher: expressing an idea or story that reminds the preacher of the gospel but that sends the congregation spiraling down a tangential path. For a message to get through, it requires both good talking and good listening. If either fails, the communication breaks down.

Faith works just like that, as this Sunday’s paired readings from Genesis 15:1-6 and Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 remind us. Faith involves both one who promises and one who accepts that promise. In the story of Abraham, God promised the childless man as many descendants as the stars of heaven. That was a pretty ridiculous thing to say to a man in his eighties who was married to a barren woman, yet that’s exactly what God said. And sure enough, as the faiths of Jews, Christians, and Muslims will attest, Abraham’s (then Abram) acceptance of that promise became the shared foundation of our religions.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews makes this point: “By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old-- and Sarah herself was barren-- because he considered him faithful who had promised.” It was faith that made Abraham fertile—faith in God’s ridiculous promise—and faith like that was only possible because of the nature of the one making the promise. God is faithful, thus we have faith in him.

Sometimes when I know I need to be home early in the evening, I will tell my spouse to count on me to leave the office before 5pm. Although she doesn’t say anything, I can tell that she isn’t buying it. Sometimes I make it home early, and sometimes I don’t. But our marriage isn’t built on the solidity of those passing promises. In that specific manner, I am not faithful, nor is she believing. God’s promises, of course, are incomparably huge—forgiveness, prosperity, salvation, reconciliation. But God is the faithful one. His nature is faithfulness. That means that in the it-takes-two-to-tango relationship of faith the only variable is us.

God is faithful. For all of time and forever, God is faithful. That means that God can make promises like giving an old, childless man an heir and be believed. That means that God can make promises like saving us from death and be trusted. Faith, as Paul shows us in a Romans reading that also could have worked for this Sunday, is to be like Abraham—to discern the credibility of the one making the promise and act just as boldly and faithfully on that promise. God has promised us life. God has promised us salvation. God has promised to take care of us and to be our God. Are we willing to accept that on faith?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sunday Sermon - Rich or Rich Toward God?

I don't usually post my Sunday sermons on my blog, instead posting them on the parish website ( and linking to them through Facebook and Twitter. This sermon, however, pulled directly from my recent trip to Africa, so it feels like it needs to be here, too.

Audio of this sermon is available here.

August 4, 2013 – The 11th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13C

© 2013 Evan D. Garner

About twenty-four hours into our Africa trip, I heard one pilgrim say to another, "You know how I was saying that I don't have enough storage space in my house for all our stuff? Yeah, that won't be a problem anymore." We were on a bus, driving from a poor part of Ghana to an even poorer part. Both sides of the road were lined three or four deep with tiny little shacks—four walls and a roof that families called home. They were smaller than most of the bathrooms in our houses, yet they contained the entire worldly possessions of their inhabitants. Suddenly, my friend on the bus wasn't interested in getting more closet space. She was ready to dump all of the extra stuff that she’d been collecting over the years.

We call them "first-world problems"--challenges that rich people like you and me face. Things like how the coffee isn't quite hot enough after putting refrigerated half-and-half in it or how the department store never seems to have the shoes you want in your size during a big sale. I haven't seen it as much lately, but, for a while, people seemed to take pleasure in posting their first-world problems on Facebook. I’m pretty sure that most of those were attempts at ironic humor, but they seem a lot funnier when you're sitting on your couch in your air-conditioned den watching your huge flat-screen TV and checking Facebook on your smartphone than when you're riding down a pot-hole-infested highway where waifish Ghanaian children beg for enough money to feed their starving families. That kind of puts it all into perspective, huh?

I just spent two weeks in Africa. During my trip, I met a quiet, humble woman who has single-handedly taught hundreds of impoverished women to become seamstresses and open independent, successful businesses that bring their families out of poverty. I met a deaf man who opened a school to teach other deaf men how to be carpenters. He was so excited about what he does that he literally bounced up and down the street hugging strangers. I met a priest who lost his job because his bishop found out that he went to a conference on human sexuality. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t gay; in his context, simply showing up to discuss the issue is enough to get you suspended by your bishop. Part of me thinks that there is no such thing as a first-world problem and that, instead, the first-world is the problem. At least that's the conclusion I reach when I read today's gospel lesson--a story about a man who came to Jesus with a problem a lot like ours and who got a humbling lesson in return.

"Teacher," someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me." This man had heard about Jesus. He had heard that he was a wise rabbi who preached about fairness—who encouraged his listeners to look out for the disenfranchised. Theirs was a society in which the oldest son would inherit everything, meaning that the only way this younger brother would receive anything was if his older sibling felt charitable. It seems that that brother wasn't being very nice, and this man thought Jesus might help.

It's funny, isn't it, how problems like how to split up a family's estate can still cause us as much trouble today as they did back then. It's a hot-button issue than any rabbi or clergyman would be wise to avoid. In a period of grief, things like money and property get mixed up with things like love and preference. I remember standing with my mother and her two siblings as they divided up the treasured possessions that had belonged to their parents. All of the sudden, a rolling pin wasn't just a rolling pin--it was a symbol of whether their father loved them best--a symbol worth fighting over. Maybe we should add this lesson to the list of suggested readings for funerals.

This man came to Jesus with a problem about money, hoping to pull him onto his side of the family argument, but Jesus looked at him and said, "You know, life isn’t measured by the abundance of one's possessions." Wow! Smacked across the face with the sharpness of God’s word!  That wasn’t what the man wanted to hear. And, as if that weren’t enough, in order to make his point, Jesus told the man a story.

There was a rich man whose land produced a bumper crop, which suddenly presented the man with a new problem. "I've got too much grain and nowhere to put it. What shall I do? I know! I'll tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and then I'll say to myself, 'Rejoice! Eat! Drink! Be merry! Because now life is good!'" But sometimes even the best-laid plans go to waste. That very night, God appeared and said to him, "You fool! This night your life is required of you. And now what will become of your possessions?"

So what's this story all about? When I read it, I kind of wonder what the man did wrong. Isn’t it reasonable, when faced with an unexpected surplus, to figure out where you should store it? What’s Jesus trying to tell us? Is he telling us to live each day as if could be our last? Should we cash in our IRAs and 401(k)s? Should we abandon our plans for the future and live purely in the moment? I know a lot of twenty-somethings who moved to places like Colorado to do just that, and, given the totally unproductive nature of their endeavors, I don't think that's what Jesus wants us to do. That’s because this isn't a parable about the prudence of poor planning. It's a story that shows us that you can't get to heaven if you're stuck in your first-world problems.

The truth is simple but terrifying: you cannot store up treasures for yourself if you want to be rich toward God. You cannot be consumed by possessions and still enter God’s kingdom. Jesus tells us that it doesn’t work that way. I remember several years ago when a physician pointed out to me that there aren't a lot of obese people in their 80s, and that makes sense. It’s pretty hard to make it to 85 if you’re overweight. I'm afraid the same thing is true about rich people in the kingdom of God. Jesus wasn't kidding when he said that it's easier to fit a camel through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to get into heaven. You can't be rich and rich toward God at the same time.

So what does that mean for us? I don't exactly know. I think I've been ignoring this part of the gospel for a long time because I'm afraid of what it means. I do know that the only way someone gets to heaven is by God's grace--his unearned love for us. And I think that those of us who live in the first-world have a much, much harder time understanding that. Just like the man in the parable, the more stuff that we have the harder it is for us to appreciate God’s mercy. That’s because you and I don’t depend upon grace to feed our families. We simply go to the grocery store and buy what we want. I think that means that in order for us to be a part of God's kingdom we're going to have to get rid of most of the stuff that we're holding on to.

The value of your life isn't measured by your earthly possessions. And, even more than that, those possessions are probably standing in between you and heaven. What are you going to do about it? You cannot be rich and rich toward God at the same time. What will it take for you to be rich toward God? What do you have to give away in order to know what that means? And, like the man in the parable, how long will you wait before you do something about it? Amen.