Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Trading Places

This post is also the lead article from the weekly newsletter for St. John's, Decatur. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.

John Landis’ Trading Places is one of those films I can go back to over and over and over again. I am familiar enough with the film that, if I come across it on television, I can pick up wherever the action is and spend five minutes watching a scene or two and still get enough of Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy to convey to me the sentiment of the whole movie. Two men from completely different socioeconomic backgrounds have their fortunes reversed and discover how quickly their lives can change yet how similar their struggles really are. It reminds me that no matter how different our circumstances might seem we all share the same problems.

Recently, I had one of those days that makes your head spin. I met with one person who is struggling to live with an alcoholic spouse. Later on, I visited with a colleague whose spouse is suffering from debilitating depression. A few hours later, someone shared with me the challenge of dealing with siblings after a parent’s death. Finally, another person opened up about an infuriating in-law who holds the whole family hostage. The truly remarkable thing, however, is that my words to all four of them were almost exactly the same.

“You need to find peace for yourself and stop worrying about other people,” I said to each of them. By the time those words were passing my lips for the fourth time, I could not help but chuckle a little bit. “I’m sorry for laughing,” I explained. “It’s not your problem that I’m laughing at. It’s the fact that I’ve had this same conversation several times today.” If anybody else heard me saying the same thing over and over, she or he might think I was a broken record or a charlatan peddling the same snake oil to every customer no matter what the ailment. Even I am surprised at how universal that counsel can be: take care of yourself and let others worry about themselves.

This Sunday we will hear the story of Jesus healing the man who was blind from birth (John 9:1-41). It is a long and complicated story that offers multiple interpretations, but one of those that has jumped out at me offers a teaching on this very subject. The religious authorities questioned the authenticity of Jesus’ healing power, and they refused to believe that the man really had been blind from birth. So what did they do? They called in his parents to ask them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” The parents’ response is a gentle reminder to me of the importance of letting others—even our own children—take care of themselves: “Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”

John lets us know that they had their own problems to deal with. They were afraid of being banished from the synagogue if they gave too much credit to Jesus. So what did they do? They told the authorities to ask their son, who would speak for himself. They did not cover up for him. They did not take the blame. They did not play dumb or make excuses. They simply said, “He is of age; ask him.”

When someone close to us is acting erratically and disrupting us and others around us, it is tempting to try to fix the problem on our own. In fact, letting go of our need to involve ourselves in his or her problems can feel like passing the buck or turning our back on someone we love. “What will happen?” we ask ourselves in panic. “They need us,” we convince ourselves. “They can’t make it without our help.” Really? Sometimes the best thing we can do is take care of ourselves. Sometimes the only way that person will return to sanity is if we refuse to get caught up in the drama he or she creates.

No matter what is going on around us, our responsibility is to find peace for ourselves. The crises of others may suggest to us that such self-focused behavior is selfish, but self-care is not self-centered. We cannot be a bridge to peace for someone else if we are wrapped up in that person’s chaos. For the love of others, we must seek our own peace. No matter what the problem is—no matter what our circumstances—the answer is the same for all of us.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Acts8 Blogforce: Elevator Pitch

You walk onto an elevator and ride up a few floors. The car stops, the doors open, and someone else gets on. You can't believe it, but it's the governor of the state in which you live. You've always wanted the chance to share your idea of how a partnership between the state and your organization could make a big difference in the lives of your state's residents. This might be your only chance. You've only got a minute or two to make a big impact, so you launch in. This is your elevator pitch.

The Acts8 movement is a movement that looks for resurrection in the Episcopal Church. (Go read Acts 8 for more insight into why this is important and exciting.) This week, the Acts8 Blogforce challenge is to create an "elevator pitch" for the Episcopal Church. If you had just a brief moment to share with someone why you believe that the Episcopal Church is something they should consider, this is what you'd say. Here's my elevator pitch.

Have you ever wondered whether your life has meaning beyond itself—whether there's more reason for living than just making it through one day at a time? I believe that part of what it means to be human is to ask that question, and I think it's a shame when someone or some group of people suggests that they already have the answer for me. Life is about searching for the answers. And we should all be given a place where it is safe to explore that question and its many possible answers for ourselves.

I have found that the Episcopal Church is the place where I can ask that question and be given enough space to find the answers. For me, the most important answer is found in the person of Jesus Christ. Through his story, I've learned to recognize that God loves me no matter who I am or what I do. That unconditional love has transformed me into the person I believe I was created to be. Now, I’m not finished looking for the answers, but I know that Episcopal Church is willing to let me—and everyone else on the planet—join them as we search for life’s answers together.

- See more at:

Are We Being Punished?

My children will never know a world in which the Internet doesn’t fit in the palm of your hands.
I never knew a world in which the moon was out of reach.
My parents never knew a world in which telephones were nowhere to be found.
My grandparents never knew a world in which automobiles were outnumbered by horse-pulled carts.

We’ve changed a lot in the past hundred years. We’ve changed even more in the past thousand. And, in the two-thousand years since Jesus walked the earth, we’ve changed so much I doubt he would even recognize the world we live in. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that everything is different.

This Sunday’s gospel lesson (John 9:1-41) is a story about sin. Jesus and his disciples walk past a man whom John reckons as “blind from birth,” and the disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” If you’re preaching this week and are tempted to say, “We’ve learned a lot since then,” I beg you not to. For the sake of your congregation, don’t relegate this born-blind-means-someone-sinned mindset to the past. It’s still as prevalent today as it was two-thousand years ago.

For starters, let’s stop and realize that Jesus lived in a time when most people had moved past a cause-and-effect understanding of sin and divine judgment. Sure, there were the crazies who stood on the street corner and said, “If you don’t repent of your sin, God’s going to send his judgment upon you.” Sound familiar? Yes, Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church has recently died, but there will always be someone to pick up his ungodly cause. But most faithful people in Jesus’ day had figured out that people aren’t born blind because their parents sinned. The religion of the day—“post-exilic second-temple Judaism” to use an overly complicated term—wasn’t built on the premise that we’d better do right or else God’s gonna get us. Instead, being faithful was about showing up at the appointed times, remembering the story of God’s people, structuring one’s life around the mandates of the faith, and living in right relationship with God and neighbor.

But still people ask the question, don’t they? In this story, it’s the disciples. Or, put another way, the disciples ask the question that all of us—ALL of us—ask when we encounter an inexplicable tragedy: “What caused this to happen?” We want cause and effect. And, when we can’t find it, we use the divine calculus of sin and punishment to explain it. Katrina and New Orleans—the only people I’ve heard attribute the disaster to divine judgment are the same people who’d rather use the Old Testament than the Weather Channel for the ten-day outlook. A child born with a serious disability—most of us understand that even unfortunate genetic mutation is a part of life, but those who won’t acknowledge the role of DNA in life are the ones who talk about blindness as a punishment for sin. The more we understand about how the world works the easier it is for us to let go of a need to ascribe tragedy to sin and judgment. But still there will be unanswered questions.

If we don’t understand something, we go looking for an answer. God is that which can never be fully understood or comprehended. God is infinite. And that means God is as good a target for the things we can’t explain as anything else. But the people in the pews don’t need to hear how far we’ve come—that we don’t look at a child born blind and ask who sinned. Because we do. We still do it. Maybe not with someone else’s blindness-from-birth but in whatever other ways hit us personally. Cancer. Car wrecks. Divorce. Famine. Floods. When we’re in the midst of a tragedy bigger than our rational capacity for explanation, we jump to the level of things we don’t understand. Dear preacher, help us understand that it’s not our sin that has brought these things upon us. That’s not how God works. The disciples’ question is our question. The Pharisees’ question is our question. We need to be reminded of the answer even though we already know what the answer is.

Sunday Sermon: Lent 3A

March 23, 2014 – Lent 3A
Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here

When I woke up, my whole body hurt. It was early in the morning—barely light but light enough for me to see that everyone else around me was sound asleep. I closed my eyes and relived what had happened the night before. We had eaten a nice meal around a long table set on a beautiful beach literally halfway around the world from Alabama. The wine and beer had been poured well past the point when all of us were over-served. The frustrations and personality conflicts that come with a month of travelling together rose to the surface, and we all acted more than a little foolishly. Without thinking about it, I rubbed my eyes and my temples, trying to massage away the pain. But I wasn’t thinking about my pounding head. The only thing I could think of was water.

I rolled over and looked at my water bottle—almost empty. I knew that the thirst I felt ran far deeper than that last sip of water could go. I turned the bottle upside down and literally shook it to get every last drop out. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. It was too early to venture out of our hut and head over to the kitchen for water, so I lay there going in and out of fitful, half-conscious dreams about rivers and waterfalls and rainstorms. Every part of my body and mind was parched. I could think of nothing else. I could get no rest until I had water.

I crept out of the hut in which the other men were sleeping and made my way, tiptoeing through the island brush, toward the kitchen. No one made a sound, but, when I pulled back the curtain to the room where the water bottles were kept, I saw six people asleep across the floor. There was no way for me to get some water without waking everyone up, so I turned around and headed back to my bed. Again, I lay there, wondering how long it would be before people woke up, wondering how long I could hold out. My thirst was agonizing. It was all consuming. Minutes felt like hours. The sun refused to rise. Finally, in an act of desperation, I walked into the bathroom and stuck my head under the faucet and drank the water I had been warned several times not to drink. At that point, I would have given anything—even a week in the hospital—for some water.

Jesus, John tells us, was tired from his journey and was sitting at a well in the heat of the day. A Samaritan woman walked up to draw water, and she saw the weary Jesus sitting there. He startled her, saying, “Give me a drink.” The request itself was provocative. A man, sitting all by himself, would risk the suspicion of anyone who saw him talking to a strange woman. The fact that they were of different ethnic backgrounds made this exchange as dangerous as a white man and a black woman walking hand-in-hand on a 1950s Decatur sidewalk. Responding to Jesus’ risky, perhaps playful, advance, the woman replied coyly, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Her coquettish response suggests that she thought she was playing the upper hand—that he was a man so desperate for a drink that he’d forego all modesty in exchange for some water. But Jesus wasn’t interested in water. And the woman didn’t realize that the thirsty one was her.

“If you knew the gift of God and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” That’s a confusing sentence—as confusing for us as it was for the woman. But, if we sit with it long enough and let it speak clearly to us, we discover what this passage is all about. Jesus wasn’t looking for a flirtatious exchange. He wasn’t hanging around until someone gave him a drink of water. He sat there and waited on the Samaritan woman so that he might show her two things: that God wanted her to have “living water” (whatever that is) and that he was the one who could give it to her. But both of those things take a while in the story to figure out.

For much of their conversation, Jesus’ words didn’t get through to the woman. When he talked about “living water,” she responded by saying, “But, sir, you don’t have a bucket. How will you get that living water?” When he said, “I’m the one who can give this living water to you,” she replied, “Who are you? Are you greater even than our father Jacob—the patriarch who gave us this well?” Then, finally, the breakthrough came. Jesus explained that the “living water” he was talking about wasn’t really water at all but a spring that gushes up within the heart and provides eternal life. And, even though things still weren’t crystal clear, the woman seized onto his offer, saying, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” She’s close, right? It’s a good thing that our God is the kind of God who gives partial credit because, even though the Samaritan woman was on the right track, she still couldn’t separate her physical thirst from her spiritual drought.

So Jesus laid it all on the line in a daring move. “Go get your husband and come back,” he said to the woman. Her eyes must have fallen to the ground. The rouse she had maintained evaporated in an instant. “I have no husband,” she said embarrassedly. “You’re right,” he confirmed. “You have no husband. You’ve had five husbands, and the man you live with now can’t be called a husband.” This was her life’s biggest failure—her besetting sin—being dragged into the light and exposed into the air. This is why the woman had come to draw water in the middle of the day, when no one else was around, and not early in the morning, when all of the other women would have come. She was ashamed. She was consumed by her sin. It was like a big scarlet “A” hanging around her neck. It forced her into hiding, and now Jesus was naming it in full, stark detail.

What do you think was on her mind now—drawing water from the well? No. By confronting her deepest and defining transgression, Jesus had revealed to the woman that he was interested in addressing a thirst that ran deeper even that Jacob’s well could satisfy. By naming her sin, Jesus had showed her that he was able to give her something even more important than water. The thirst he could quench was the one that really kept her up at night. Now she knew. She knew what Jesus could give her, so she left her water jar there at the well and returned to the town to tell others what she had found—the kind of life-giving spring that can’t be contained in a jar or a glass or a water bottle.

When you come to the well and see Jesus sitting there, what will you ask him for? Our lives are filled with thirsts. We are thirsty for financial security. We are thirsty for social acceptance. We are thirsty for the comfortable life that means we don’t have to worry about being thirsty for anything. But inside all of us there is a longing that is deeper than our physical needs—a thirst for peace with the one who made us. Jesus alone can satisfy that thirst. He alone can give us the living water that sets us right with God. But, when we get to the well, will we realize what is being offered to us? Will we recognize who it is that meets us there? Can we push aside the needs of the moment long enough to let Jesus attend to the deepest needs of our soul? Will we allow him to confront our brokenness and bring our sin to light so that we might never thirst again? Amen.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Thirsty for What?

There's a reusable bottle of water on my desk. I'm 12 paces away from a sink where I can refill that bottle anytime I want. Another 12 paces, and I'm in the bathroom, where I can return that water (and other stuff) to the earth in a way that won't harm anyone by tainting the water supply nor offend anyone by lingering beyond a simple flush. Although I'm not good at taking care of my yard (just ask my neighbors), I could water it anytime I want. Water is not an issue for me.

My parents are in the process of building a house in rural North Carolina. In the next week or two, a well will be dug. Since you pay by the foot, we are all hoping and praying that clean, potable water will be struck before the drill goes down too far, and we hope that when water is found it is plentiful enough to provide water for a shower, a dishwasher, and a washing machine all at the same time. It's the first time anyone in our family has worried about water, but we all still know that it's a "rich man's worry"--fleeting and ultimately easy to overcome if you throw enough money at the problem.

Jesus lived in a time and place when/where water wasn't so easy to come by. Civilizations were built in places where water could be found. No water? No community. In arid places, wells were sources of life. Long journeys through the wilderness were calculated ventures in which water was the critical limiting factor. I'm reminded of pilgrims to Burning Man--a radical experiment in art and community that takes place in the Navada desert every summer--who have to take all the water they will need for a week with them.

Thirst is something they knew well. It's something I hardly know. I've been thirsty a time or two--not just needing a glass of water but dying for any liquid. But those moments are pretty rare in my life. I have the luxury of water. So, in this Sunday's lessons, when Exodus speaks of the people of Israel being thirsty in the Wilderness of Sin and when Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at the well, I know I'm missing something.

What's the clearest, boldest, most powerful expression of longing in our culture? Is it the desperate desire for companionship? Is it the need for warmth after a harsh winter? Is it the "are we there yet?" coming from the back seat? What is it that resonates in our culture in the way that thirst was a central part of Jesus' life?

Thirst means longing, desperation, agony, discomfort, disability, irritability, lifelessness, emptiness, weakness, sickness, misery.

Water means refreshment, lifegivingness, comfort, relief, salvation, miracle, power, sustenance, strength, ability, hope.

What's the parallel in our culture? The point of these passages, of course, is that God is our salvation. He provides for our deepest, most desperate need. How do we say that in the 21st century? I'm still looking for an answer. I'm preaching on Sunday and hope God's word will still ring true in a culture where limitless water is only a few steps away.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

St. Joseph--Faithful Stepfather

How often do you celebrate someone for something they aren’t? “Congratulations! You aren’t the one we’ve been looking for?” As the lessons and collect appointed for today’s feast declare, that’s pretty much what we say about Joseph, “the guardian of [God’s] incarnate son.”

The story of Joseph is amazing. In a world of patriarchy and misogyny and unless-they’re-independently-wealthy-women-don’t-get-to-complain, Joseph kept his mouth shut. His betrothed became pregnant by another source, and he remained faithful. “Oh?” he asked his fiancĂ©e, “you’re expecting a baby? Well, I guess that means I’m not needed around here, huh?” Not only was he denied his culturally expected conjugal right to be the first to have intercourse with his wife-to-be, he had to remain celibate (as scripture says) until after Jesus was born. (Of course, the Catholic Church maintains that Mary was a perpetual virgin, which is a-whole-nother level of sacrifice on Joseph’s part.) Yet Joseph remained faithful. He heard the Lord’s request that he keep Mary as his wife, that he raise the son-of-another as if it were his own, that he take the back seat to his son’s prominence, and he said yes.

It’s interesting to me that the gospel for today is Luke 2:41-52. The story skips ahead—past the annunciation, birth, and infancy—and to Jesus’ mid-childhood. Joseph doesn’t even have a word in the story. In fact, I think that’s the point. After both parents find their son in the temple, Mary says to the run-away Jesus, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” And Jesus’ reply is a stab in Joseph’s eye: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?”

We usually hear those words and think about Jesus and his connection with his heavenly father, but what about Joseph? Let those words ring in your ears as the hurtful-though-honest cry of a stepchild: “You’re not my real father!” Jesus didn’t mean it like that, but it must have sounded at least a little bit like that. And that’s the point. Joseph put up with all the emotional and cultural loss of being a stepfather. That’s his gift to Mary and Jesus and his gift to us.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Transformation through Death & Resurrection

March 18, 2014 – Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem
Luke 24:44-48

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

I am deeply grateful for the invitation to preach at the noonday service at the Church of the Nativity in Huntsville, AL. This was the text of that sermon.

In our tradition, the preacher rarely has the opportunity to choose his own lesson from which to preach. Instead, the readings are prescribed through the lectionary—an invention of people far wiser than I who have thus relieved me of the pressure of having to pick the perfect passage for every week’s sermon. Today, however, is different. Although I am grateful for the opportunity to preach in this Lenten series, I will confess to you that I was nearly paralyzed by the task of having to scan the entire biblical canon for the one passage that would tie in perfectly with the chosen theme, which is “transformation.”

I felt a little like my English friends seemed to feel when I took them into a Subway restaurant for the first time. The late comedian Mitch Hedberg likened Subway to his own personal American Embassy, where he could retreat after ticking off a local Irishman in a bar in Kinney. Although it offers no legal protection, it is, in fact, a bastion of American consumerism, which is to say that it presents the customer with far more choices than he or she would ever really need. (We are, after all, a people who like our freedom.) Anyway, my English friends stood at the front of the line in the Cambridge Subway long enough to bring the restaurant to a halt, trying to decide which combination of cold cuts and vegetables would satisfy their hunger. “Can’t I just get a ham and Swiss?” one of them asked. “Do I really have to decide what else goes on it?” That’s how I felt when Virginia Caruso called me and told me to preach on whatever I wanted.

So, like my bewildered friends, I gave in to tradition and let someone wiser than I make the decision for me. The twenty-fourth chapter of Luke is the story of Easter. It starts with the discovery of the empty tomb, continues with the Road to Emmaus, and finishes with this encounter between the risen Jesus and the disciples. You’d be right to be suspicious of a Lenten preacher who chose an Easter story for the basis of his sermon, but actually it’s the gospel lesson appointed for the Feast of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, which falls on this day. And I don’t think it’s an accident that Luke 24 is the text for a feast observed on the eighteenth day of March. No matter how early or late Easter is, March 18 always falls in Lent, and I can’t think of a better time to hear a story of resurrection.

During Lent, we like to pretend that Easter didn’t happen. We get so wrapped up in the journey to the cross that we forget that death and resurrection always go together. That’s why Good Friday’s sermon is always the hardest to preach. We have to bear the horrors of the cross without embracing the victory of the third day. Yes, it’s right to shroud the symbols of Christian joy with purple fabric in order to help us prepare for the paschal mystery, but we do so with sheer, translucent pieces of cloth. Although hidden, these images aren’t completely out of view. They’re still there—if you look hard enough—because there’s nothing you can do to separate the story of Calvary and the story of the empty tomb. Even in Lent, we are still Easter people, and Lent is the perfect time to remember it.

In all of Luke’s resurrection appearances, Jesus tries to convey to his closest friends the significance of what had happened from the time of his betrayal through the discovery of the empty tomb. Often turning to the Hebrew scriptures, Jesus connects his betrayal, arrest, torture, and death with the resurrection that follows: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.” He speaks as if they were one event. Death and resurrection—they go together because death alone cannot transform. Even the most horrific, noble, selfless sacrifice can accomplish nothing unless it is accompanied by rebirth. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…[and] we are of all people most to be pitied.”

The crucifixion makes no sense without the resurrection. You can’t have one without the other. Many Christians—even some within our tradition—place so much emphasis on the cross that they lose sight of the necessity of Easter. They talk so much about how our salvation was won on the cross, how our sins were paid for in Jesus’ death, that they forget that without being raised from the dead Jesus’ death would have been a terrific failure. And that’s the danger of Lent—that in the midst of our wilderness journey we will spend so much time looking for the cross that we forget what comes after it.

But just as death alone cannot transform, so too is transformation impossible without death.

A few weeks ago, I preached at a Saturday-evening service that is held not far from our church. In a downtown storefront that is only licensed by the fire marshal to hold 80 people, over a hundred people routinely squeeze into chairs arranged around tables so close together that you can’t walk between them without asking everyone to stand up and let you through. Although anyone is welcome to attend, this ministry is especially for addicts, ex-convicts, and homeless people. They start with a meal—always good food to attract even recalcitrant sinners—before singing a few songs and then hearing a preacher deliver God’s word.

That night, before the program began, I sat at the end of a table between two well-dressed women—a mother and daughter who had come together. After only a brief introduction, the older woman began to tell me about one of her children—a daughter who had been in a terrible place of late. “She was prostituting herself to get drugs—selling her body for her next score. Then, she disappeared, and we didn’t see her for weeks. Finally, one night the phone rang. It was the hospital. They had our daughter. She had overdosed on drugs, had suffered a stroke, and had been abandoned at the hospital.” She and I had known each other for all of two minutes. The brutal honesty of her story intimidated me. I was uncomfortable with the cold, bluntness of her words.

“Things got better,” she continued. “She’s still paralyzed on her left side, but she’s been coming here and has started to get her life back together. She was as good as dead, but now she’s come back to us. We’re very proud of her.” I was glad to hear of the turnaround but still felt a little sickened by the graphic story. It was raw and fresh and unadulterated—so unvarnished that I was glad that this wayward daughter had not been there to hear her mother and sister retell a story of pain and suffering that seemed like it belonged only to the one who had experienced it firsthand. Later that night, the mother and daughter thanked me for my sermon, offering the kind of polite remarks that people usually give to their guest preachers. But, as they walked toward the door, I noticed something. The younger woman was holding on to her mother’s arm and walking with a pronounced limp on her left side. The story had been hers. She sat there listening to her dispassionate mother tell a complete stranger her own story of sin and shame and repentance and rebirth. She was the one who had fallen to the very bottom of life. And the catawampus, arm-in-arm waddle with which they strode out the door was the proud gate of a mother and her child, a daughter who was dead but had come back to life.

Jesus says to his disciples, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” Heart-wrenching stories like the one I heard that night aren’t really uncommon. Many of us who have lived with an addict or gone through a bankruptcy or experienced marital betrayal have known that kind of pain. Their stories—our stories—are stories of death and resurrection—of cross and empty tomb. In his final appeal to his disciples, Jesus urges them to let his death and resurrection be the impetus by which they preach the message of repentance and forgiveness to all nations. Repentance and forgiveness, after all, are their own model of death and resurrection. In turning toward Christ, we turn away from all that plagues us. As we die to sin and death itself, we are reborn to life in Christ. But death must occur. A gospel without the cross isn’t really good news at all because real transformation is only possible when death and resurrection are both present.

St. Cyril, after all, is most famous for his catechetical lectures—eighteen Lenten talks given to converts who were preparing for baptism and five “mystagogical” instructions given to those same new Christians during Easter week (see The Christian journey, as he understood it, could be contained neither in Lent nor in Easter. We need both. In order to be transformed, we must experience the death of Christ so that we might journey with him into the resurrection. Do not let Lent be an end in itself. It is merely preparation for what follows. But likewise don’t let Lent pass you by as a mere soiree into penitence. You, too, must die with Christ in order to be reborn. Amen.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Antagonistic Jesus

Do you remember a high school teacher or a college professor who was kind of a jerk but in a good way? I don’t mean someone who just likes to be mean or degrading. I mean someone who has really high expectations and seems to care more about the message being taught than you as a student? I had one or two of those. One of my mentors in the Chemistry Department at Birmingham-Southern, the late Dr. John Strohl, was one of them. One day I was in his office, and I asked him about his cacti, and he looked at me with deep disappointment. “That’s not a cactus. It’s a succulent. You’re not going to be a very good scientist, are you?” On the other side of student-teacher relationships like that one, I came away appreciate both class and teacher. At the time, though, it was really difficult to have someone push at me like that.

In Sunday’s gospel lesson (John 3:1-17), I think Jesus is acting like a secretively sympathetic jerk. Nicodemus comes to him at night. He’s desperate for an answer. He can’t sleep. He’s torn up inside trying to make sense of who this Jesus is. His peers, the leaders of Israel, have come out against Jesus, but Nicodemus can tell from the works Jesus is performing that there must be something there. So he comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness and says, “Rabbi, teacher, tell me what’s going on here.” And Jesus lets him have it.

Jesus: You can’t see the kingdom of God unless you’re born again.
The reason you can’t make sense of this is because you’re stuck in your old life.

Nicodemus: How can someone be born a second time?
I still don’t understand what you’re talking about.

Jesus: You must be born of God’s spirit. Otherwise, it’s like chasing the wind.
I’m not going to make this any easier for you. You’ve got to figure it out on your own.

Nicodemus: How can these things be?
Help me out, please. Throw me a bone, Jesus. I’m still not getting it.

Jesus: Are you a teacher of Israel and still you don’t get it?
What are you an idiot?

Jesus breaks Nicodemus down the way a wise college professor breaks down an eager but self-absorbed nineteen-year-old. He pushes him, refusing to dumb down the message, until Nicodemus is a swirling, whirling, reeling mess of confusion. All of Nicodemus’ preconceived notions of what it means to be a person of faith have been blown out of the water. Jesus has completely disoriented his theological bearing and taken away his compass. Nicodemus now has even more questions than he started with.

And then Jesus builds him back up.

Jesus: Let’s start over. It begins with the Son of Man. That’s the only one who really knows the answer to heavenly questions because he’s the only one who has been to heaven.
Do I have your attention now? Listen carefully. This is important.

God so loved the world that he sent his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have [everlasting] life.

We take that famous verse—John 3:16—for granted. But that’s because our theological orientation has always understood that verse as its bearing. But Nicodemus and his contemporaries didn’t grasp it. They couldn’t. It was too new, too different. It’s like asking a college freshman to understand everything she’ll learn in four years after the first day. We have to give up our biases so that a new foundation can be built.

So what are the presumptions that are getting in the way of our understanding of the gospel? John 3:16 isn’t new to us, but still we must be born again. If we think we know all the answers, we haven’t even started yet. We need to be broken down. We need Jesus to teach us antagonistically. We need him to push us, disorient us, until we can start fresh. What is God trying to say to us that our flesh is getting in the way of?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Grace Abounds

Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all.” That makes me think of a bunch of wannabe saints competing with one another to see who can be the most humble. Back when I was a camper at Alpine Camp for Boys, the oldest campers had dinner as a group on Saturday night—a privilege to get away from the younger boys. The first week, we all lined up in a hurry to be first in line for hamburgers and hotdogs. Then, the head counselor asked us all to turn around, and then he led us in a circular procession that resulted in a reversed order. The one at the very back found himself first in line. The next week, we all fought to get at the end of the line, expecting the counselor to repeat his instruction: “The first shall be last…” But this time we went in without reversing the order. Frustrating, isn’t it, when you’re trying your hardest to be the least? It makes me think of the bizzaro world of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, where you’re only crazy if you don’t think you’re crazy, and, if you don’t think you’re crazy, you’re sane enough to fly in combat.

Not long ago, I visited with a parishioner who is fairly well stuck at home. Most of our home-bound parishioners (the term “shut-ins” has always sounded so negative to me) are unable to leave home because of their age. Sure, there are plenty of 90+-year-olds out there who still drive all over the place, but advanced age often comes with less mobility. But this parishioner is home-bound because of illness. There seems something particularly crippling about being young (relatively speaking), in the so-called “prime” of one’s life, and unable to embrace life.

“How long has it been since you were able to just get up and leave the house without thinking about it—without planning ahead, without needing help or someone to go with you? How long has it been since you’ve just stood up and grabbed your keys and hopped in the car?” For almost two years, now, this man has had to plan his life around his illness. Can he drive? Yes. But what happens if he is suddenly stricken unwell—a distinct possibility with his condition? What if he’s away from home and all of the sudden needs help? For two years, even when he’s felt up to it, he’s had to think twice before walking out the front door. And that’s hard.

Coming to church is difficult. Going out socially is nearly impossible. “So how do you sustain yourself?” I asked. “Not just physically but also spiritually and emotionally.” We talked about reading the bible and saying our prayers. And then he said something that really got my attention. “I try to treat other people the way I would want to be treated. That sounds pretty simple, but it’s what I do. I think it’s what Christ was all about.”

Hmmm. At first, I bristled. That sounds a lot more like works-based righteousness than the radical grace I’m accustomed to. A lot of “spiritual but not religious” people—including most Christians—think Jesus came to show the world that we’re supposed to be nicer to each other. But that’s not the gospel. That’s not grace. I believe that Jesus came to the world to show us that God loves us even when we’re miserable schmucks—“schmucks” being a highly technical theological word for sinners. Our faith isn’t built upon the premise that the Golden Rule precedes our justification. Instead, our justification precedes the Golden Rule. We do unto others not so that God will love us more but because God loves us first—whether we love other people or simply love our selfish selves. But that’s not what he meant.

Without wanting to seem theologically combative (I can get that way when we’re talking about grace & law), I asked him about that belief. Quickly, I realized that his do-unto-others lifestyle isn’t an attempt to seek affirmation from God but to adopt a spiritual practice that draws him closer to God. That might sound like I’m splitting hairs, but it was, for me, a huge and profound theological insight. We love others not so that God will love us. We love others because, in so doing, we learn to appreciate just how much God loves us.

In the gospel lesson for the Feast of Gregory the Great (Mark 10:42-45), Jesus said, “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus—in his preaching, in his miracles, in his sinful company, in his death and resurrection—shows us that being great is about being the least of all—about giving oneself in service to others. No, we don’t have to be like Jesus to earn God’s love. But we are called to imitate Jesus so that we might know what love is.

If you want to be great, you must be servant of all. The only world in which that statement makes sense—other than in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22—is a world of grace. We love others—we serve others even to the point of giving our lives for them—in order to internalize the truth that God loves us freely. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Don't Forget John 3:17

The story of Abraham and the Apostle Paul’s interpretation of that story in the Christian context are central to my understanding of the Christian faith. When I was a young Christian, the people who influenced me most were those who talked about concepts like grace vs. law, justification by faith, and the free gift of forgiveness. As I read the first two lessons forthe Second Sunday in Lent (Gen. 12:1-4a; Rom. 4: 1-5, 13-17), I find myself drawn back to those moments when I, like a sponge, soaked up any bit of understanding I was given. I was filled with the gospel as expressed in the Abraham/Paul story of God’s amazing promise and humanity’s only response.

Then I read the gospel lesson (John 3:1-17), and I wonder why these are all stuck together. John’s story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night is a compelling tale. It’s a man risking his status in the community in order to ask Jesus his burning question: “Who are you???” It’s Jesus’ urging us all to be reborn by the Spirit. It contains the verse that for so many is the encapsulation of our faith—John 3:16. (I think that “encapsulation” is often misunderstood, so I usually avoid it.) But where is the connection with the Abraham story?

Maybe there’s some ground to cover in what I would argue is the necessary pairing of John 3:16 and John 3:17.

So many of us think of John 3:16 as the end-all, be-all of the Christian faith: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to the end that all who believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life. It is important. You can’t deny that. But how is it important? What is Jesus really saying there?

Is he saying, “God sent his son so that those who believe might be saved…so you’d better believe or else?”

Is he saying, “God sent his son so that those who believe will live an everlasting life…and those who don’t will perish?”

Is he saying, “God sent his son so that those who believe will be forever separated from those who don’t in the clearest possible test of what it means to be saved or damned?”

Does that mean Me + Belief = Salvation while You + Unbelief = Damnation?

That’s why we need verse 17. Indeed, God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Put those two verses together, and never let them be split apart. When read with the verse after it, John 3:16 is a reminder that God is in the saving-the-world business. Without it, it can be a weapon that Christians use to bludgeon the rest of the world over the head until they are relegated to hell. But that’s not the story of faith God has been revealing to the world since he first called Abraham.

God offers blessing to those who believe because God is a God of blessing. The divine economy is not built upon the premise that one must lose if another is to gain. God showering his blessing upon those who accept him at his word does not necessitate God raining down fire upon those who don’t. (There’s an argument for that—and against that—but that’s another set of readings.) We follow in the footsteps of Abraham and Jesus. (Kathy Grieb makes this point in her commentary The Story ofRomans.) Abraham heard God’s promise of blessing and trusted it enough to leave everything behind and set out for a new land. Jesus heard God’s promise of redemption and trusted it enough to give up his life so that God might redeem the world. Those are stories of blessing. To add a consequence of curse is a wonderfully human and wonderfully short-sighted tendency that we are begged to resist. (See what else Paul has to say about the Law in the rest of Romans.)

I want to see the guy in the crowd at the WWE match holding up the sign that says “John 3:17.” I want to see him standing right next to the guy who holds up the sign that says “John 3:16.” They go together. They can’t be separated. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Lead Us Not into Temptation

As preachers all over the world shift gears from Ash Wednesday to Lent 1, we find ourselves staring at some wonderful but dangerously rich lessons. Anytime one preaches on a passage that comes with its own nickname (like "The Fall"), preachers have to sort through tons of possibility and find a single focus or else the risk leading their congregations down a long, dark, and dull path of saying too much. I haven't heard or read a lot from other preachers, but I'd be surprised if most of us aren't trying to tackle temptation this Sunday.

"Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal..."

"As sin came into the world through one man..."

"...led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil."

How will the preacher find a foothold? What will the focus be?

The nature of temptation--is the voice that comes at just the wrong time an external or internal whisper?

The temptation to misappropriate scripture--how many Christians, like the devil, wield the bible for their own purposes?

The power Christ gives us to resist temptation--if we can't do it on our own, how will we remain strong?

The source of temptation--does God lead us into temptation or do we get there all on our own?

Hopefully--for our congregations' sakes--we'll narrow it down. I'm sure there will be some good sermons this Sunday, and I look forward to reading and listening to some of them.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wed. Sermon: A Season of Renewal

March 5, 2014 – Ash Wednesday

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here.

I want to let you in on a little secret that you probably already know. When members of the clergy get together behind closed doors, they like to engage in a little friendly competition. But it’s not a competition to see who is the holiest among us—at least not directly. Anyone who talks about how often he prays or how much time she spends caring for the poor or how he’s always reading some impressive theological book is instantly ostracized as a braggart and a blowhard. No, no—we are far less obvious in our boasting. We contend with one another in the sacred art of competitive misery.

“Last week, my Senior Warden called me on Friday evening at 6:45 to ask me whether I was going to make it to his daughter’s piano recital the next morning,” a self-pitying priest exclaims. “Oh, you think that’s bad?” another chimes in. “Well, the matriarch of my church saw me at the grocery store on Saturday afternoon and said, ‘Don’t you know that our minister would never be seen in public without his clerical collar on?’” Unable to resist, a third priest adds, “I asked the chairwoman of our Altar Guild if it would be alright for us to use a chalice and paten made from pottery during Lent, and, by 4pm the next day, she produced a petition signed by every member of the Altar Guild—active and inactive—explaining why my ‘little stunt’ would upend everything that is good and right about our church.” (Don’t worry: nothing like that ever happens at St. John’s.)

Of course, clergy aren’t the only ones who compete with one another to prove whose life is the most difficult. As a child, when I went to visit my grandmother during the summer, she would take me along to the beauty parlor, where women said the most amazing things about their children, about their husbands, and about their ministers. The only people worse than that are men on the golf course. I’ve sat through more than one meal at an assisted living facility where the table talk was a repeated one-upmanship of ailments and infirmities. And you know as well as I do that family gatherings are rarely an opportunity to celebrate each other’s successes. That would be immodest and might upset Aunt Susan, whom we all know has had a rough go of it lately. Instead, everyone takes turns comparing stories about broken furnaces and annoying neighbors. But I’m sure you don’t know anybody like that at all.

We compete to prove who is the most miserable. But why? Why do we feel the need to act as if life comes with more challenges than blessings? Why do we need to pretend that things are worse than they really are? Is it because we worry that our friends and family will think less of us if things are going well? Will our colleagues hear our joy as selfish boasting? Are we worried that God will resent our happiness and send pestilence upon us in order to teach us humility? What do you think God really wants from his people—to grovel in dust and ashes? What is Lent all about—to spend forty days pretending that everything is terrible? To give up chocolate and soda and alcohol and everything fun in order to show God that we really are miserable enough to deserve his favor?

The prophet Joel lived during a time when God’s people were in a lot of trouble. He didn’t give a date for his work, so we don’t know exactly when it was written, but we can tell from his prophecy that his people had suffered through a plague of locusts and a desolating drought. The resulting famine was thought to be a punishment from God, who seemed angry at his people for engaging in idol worship. They had forgotten what it meant to belong to God, so the prophet called them to repent. “Blow the trumpet in Zion,” he declared. “Sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast.” In other words, gather everyone together in a great display of remorse and penitence, and maybe—just maybe—God will have mercy on us.

It feels like that sometimes, doesn’t it? Everything is falling apart around us, and it must be our fault. Maybe God is trying to tell us something. Maybe we should pray a little harder. Maybe we should hang our head a little lower. Maybe we should shuffle our feet and kick at the dirt and mope about like Eeyore. Maybe then God will remember us and turn things around. Maybe, if we’re miserable enough today, God will make things a little better tomorrow.

But that’s not what Jesus says. Whenever you give alms, don’t sound a trumpet before you. Instead, give your alms in secret. Don’t even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Whenever you pray, don’t do it in public. Instead, go into your room and shut the door. Don’t make a big show about saying your prayers. And, whenever you fast, don’t look dismal and don’t whine about how hungry you are. Instead, keep your fasting a secret. Put oil on your head and a smile on your face and act like everything is normal. And your Father, who sees all of this in secret, will reward you. In other words, God doesn’t care about the show or the fuss. All he cares about is your heart. You can do what you want and say what you like, but God knows where your heart belongs. And that’s the only thing that matters.

That means that the reward Jesus is talking about isn’t the product of our manufactured misery but a gift that comes when we give our hearts to God. I don’t believe that God is waiting to bless those who repent the loudest. God isn’t holding back his mercy until we adopt the strictest Lenten discipline. I believe that God’s blessing comes whenever we renew our relationship with him. In other words, we don’t demonstrate our misery in order that God might remember us. We embrace a season of repentance in order that we might remember God.

Lent is a time to remember that we belong to God. The word “repentance” means “a turning around of the heart and mind.” Today, I am asking you to repent. I am calling on you to observe a holy Lent—a season of penitence and fasting. In other words, I want you to practice letting your heart and mind belong to God. Don’t endure the agony of Lent. Embrace a season of renewal. Don’t pretend that life is a joyless misery. Search for the joy that comes when you remember that you belong to God. Amen.