Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Irreversible Decisions

When theologians weigh in on contemporary cultural issues, they run the risk of seeming insulated by the gospel and, thus, out of touch with the real world. It's easy to espouse "should-haves" from behind my desk. The President of the United States "should have" reacted differently to a particular international crisis. The local prosecutor "should have" given more weight to a particular defendant's upbringing when seeking the death penalty. The young actor "should have" thought twice before opening his mouth in front of the cameras. So I'm wary of writing a blog piece that seems to point and wag the priestly finger at the world, but, today, I can't say nothing.

Actually, I don't think the gospel of grace leaves any room for "should haves" to begin with, so maybe I need to start there. I believe in a God of immeasurable love and forgiveness. In him, there are no "should haves." There is only redemption. Yes, of course, there is room for learning from my mistakes. I should have studied a little harder in college. I should have been more quick to apologize. I should have been nicer to my younger brothers. I should have spent more time with my children. But all of those "should haves" come from me and not from God. God says, "I love you no matter what." Period. End of story. Fail out of college? I love you just the same. Beat up on your brothers? Still the same love. Abandon your family and leave them destitute? It doesn't matter--I still love you. And my experience of life--limited though it may be--suggests that real transformation is only possible in that place of unaccountable love.

What frees you up to be the person you were created to be? Is it expectations? Is it rules? Is it the cause-and-effect I'll-only-love-you-or-praise-you-if-you-get-it-right attitude that the world so often projects? Maybe that steers me toward the "right" path for a little while, but how long until I stumble? How long until I discover that my value is inextricably tied to your expectations of me? If we believe in a God who says, "I will love you as long as you love me first," we are all doomed. That is the definition of damnation.

But when God says, "You can never run so far away from me that I will not find you and love you into redemption," we discover what it means to be a free moral individual who is called by grace to seek the one who loves us. (Read Romans 8). Only in that place can we become the people we were created to be.

That's why I stand in opposition to the death penalty. That's why I oppose life in prison without the possibility of parole. That's why I reject the "three strikes and you're out" approach to criminal justice. That's why I find suicide so terrifying--not that I'm critical of the one who finds himself so desperate that death seems like the only possible source of relief but that I'm scared of what it means to find oneself in that place of hopelessness. In God, there is always hope for redemption. And those of us who call ourselves Christians must stand in that place of hope. 

Now is not the time to defend Donald Sterling. There is nothing defensible about his words. Hatred is antithetical to a gospel of love. Jesus came to welcome the outcast and the oppressed, and I am thus called to stand on the side of those who are discriminated against. But I do believe that this is the time to ask, "What is our hope for Donald Sterling?" A lifetime ban says that there is no hope. Sure, the internal workings of the NBA might necessitate that language, but I'm watching and reading how quickly the world is saying, "Good riddance!" It isn't just the lifetime ban that causes this Christian pastor to pause and scratch his head. It is how easily and quickly everyone has decided that there is no hope for redemption here. 

We act as if there is no future for Donald Sterling, but wouldn't resurrection provide a more powerful end for this story? Yet we have slammed the door shut so quickly and unequivocally that I don't know whether we'd be able to see hope spring from even this darkest hour. What will the next few years show us? Unless we leave room--even the slightest, tiniest crack in our hearts--for Mr. Sterling to surprise us with redemption, we have failed to honor God's ability to do the impossible. Might he repent? Might he seek to make amends? Might he become an advocate for justice and inclusion? Might God take hold of his heart and turn it back toward God? I don't know. No one does. But are we willing to consider that possibility?

Ingredients for Faith

So what was Jesus’ intention? He came among the disciples who were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They were talking among themselves, and he asked them what they were discussing. When they indicated that they had been discussing the recent events in Jerusalem, he pushed them further and asked, “What events?” Then, the disciples gave a short recount of Jesus’ celebrity, arrest, death, and mysterious post-crucifixion disappearance. Jesus criticizes their slowness of heart and then opens the scriptures to them. And then? He walks as if to keep going.

Could the story possibly have ended there? The disciples had all the ingredients for belief—narrative, prophetic interpretation, conversation within the community—but they still didn’t get it yet. They needed more time. They needed to spend more time with Jesus. But Jesus didn’t intend to give it to them—or at least it didn’t seem that way. He was going to keep walking. It was up to them to invite him to stay with them.

As an archetype for apprehending resurrection belief, this story might imply that Jesus comes near for a while but that the seeker must “make space” for Jesus to remain long enough for conversion to occur. Or maybe Jesus intended to stay with them all along and simply enjoyed seeing whether they would invite him to lodge there. Perhaps hospitality dictated that they offer him a place to stay so that there was never really any doubt, and Jesus was just playing the polite I’ll-keep-walking-until-they-ask-me role in the story. Regardless, Jesus “walked ahead as if he were going on,” and it wasn’t until they invited him to stay that they discovered who he was.

Sometimes we have all the ingredients for faith. We know the bible stories. We’ve heard the “good news” from family or friends or clergy. We’ve had the casual discussion with other skeptics while sitting at the bar or watching the game. But Jesus isn’t there yet—or at least we don’t know that he is. Actually, he’s been there all along. We just haven’t seen him. But all we have to do is invite him to stay. In life, it sometimes seems as if he intends to walk ahead of us—and maybe he does. Maybe he would have kept walking. Sure, he’d come back again and again, waiting for us to invite him to stay. But it is through our intention that his transformative presence becomes real.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Surprise Sunday

This Sunday—the Third Sunday of Easter—should be called “Surprise Sunday.” In all three years, the gospel lesson has to do with surprise encounters with Jesus. This year, Year A, is the story of the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), when two disciples are shocked to discover that they had been talking with Jesus all afternoon. Next year, we will read the succeeding story in Luke (24:36b-48), in which Jesus startles the disciples and asks for some fish. In Year C, we read John’s account of the disciples failed attempt at fishing and Jesus’ instruction to cast the net on the other side of the boat, which results in the surprising and revelatory catch of fish (John 21:1-19).

Maybe surprise is supposed to be the theme of Easter. It shows up elsewhere, too. In fact, the gospel accounts make it seem hard to meet the risen Jesus—even after seeing the empty tomb or meeting the resurrected Jesus firsthand—without being surprised. They’re always a little jumpy when he shows up. What about us?

We know the story too well. Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia. What’s new about that? Where’s the surprise there? Maybe I should stand up and declare, “Merry Christmas!” just to catch people off-guard.

No one is ready to meet the risen Jesus. Think about it this way: if you encountered the risen Christ, would you let him out of your sight? Yet he always disappears and reappears when they least expect him. What about us?

Faith needs a little surprise—otherwise it’s just rehearsed facts that require no faith. Resurrection is supposed to surprise us. Easter is supposed to surprise us. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Be Known To Us...

If only I could have been there on Easter Day—to look into the empty tomb, to hear the resurrection news firsthand, to see the risen Jesus—then I would really believe.

During the Easter season (and yes, it’s 50 days and not just 1), it’s easy for me to dream of being there when it all happened. The exciting news travels through the community. One person tells another. Jesus shows up—sometimes unexpectedly—to show the disciples his resurrected self. Thomas is invited to place his hand in the marks of the nails and in Jesus’ side. But so what if I had been there? Would it be any different?

Luke gives us a post-resurrection account of the walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Two disciples were journeying down from Jerusalem when the risen Jesus showed up to walk with them. They spoke of what had happened. One disciple remarked, “Some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” In other words, “We are among those who have peered into the empty tomb, yet we still haven’t figured it out.” Jesus’ reply? “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!”

Then, Jesus explained everything to them—how the scriptures pointed to a crucified and resurrected savior. He led them through the prophets, starting with Moses, and explained Easter to them. But still they did not get it. “Hey, stranger! Want to spend the night here with us?”  

In this story, what is it that brings resurrection belief? It’s not looking into the empty tomb. It’s not walking with the risen Jesus. It’s not understanding the scriptures and making sense of the prophecies. It’s breaking bread together. As soon as Jesus blessed and broke bread, these two disciples realized who he was. Their eyes were opened through the Eucharistic action. And then he vanished.

Two-thousand years later, I find myself wishing I could be there—to see it all happen and to hear the good news as it first rippled through the community. But I am reminded by Luke that the point isn’t going back in time to be there when it happened but to bring it forward into the present as the body of Christ. We gather to worship and celebrate the resurrection. We do it all the time. How might the breaking of the bread open our eyes this Sunday to behold the risen Jesus—even if only for a brief second?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Clergy Conference Blogging Workshop

My ability to post is limited this week because of Clergy Conference. As both a plus and a minus, cell phone reception is minimal at Camp McDowell, and Internet access is even less consistent. But I did just finish taking part in a workshop about blogging, and I wanted to be sure to share some of what I learned. 

Jack Alvey spoke about the reasons to blog. With a truly evangelical (think Great Commission) focus, he said that blogging is about meeting people where they are and giving them the gospel in a medium that reaches them. He's right, of course. He drew a contrast between the preacher who stands at the door of the church on Sunday morning and wonders where everyone is and the preacher who is posting through social media and doesn't worry about where people are. Blogging is about sharing the gospel. 

Kelley Hudlow spoke about video blogging, and I am fascinated with this. She gave wonderful, helpful, insightful instructions about all aspects of vlogging--from production to editing to distributing. Really well done. She indicated that it takes her an hour to do a 2-3 minute post, which makes sense but seems labor intensive. Still, who bothers to read words anymore? (Ha, ha?)

I spoke about the mechanics of blogging, which I myself need help with, but I also spoke about something dear to my heart: blogging and mutual sustainability. How many bloggers have begun their blogs only to peter out? And how many readers have lost interest in a new blog after only a few posts? I think the key to blogging is to do something that equally nourishes writer and reader. 

I blog about the lectionary--RCL, feast days, and the daily office. I do that as a part of my own spiritual discipline. I read the lessons and reflect on them in order to be more fully formed by Jesus. I write not for the sake of a blog. The blog is merely the vehicle for my own spiritual formation. And I believe that as I engage in my own formation other people will be drawn to do the same. If not, the whole practice wouldn't be sustainable. 

What about you? What are the practices that sustain you? How might your own spiritual disciplines reach out to others and invite them to be drawn closer to Jesus? As Jack and Kelley both said, this is about evangelism--getting the word out to people where they are. How might each of us do that in a way that sustains both minister and ministrant?

Monday, April 21, 2014

2 Easter - The Most Important Sunday

There are a few big days in the church year that always use the same gospel lessons. Having preached on a number of them year in and year out, I often find myself looking for an alternative. Usually, that’s because there’s more to the story than one little lesson. An example of that is Maundy Thursday. We always read the story of the washing of the feet. But there’s so much more that happens at the Last Supper. As we prepare to strip the altar in silence—without explanation—I find myself wanting the betrayal to play a larger role in the lessons. Sure, usually I’d want to preach on the Jesus-mandate, but, every once in a while, I’d like to hear something else.

The Second Sunday of Easter isn’t one of those. Every year, it’s the same story—Doubting Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ—but it’s a story that I feel might never be exhausted. As a curate, I preached on this coming Sunday several times, and I have as a rector, too. Every time, I find myself trying to sort through more than I can deal with in one low-Sunday sermon. I figure I’ve got 30+ years left in active ministry, and I’d guess that I’d need at least 15 of those to feel good about preaching Doubting Thomas.

As John makes clear through the words of Jesus, Thomas’ story is our story: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We have not seen. We have believed—or at least we’re trying to. This narrative is the post-modern, post-metanarrative, post-I’ve-got-the-answers-so-stop-asking-questions-and-just-believe-what-I-tell-you-to-believe gospel. It is the gospel lesson for today’s church. It comes at the perfect time and needs careful thought.

On Easter Day, we proclaim that Christ is risen. We celebrate the empty tomb. And Easter Day isn’t the right time for the preacher to battle the doubts of postmodernism. Yes, we want the resurrection to be real to us, and I tried to stress that in yesterday’s sermon. But Easter isn’t the time to say, “What if he didn’t really rise from the dead?” As a robust treatment of this Sunday’s gospel would show, I’m not afraid of that question, but, if I only have one or two chances to proclaim the gospel to those Christmas-Easter parishioners, Easter Day isn’t the time to do it. But this Sunday is.

The ecstasy has worn off. The shock and awe has subsided. Although the story still begins on the first day of the week—Easter Day—it allows us some time to reflect on the truth we’ve proclaimed. This is the time to let our faith mature—to show how it will resist the healthy, natural, honest skepticism of Thomas.

Of all the Sundays, this is the one preached to the faithful Christian. They are the ones who journey through the busyness of Holy Week and Easter and still come back on the second Sunday of the season. So, preacher, don’t let them down. They are here asking the same questions as Thomas. “Was the hype of last Sunday for real? Were we just caught up in the joy of a prescribed observance, or is there really something here worth putting my faith in?” Tackle the doubts of Thomas and let us be strengthened in our resolve. We aren’t in church this coming Sunday because we’re going through the motions. We’re there because we believe—or at least because we really want to. Help us feel the risen Christ without actually touching him.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Day - Resurrection Surprise

April 20, 2014 – Easter Day, Year A

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

The audio of this sermon is available here.

My wife, Elizabeth, will tell you that I have the maturity of a third-grader. She’s right, of course. I laugh at crude jokes. I pull pranks on unsuspecting friends. And I love to jump out from around the corner and scare people. I do it enough that now my kids have caught on to the act, and all three of them will hide behind a chair or a sofa when they hear the garage door open, signaling that I am home. Although their timing still needs a little work, they’re getting pretty good at jumping out and yelling “BOO!” when I get too close.

The staff at St. John’s is regularly subjected to my little surprises. Eventually, though, after enough times, the victims of my startlings get used to it, and they don’t jump quite as high. Sometimes I can still get them—especially early in the morning when they don’t think anyone else is in the office—and I smile a big, friendly grin when I hear them gasp and then mutter the four-letter words of surprise under their voice. It’s my way of keeping everyone on our toes here at St. John’s. But I’m curious about the rest of you. When was the last time you came to church and were surprised?

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed…

The steps she took toward the tomb were as heavy as any she had ever taken. Mary Magdalene had been among the few women who stood at the cross and watched Jesus breathe his last. The pain and grief that hit her during the crucifixion had faded into a confused numbness. The reality of his death had sunk in, but her heart didn’t even know what it should feel. So she made her way to the place where his body had been laid, walking almost mindlessly, drawn inexorably toward the locus of her sorrow. But, when she arrived, her grief was compounded. The stone had been rolled away, which meant that someone had stolen his body, probably to desecrate it.

So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

Mary’s words of alarm ripped through the mournful disciples, who dropped everything and raced to the tomb. When the first arrived, he looked in and saw the grave clothes lying there, but he waited for Peter to catch up. Then, they both went in and confirmed what Mary Magdalene had told them—that his body was gone—but they still didn’t understand what to make of the empty tomb. So they turned around and walked back home.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.

A woman wracked with grief and left with nothing to do but cry, Mary just stood there sobbing. Through the blurriness of tear-filled eyes, she looked into the tomb and saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying. “Why are you weeping?” the angels asked, and Mary choked out the words of her grief, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” And then, in that place of bitterest pain, a surprise rippled through her heart.

Jesus [appeared and] said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).

In that moment, that split-second when Mary Magdalene learned that everything she had ever feared had been transformed from death into life, Easter filled her with the joy of surprise. In the blink of an eye, her grief was vanquished, and it was replaced with pure joy. But that is how resurrection always happens. It must begin in a place of real death and only breaks through into our lives when and where we least expect it. Easter is the story of God’s greatest surprise—that from the ashes of our darkest, most hopeless hour springs forth new life and new possibility.

But when was the last time you came to church and were surprised? We are all here this morning because we know that it is Easter. We proclaim, “The Lord is risen indeed!” as if it were a well-rehearsed fact. And, even though we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ every single Sunday, rarely does it surprise us. Rarely does what happens in this sacred space, within these hallowed walls, shake us out of the familiarity of the gospel and fill us with the real joy of surprise. But we need to be surprised. Like Mary Magdalene, we need the joy of resurrection to turn us upside down. But what will it take for Easter to break through in our lives and not just in our worship?

We must go forth from here and look for resurrection where it is to be found—in that place where it will surprise us the most. In the garden where the body of Jesus was laid. In the hospital room where our loved-one takes his last breath. In the daughter who refuses to speak to us or in the son who is in rehab for the umpteenth time. In the marriage that has been dead for years. In the elusive job that cannot be found. Or maybe even in the church that hasn’t meant anything to us in longer than we can remember.

Where is resurrection least likely to be found? What relationship is as dead to you as Jesus was to Mary Magdalene? That is the place where you must go and search for new life. In our hopelessness is the very place where God surprises us with resurrection. Is it possible? Can it be? On this day, when we gather at the empty tomb to see that Christ is risen indeed, we proclaim our confidence that God can transform even our darkest moment into the light of Easter. Amen. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday - Jesus' Victory in Defeat

April 18, 2014 – Good Friday

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

 Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

The world loves stories about underdogs. They become the legends that define our culture. We tell them to our children and grandchildren. We make them our own. The upstart American colonists rebel against the tyranny of the British Empire. The hard-working steel driver John Henry matches his strength and skill against a steam-powered hammer. Small-time boxer Rocky Balboa climbs into the ring to square off against the heavyweight champ, Apollo Creed. The small-town high-school football team takes the field in the state championship against the perennial favorite from the big city.

The bible, too, is full of underdog stories. We teach them to our children in order to give them a glimpse of how they might also serve God in extraordinary ways: Joshua and the Battle of Jericho, Rahab the Harlot, David and Goliath, Elijah and the prophets of Baal, the woman at the well, the man blind since birth, and, of course, Jesus himself—the carpenter’s son from Galilee who took on the political and religious establishment of his day. In 1965, the life of Jesus was made into a movie called The Greatest Story Ever Told. You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate the drama and excitement of his underdog story. But the problem with falling in love with Jesus the underdog is that you miss the whole point of the cross if you’re only cheering because you know he’ll bounce back in the fourth quarter—on the third day.

Imagine trying to make a feel-good movie about the 1935 Boston Braves. For sixteen years, they only had one winning season. Then, in 1933 and 1934, things seemed to get a little bit better. Both years, they finished above .500 and in fourth place in the National League. Finally, in 1935, the team did something to end their losing ways. They hired Babe Ruth to be both player and manager, bringing back to Boston the legend who had been sold by the cross-town Red Sox to the New York Yankees in 1919. Everyone thought that Ruth would bring his winning ways back to Boston—that his magic touch would lead the decades-long underdog team to the pennant, but that’s not how the story ended. The team finished the season with a major-league worst record of 115 losses—61 ½ games behind the first-place Chicago Cubs. Ruth retired on June 1—not even able to complete the whole season. Big hopes and terrible losses don’t make for good stories, but sometimes the underdog just gets beat.

What does it mean to cheer for the underdog who loses? What does it mean to follow a savior who is crucified? Those of us who prefer to fast-forward to what happens on the third day inadvertently make the crucifixion a mere detour on the road that leads to salvation. But the cross is more than a momentary setback. The death of our savior is an expression of God’s victory that stands alone. It is a moment of salvation all in itself.

Consider John’s account of Jesus’ arrest and interrogation. The soldiers and officers rush into the garden to take Jesus into custody, but, rather than run or hide, Jesus comes forward to meet them. He asks, “Whom are you looking for?” and, after they say his name, he declares, “I am he,” with enough force to knock them to the ground. Yet, despite his power, he submits to them willingly. Then, Simon Peter draws his sword, ready for battle. He slashes at the face of the high priest’s servant, cutting of his ear. But Jesus tells him, “Put it back in its sheath. Am I not supposed to drink the cup that my father has given me?” When he is dragged before Caiaphas the high priest, he refuses to defend himself, and, when Pilate the governor asks him if he is a king, Jesus makes it clear that his kingdom “is not from this world,” but, if it were, his followers would be fighting to free him. Over and over, Jesus reminds us of his innate power, but he chooses to show it by submitting to the fate that awaits him. In the end, the one who has all the power and could triumph over his oppressors at any moment, chooses the cross because it is God’s ultimate expression of what true power is.

For Jesus, victory is shown in defeat. Power is expressed in weakness. Hope is found in darkness. What happens on the third day is not the reversal of Jesus’ fortune. It does not show that the cross was a mistake. Instead, it confirms that what happened at Calvary was a moment of God’s triumph. In our faith, the underdog does not win in the end—at least not in human terms. And that’s why it’s so hard to recognize the cross as a true moment of victory all in itself. No wonder the crowd responded to Pilate, “We have no king but Caesar.” To look at the bloodied, humiliated figure standing before them, wearing a mock-crown of thorns, was to look at man who had lost—whose fight had been extinguished. But that is where God is to be found. God resides not in the locker room of the long-shot winner but in the defeat of the team that never had a chance in the first place.

What sort of messiah do you worship? What sort of king have you come to behold? The world wants to cheer for the unexpected winner. We like the story of the underdog because, when the underdog wins, we feel like their victory is somehow meant for us. But Jesus’ victory is far more substantial than that. He came not only to bring hope to those whose lives are filled with light and love and joy but also to give hope to those whose despair seems to have no end. The true power of God is expressed through the cross. The powerless are made powerful because that is where God is to be found. The suffering are made whole because that is where God is to be found. The cross of Christ means that our hope is not tied up in moments of worldly victory but in God’s willingness to inhabit our moments of loss.

So bring to the cross everything you’ve ever thought about power and victory and hope, and watch them fall away. Let the crucified one transform you not merely by removing your struggle but by revealing God’s true power: that God is with us in our darkest moments because that is where his love is to be found. Amen.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Thursday in Holy Week - A Meal for Sinners

In the Roman Catholic Church, individuals may not receive Holy Communion without having fasted from everything except water or medicine for at least an hour. That can be reduced to 15 minutes if you’re ill or have another important reason (see canon 919). It used to be that one needed to fast from midnight the night before, but that was relaxed back in the 1950s so that Catholics could receive Communion more often—especially with the introduction of evening services.

In the Orthodox Church, things are still pretty strict. If you want to receive Communion on Sunday, you need to spend the whole week getting ready. You are expected to study God’s word, fast from meat and dairy on Wednesday and Friday, strenuously strive to avoid sin, and on Sunday you are forbidden to eat or drink anything unless medically necessary until the Divine Liturgy.

In both the Orthodox and Catholic churches, there is an expectation that a potential communicant will be free of serious sins before coming to the altar rail. Sacramental Confession is offered as a way of reconciling both the penitent individual to God and also healing the division that a grievous or mortal sin has created between the individual and the Church. Gathering at the Lord’s Supper is about gathering in the unity that he offers us.  

There’s value in preparing for something as important as Communion. The next time you’re in the pew, stop and ask yourself what you did to get ready. I hope my answer will be something more substantial than “I brushed my teeth” or “I reviewed my sermon.” We shouldn’t come to the Communion rail burdened by sin or distracted by worldly concerns. If not literally fasting before Communion, we should at least spend a moment acknowledging our dependence on God alone and our hunger for salvation. We should recall our sinfulness and seek forgiveness. And, if we are so burdened or distracted that we cannot rightly discern the importance of this sacramental moment, we should probably refrain from receiving.

Imagine, though, what was going through the disciples’ minds the first time that they shared this meal together right after Jesus announced, “One of you will betray me.”

I like Mark’s version of this story. He doesn’t identify Judas in this moment. There is no description of how Satan entered into him as there was in yesterday’s gospel (John 13:21-32). Instead, Jesus drops that dinner-party bomb and then moves right on. It’s like announcing to your family at Thanksgiving Dinner that you have been diagnosed with cancer and have two months to live and then asking your son-in-law to pass the rolls. There’s no opportunity for conversation. There’s no chance for them to figure out what Jesus means. They say, “Is it I? Did I do this?” and then they go through the rest of the meal not really sure whether they are the one who somehow, inadvertently betrayed their master.

Why would Jesus do that? Why not wait until after he invites them to share bread and wine in remembrance of what he would do for them? I’m kind of surprised they even remembered to do it after he was gone. Or at least why not identify Judas and chase him out the door as the black sheep, the son of destruction, who is unworthy of receiving the body and blood of Jesus? Why? Because Communion is not a meal for the perfect. It is a sacrament for those in search of redemption.

Yes, we come to his table conscious of our brokenness and earnestly seeking new life. Yes, we try to leave behind the distractions of the world as we gather in Jesus’ name. Yes, we focus so intently on his sacrifice for us that everything else fades away in the background. But we are not perfect when we come to his table. Instead, we are broken sinners in search of perfection. We are in the process of being redeemed.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Wednesday in Holy Week - Never Understanding Judas

I'm grateful to Seth Olson for his sermon this morning, which gave me some clearer focus on today's gospel and which should soon be available here.

I preached a sermon on Judas when I was at VTS. I remember that it didn’t go very well. Partly, of course, that’s because of the preacher. But part of it had to do with Judas. Preachers love talking about Judas because we don’t really understand him, but the fact that we don’t really understand him makes him a difficult subject for a sermon. It’s hard to preach on something that neither the preacher nor the congregation understand.

The gospel accounts work hard to portray Judas as a terrible scoundrel. Given the apologetic nature of their writings, that makes sense. They needed to let everyone know that Judas was bad—as John puts it that “Satan entered into him”—so that Jesus’ triumph over evil would outshine the fact that the Christ had chosen a traitor to follow him. Still, though, questions remain unanswered.

Today’s gospel brings us face to face with Judas’ treachery in heightened, good-and-evil terms. Jesus predicts his betrayal. All of the disciples gasp in horror. Peter asks the beloved disciple to ask Jesus who it was. Jesus says that it’s the one he gives the bread to. Then, he gives it to Judas, and, “after he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him.” Jesus tells him to do what he is going to do quickly, and he runs out to the confusion of the other disciples.

Jesus gives Judas the bread. Satan enters into him. Jesus tells him to hurry up and do his deed. How are we supposed to make sense of that?

Jesus is in charge. Even when he is subjected to the authorities who interrogate, torture, and kill him, Jesus is still shown to be in control. Does that mean he caused Judas to do this? Does it mean he wanted him to? Does it merely imply foreknowledge? How does it work? How can it be that Jesus kept his betrayer that close—even urging him to carry out his betrayal?

We don’t know. We are as confused as the disciples. We are dealing with forces bigger than ourselves. All we know is that Judas betrayed Jesus, yet Jesus accepted what came to him as part of God’s will. We cannot make sense of that, but we are intrigued by it. Why? Because it is our story, too. Why do we betray our Lord? Why do we turn our backs on God? Likely never in as dramatic terms as Judas’ arch-betrayal, we are still guilty of the same. How do we make sense of it? We can’t. But we cling to the fact that despite our treachery God is still in control. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tuesday in Holy Week - Saving Embrace

The readings for today can be read here

I wouldn’t know, but I bet there’s a strange and wonderful sensation that a musician gets when he hears his own music playing on the radio or that an author gets when she sees her own book on the shelf in the bookstore. If you’re on the radio or on a shelf, you must have made it. You’re legit. It’s not just your friends and family who say that you’ve got talent. You’ve been recognized as someone worth noticing. That’s a little bit like what it meant for some Greeks to find Philip and say, “We want to see Jesus!”

Jesus was a travelling preacher. He’d been wandering around the countryside for a few years, offering a strange and inviting message to anyone who would listen. His was a distinctly Jewish movement, and he spent most of his time preaching about what it would take for his people to return to their God. According to John’s gospel account, he had been to the big capital city a few times and had joined the dozen or so other charismatic figures in the temple courts who were trying to make a living by proclaiming a message for the masses, but this time things seemed a little different. These Greeks—these gentile converts to Judaism—had heard about Jesus and wanted to know more. Jesus’ fame was spreading across ethnic and philosophical lines. More and more people were attracted to his sermons. Philip went and got Andrew, and both of them, excited at what this might mean, went to tell Jesus. And what did Jesus do? He went away and hid from them.

It’s not that Jesus was afraid of the spotlight. He disappeared because he knew that the only way he could really draw all people to himself was by being lifted up from the ground and hoisted onto a cross. And no one wants to follow a preacher who is leading his followers towards death.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternity. Whoever serves me must follow me and be with me wherever I am. Things are about to get ugly. But what should I say, “Father, save me from this hour?” No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. This is what it is all about. This is how God will glorify me and glorify himself. I will be lifted up, and then I will draw all people to myself.

There’s a prayer in the Prayer Book that begins, “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace…” Just when it seems like Jesus is going to make it big as a powerful preacher with a potent message, he runs away from his fans. Just when he is achieving real cross-over in a whole new demographic, Jesus ducks out into the shadows. Why? Because he knows that the world needs more than just a preacher with a good message. Because he knows that the only way to really bring the whole world together is by stretching out his arms on the hard wood of the cross. We follow not the one who has huge crowds hanging on his every word. We follow the one who hung shamefully on the cross so that we might be transformed by his death.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Monday in Holy Week - Costly Perfume

Today's readings can be found here.

Three-hundred denarii is a lot of money. It’s 300 days’ worth of wages for a laborer. If you worked six days a week, it’s almost a year’s worth of pay. At minimum wage ($7.25 an hour), and assuming 8-hour days, that’s about $17,400.

I want you to imagine for a minute what would happen if I told the congregation that we were going to spend $17,000 to have a guest vocalist come to St. John’s to sing one song on Good Friday. Or imagine what your spouse would say if you came home and announced that you had spent $17,000 on a bottle of wine for dinner that night. Or imagine what the neighbors would say if you spent $17,000 on fireworks for your next birthday.

As he makes his final trip to Jerusalem, where he will be killed, Jesus stops for dinner in his friends’ house. While sitting at the dinner table, Mary, one of his hostesses, takes a pound of perfume made of pure nard and anoints his feet and wipes them with her hair. I think the value of that gesture gets lost in translation. Three-hundred denarii is a lot of money. And what Mary does with it is an overwhelming statement of humility and sacrifice. It’s the kind of awkward, beautiful moment that two friends will always share together; every time they meet again, they will think of it. Mary’s act of anointing Jesus is a way of showing that nothing else, absolutely nothing else, matters as much as what is about to happen to Jesus.

Judas questions why that perfume was not sold so that the money could be given to the poor. John, the author, tries to give the reader some inside information to clarify the situation, but I partly think he muddies the water. By telling us that Judas said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief, John leads us to believe that his objection was baseless and selfish. That might be true—Judas might have had his eye on the cash—but, when I stop and think about how lavish and ridiculous and ludicrous that gesture was, I think Judas might be right. Why wasn’t the perfume sold and the money given to the poor? And why does Jesus respond, “You always have the poor, but you do not always have me?” How can we justify this kind of expense—the inexplicable use of $17,000 for a one-time, one-person moment?

If you believe that nothing is as important as the death that Jesus will die, then the anointing makes sense. If you can see that the value of what will happen to Jesus is immeasurable, then the perfume is justified. If you can see that the cross is what transforms the whole world, bringing hope to the poor, then the three-hundred denarii is well-spent. Our challenge, therefore, is to become like Mary—willing to give up everything to participate in Jesus’ death. We must lose ourselves in the inconceivable gift that is the cross. All that we have and everything that we are must disappear in the sight of Calvary. The needs and concerns and alternatives must vanish because the only thing that matters is what happens on the cross. This week is about losing everything else so that only one thing occupies all aspects of our being.

Sunday Sermon - Palm Sunday, Year A

April 13, 2014 – Lent 4A

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

A little while ago, we were all crying, “Hosanna in the highest!” And then, just a few minutes later, we changed that cry to, “Crucify him!” When we proclaim, “Hosanna!” we are praising God for sending us our savior—literally our “rescue.” But then, like the crowd in Jerusalem, we turn against the one who came to save us, and we call for his crucifixion. Because the words are chosen for us, it’s as if we have no power to steer ourselves on the right path. Every year, this chapter of human history repeats itself as the faithful become the faithless—the devoted become the despisers. How does that happen—not just in the story of Holy Week but in our own story, played out over and over again?

Did you hear Peter’s confidence when he told Jesus, “Even though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you?” When confronted by his master’s prediction that all of his disciples would turn and run away, Peter stepped us and assured Jesus that he was wrong. “I would never desert you, Lord!” And, only a few hours later, when questioned by some bystanders in the courtyard of the high priest, Peter cursed and swore an oath, saying, “I do not know the man!” And the cock crowed, and Peter ran out, weeping bitterly.

Did you hear Judas’ disbelieving question, when he asked Jesus, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” To the shock and horror of his disciples, Jesus announced that one of them would betray him. Even Judas, who had already accepted blood money from the Jewish authorities, could not believe what was happening—what he himself had done. “Can this be?” he asked. “Is it true? Have I done this terrible thing?” And Jesus, looking straight into his eyes, confronted his treachery, and said, “You have said so.” Eventually the grief was more than Judas could bear. Unable to undo his terrible wrong, he threw the money back to the authorities and went out to hang himself.

Neither of them, it seems, had the power to choose the right path. And, truthfully, neither do we. That’s why we reenact this drama every year—to remind us that, like Peter and Judas, we do not have the strength within ourselves to remain faithful and loyal to the one who came to save us. But what will we do? Where is hope to be found?

We come again this year to watch our Lord walk the path that is ahead of him—the road that leads to betrayal and arrest and torture and death. Unlike us, he never swerves. With focus trained on the cross ahead, he journeys down the path appointed for him. His faithfulness overcomes our faithlessness. His steadfastness absorbs our betrayal. His unwavering love for sinners like us—those who turn their backs on him—is the only thing that makes it possible for us to know forgiveness. So come again to Holy Week. Journey alongside our savior and watch as his selfless sacrifice brings hope to you and me. Amen.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Walking the Right Path

Words and actions don’t always line up—even with the best intentions.

In Matthew’s portrayal of the passion narrative, when Jesus confronts his disciples about his betrayal, Judas asks, “Surely not I, rabbi?” And Jesus replies, “You have said so.” It’s an odd back-and-forth that doesn’t show up in the other accounts. John’s account comes the closest to Matthew’s exchange. In that version, all the way back in John 13, Jesus whispers, “Do whatever you are about to do quickly,” and Judas runs out. But Matthew is the only one who gives us Judas asking Jesus whether it is true. I hear his words as half-way disbelief. “Did I really do this? Surly I didn’t really do this, did I? Was I mistaken? What happened?”

Only a few lines later, Jesus again confronts the disciples, saying, “You will all become deserters.” And Peter characteristically responds, “Not me!” Jesus confirms it, saying, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” For me, the fascinating part is how earnestly Peter denies it a second time: “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” But, of course, we know how the story goes.

Sometimes we deny what we know is true. Sometimes we confidently state what we believe will happen even though we have no control over what follows. To me, in Matthew’s passion, it feels like everyone other than Jesus is out of control. Judas careening towards betrayal. Peter skidding towards denial. All of the disciples hurtling towards desertion. Jesus alone walks in control. The journey ahead is one he not only accepts but chooses and even controls.

The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. My heart wants to do what’s right, but the sin within me leads me to ignore even my heart’s desire. Often, of course, the Spirit enables me to take the right path, but sometimes the path isn’t mine to choose. Somehow, though, Jesus walks the path of suffering ahead so that my missteps might be redeemed. Peter and, I believe, even Judas find redemption in the strength and resolve of their rabbi. Like them, the redemption we look for doesn’t come from choosing the right path but from the one who did on our behalf.

Monday, April 7, 2014

An Invitation to a Holy Week?

Alright, Good Reader, I need your help. If you thought the gospel lessons were long for the last three weeks, buckle your seatbelts. We’re in for a doozy. This Sunday brings the Passion Narrative. All of it—at least Matthew’s version of it. We read it as a dramatic reading—splitting up the parts. But a lot happens even before we get there.

We start with the blessing of the palms, a procession around and into the church, the singing of “All glory, laud, and honor.” We continue with the usual readings (no Decalogue this time). Then we have the long Passion Narrative read with a collection of voices. (Have I mentioned that it’s long?) And then, THEN?, the preacher gets into the pulpit to preach? Knowing that we still have the Creed, Prayers, Confession, Peace, Great Thanksgiving, Fraction, Communion, Prayer, Blessing, and Dismissal, does the preacher dare say more than, “Enough said?”

Wait, wait, Good Reader. Don’t give up. No, the preacher need not explain the drama that unfolds before us during Holy Week. Hopefully, we will resist the desire to “delve deeper” into the mechanics of the story. Hopefully, we will stop well short of restating what needs not be restated. But what should we say? What does the congregation need to hear from its preacher on a day of such drama? Should it be a story? Should it be an exhortation? Should it be merely an “Amen?”

Although there’s plenty of time for you to change my mind, right now I’m planning for this Sunday’s sermon to be an invitation.

We stand on the cusp of Holy Week. The days ahead will come quickly, now, and, if we get too busy, we’ll miss all of them. This is our chance to let them fill us rather than tune them out. If the preacher can resist the temptation to say more than 250 words, the people will have a chance to hear an invitation to the heart-changing drama that still lies ahead.

During Lent, one of the proper prefaces (the bit the clergyperson says in between the “It is right and a good and joyful think” and the “Holy, holy, holy” part) has been about getting ready. On Sunday it will be Holy Week, and the preface will change, but it’s not too late for us to hear the words of the Lenten preface and make sure we don’t miss them during the days ahead:

You bid your faithful people cleanse their hearts, and prepare with joy for the Paschal feast; that, fervent in prayer and in works of mercy, and renewed by your Word and Sacraments, they may come to the fullness of grace which you have prepared for those who love you.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

God's Plan? Jesus Wept.

This Sunday’s gospel lesson (John 11:1-45) presents preachers with a number of challenges. First of all, what sermon should come from such a long and multifaceted reading? The first lesson of preaching I was ever taught was to preach only one sermon—not two or three or four at the same time. Cut it down. Focus the message. But how? Another problem is how long to preach. A lesson this long—the third in a row—is deep and rich and deserves some exposition, but congregations have a harder and harder time sitting still for that long. This reading is 847 words long. If I read that at the same pace I preach, it would take me 6 minutes just to read the gospel. Then you’re going to sit and listen to me preach for another 10-15? Good luck, preacher.

More pressing in my mind, however, is the issue of fate…of purpose…of plan…of providence…of predestination. My friend Steve Pankey wrote about this on Monday. It’s a great post and has made me think of this passage and my faith and my hope and my understanding of who God is and how the world works and what I’m supposed to do about it. You can see my comments to that post and the back-and-forth he and I had about it at the bottom of the post. As I see it, we find ourselves facing the same question—as do so many people of faith: how can we believe that God is in control of our lives if so many things that happen seem antithetical to the God we know?

In Sunday’s lesson, Jesus tells the disciples of Lazarus’ soon-to-be-fatal illness, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Similarly, in last week’s reading (John 9:1-41), Jesus said, “[This man] was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him.” Both statements—and plenty of others in the Old and New Testaments—suggest that terrible things (disability, disease, death, etc.) are part of God’s plan. How are we supposed to make sense of that? Is the pulpit the right time to tackle this issue? Maybe—as long as the preacher doesn’t say that she or he has all the answers. That would be disastrous. Instead, if this is the theological nut that the preacher is desperate to crack (good thing I’m not preaching?), I’d say start with 11:35--“Jesus wept.”

Think about this for a minute: the Son of God, with all the power that the Almighty possesses, declares boldly that his friend’s illness does not lead to death but instead to his and his father’s glorification, knows that the result would be resurrection, and still comes to the tomb and weeps. He who said, “This does not lead to death,” still comes and weeps. He who has the power to raise his friend is still overcome with grief. Even though he is a full and clear participant in the divine plan, Jesus still encounters this moment as one of tragedy and pain and loss. Are these two states of being—these two mindsets—not incongruent? Can Jesus himself be confident and hopeful and foreknowing and still mourn his friend’s death? Absolutely. And so should we.

Is this part of God’s plan? Yes. Does that soften the pain? Perhaps but not necessarily. Is pain and grief still appropriate? Clearly. But is despair? No. That’s where the line is drawn. This gospel lesson is a proclamation of mature faith. It is the antidote to cheap, heartless preaching in the face of death and disaster. Even Jesus weeps, and we should, too. It is also the antidote to a theology based in human emotion rather than divine revelation. We do not divorce our belief in God’s providence from our experience of the world simply because we don’t like the way the world is going. Jesus didn’t like it either, but he still maintained his grip on God’s unfolding plan. His statement of faith—“this leads to glory”—isn’t cheap or ignorant of the loss. He embraces both the pain of death and the hope of glory. And we should, too.

Do we believe that even something terrible is part of God’s plan? Yes, I think we do. But does that mean that we understand it? No, absolutely not. Do we declare how something we don’t understand fits into God’s plan? No, absolutely not. Are we supposed to put on a happy face and pretend that everything is ok? No, absolutely not. But should still put our faith in God’s promise to bring everything to a holy completion even though we don’t understand how it’s working? Yes, I think that’s what mature faith is.

We believe that God will make everything right. We believe that brokenness will be restored. How? When? We don’t know. But we can’t let go of our belief that God has a plan and that he is in control. He is not asleep at the wheel. He is not absent from our disasters. He is not up in heaven weeping at a world he has no control over. He is at the tomb of his friend, weeping at the loss of a man he loved yet confident that it will lead to God’s glory. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Signs, Signs, Everywhere There's Signs

Did you hear the one about the guy who took his girlfriend to the major league baseball game to propose to her? He arranged for the scoreboard operator to display a message in between the fourth and fifth innings “popping” the question. He sat with the ring in his pocket, holding it in his hand, waiting for the moment. In the top of the fourth, the girlfriend—uninterested in the game—called her mother on her cell phone. They talked about anything but baseball. As the top of the fourth became the bottom of the fourth, the boyfriend got nervous. He tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Hey, let’s watch the game.” She shook her head. One out. “Come on,” he pleaded, “you can talk to your mother in a little bit. Let’s watch the game.” “I don’t want to watch the game!” she exclaimed and turned her back on him. Two outs. “This is really important! Please, call your mom back in a few minutes. Right now, I need you to pay attention!” She gave him a look and then stood up and walked towards the concourse. He started to run after her, but the inning was over, and he looked up and saw the scoreboard flash his big question. It stayed up there for seven seconds, which felt like an eternity. Ten minutes later, she came back to her seat. He had his head in his hands. “You know, it’s the funniest thing,” she said, sitting down. “Mom said that when the last inning was over the TV camera got a shot of the scoreboard right before going to commercial, and she thought it had our names on it. Do you think there are two other people here named Mark and Jenny?”

In today's gospel lesson (Mark 8:11-26), The Pharisees ask Jesus, “Why won’t you give us a sign from heaven so that we can know you are who you say you are?” And Jesus sighed a long, loud, exasperated sigh. “Why bother?”

The disciples and Jesus get into the boat but discover that they have forget to take extra bread with them. Seizing on the opportunity this mishap provides, Jesus warns them to avoid the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod—a proverbial caution to take care not to fall into the trap of putting legalism before real righteousness. But the disciples, not better than the Pharisees, get confused and wonder why he’s talking to them about bread. And Jesus sighed a long, loud exasperated sign. “Why bother?”

Then, Mark takes them ashore, where Jesus is met by a blind man. Jesus works his healing miracle, but for some reason it comes in stages. At first, the man can only see vaguely: “I see people, but they look like trees walking.” Then Jesus tries again and his sight is restored fully. Why two stages? Was Jesus worn out from the long sea journey? Was he still frustrated with his disciples? Had he gotten a bad night’s sleep? Was he sick? Asking questions like that is just as bad as the disciples mistaking Jesus’ yeast-comment for a complaint about no bread or the Pharisees demanding a sign from Jesus. Really? Don’t you get it?

Sometimes we see things only halfway. Other times we see clearly. Jesus (and Mark, who tells the story this way) wanted to be sure that we understand that simply observing the sign isn’t enough. The sign must be understood. Those who marvel at the surface often miss the real point. Baskets of leftover bread? Yes, that’s a story about feeding thousands of people, but it’s also about much more than that. Jesus’ miracles? Yes, they’re expressions of power, but they’re also about much more than that. Jesus is showing us the way the world is supposed to be. God isn’t interested in one blind man receiving his sight—though that is part of it. God wants the whole world to see clearly.

With the eyes of our faith, what are we looking for? A sign? Yes, but more than that. If you’re waiting for God to part the clouds and speak his truth to you, you’ll get tired of waiting. It doesn’t work like that. Instead, you have to take what’s all around you and recognize what God is saying. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Sunday Sermon: What Does Sin Look Like?

March 30, 2014 – Lent 4A

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

The audio of this sermon can be heard here.

I want to introduce you to a lineup of seven individuals.

First is John. Like the man in today’s gospel lesson, he was born blind. He’s in his late forties, now, and has spent the last ten years perfecting the art of convincing strangers to give him money. He sits on a folded up piece of cardboard on the sidewalk at the intersection of two busy downtown streets. Thousands of people walk past him every day. He never asks anyone for money, but he quietly sings old gospel hymns and listens for the change to fall in his shoebox. When the box gets too full, he dumps the change into a zipper-top bag. At the end of a day, he has made more than enough money to buy himself some food and a small bottle of something else before heading home to his apartment.

Next we have Rebecca. She’s a younger woman. She’s only twenty-five but the lines on her face and her ill-fitting skin make her look fifteen years older. She has tattoos on both arms, running all the way up until they disappear beneath her black tank top. She wears baggy clothing on her emaciated frame and can’t seem to stop scratching the inside of her forearms. If you look carefully enough, you can see the remnants of a black-eye that has mostly faded.

Next is Demetrius. He’s even younger—only nineteen—and he wears a bright orange prison jumpsuit. We don’t really know much about him. He doesn’t say a lot—keeps mostly to himself. He must be well-behaved because he spends most days working outside of the prison, cleaning the floors and taking out the trash at a local community center. He does what he’s asked to do and never causes trouble. In fact, he is so clean-cut and gentle in his mannerisms that the jumpsuit looks like it belongs on someone else.

Fourth is Madison. She is almost sixteen but has pretty much forgotten what it means to be a teenager. Her parents took her out of school last semester. She’s cute and smart. Even though she isn’t allowed out of the house, her parents spent a lot of money on nice maternity clothes. Her distended belly looks strange on a girl as young and petite as she. Her mother wanted her to end the pregnancy, but her dad found out and refused to let that happen. She’ll give the child up for adoption before she even has a chance to see the life that has been growing inside of her.

Fifth is Michael. He is old enough to have three grandchildren even though his current wife isn’t. Always well-dressed and well-groomed, Michael projects an image of success. He owns two businesses and several pieces of commercial property in town. He goes to church most Sundays and is one of the more generous donors in the community. He is a shrewd businessman who has positioned himself as the leading provider of landscaping services in the community.

Next is Gorge. He works for Michael and has for four years. In that time, he has demonstrated an unbelievable capacity for physical labor and a genuine sensitivity for the needs of his coworkers. Because of that, he has been promoted and now heads up three of the work crews. He came to this country illegally and sends half of his pay back to his wife and children in Mexico. His boss pays him under the table, and no taxes means more money for his struggling family back home.

Last is Carol. She is a second-career Episcopal Priest. She first felt the call to ordained ministry when she was in college, but, back then, women weren’t allowed to be ordained, so she worked as a school teacher for twenty-five years before finally telling her rector that she felt like God was calling her to be a priest. She’s been ordained for nine years, now, and is loved by her congregation. She’s never been married, which seems strange for a woman as sweet and attractive as she is. Like all ministers, she has secrets that she would never tell her congregation, but, for the most part, she’s happy and so are the people she serves.

What does sin look like? Which of these seven looks like a sinner to you? Which ones wear their sins on the outside where you can see them? And which ones hide them where you can’t? How many of them are living out the consequences of their sins? And for which ones is it only a matter of time before their sins catch up with them? That’s the funny thing about sin. Sometimes you think you can see it, but you can’t. And other times you don’t think it’s there when it’s actually right below the surface. That’s because sin rarely looks the way we think it should.

Jesus and his disciples walked past a man who was born blind, and then the disciples did something that was as natural as a six-year-old asking what’s wrong with a person who lives in a wheelchair: they saw something they didn’t understand, and they asked a question about why. Why was this man born blind? Why did that happen? Did his parents do something wrong to deserve that? Is he being punished for something he did—even before he was born? Why would God cause a little child to be born without his eyesight unless he or his parents or someone else in their family had done something to deserve that?

If that seems like the kind of thing people used to think “way back when”—the kind of thing people don’t believe anymore—stop and ask yourself why you feel uncomfortable when it’s your six-year-old child or grandchild who asks that question. We still live in a world where “different” means “wrong.” We see something different on the outside and unconsciously assume that something must be wrong on the inside. Why? Because sin is easier to deal with if it looks a certain way. As long as sin comes with tattoos, piercings, and baggy pants—as long as we can dress it up in a bright orange jumpsuit—then no one thinks about the sinner inside the Italian suit or the Donna Karan dress or the clerical collar. As long as we can compartmentalize sin by sight, we can ignore the kind of brokenness that we can’t see in the mirror. But for how long?

When God looks at us, what does he see? As the reading from 1 Samuel reminds us, “the Lord does not see as mortals see. They look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” When God looks at our hearts, what does he see?

In response to their question, Jesus said to his disciples, “This man was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” That’s a bold thing to say—to declare to someone who had spent a lifetime living out the tragic result of the genetic lottery that there was divine purpose in his disability. But Jesus said it, and he meant it in a way that only God himself could mean it. When God looks upon us, he sees not our brokenness but the wholeness that is offered to us through his son, Jesus Christ. Whether our sins are visible or invisible, whether we are surrounded by struggle or projecting an image of luxury, God sees who we really are. And he sees each and every one of us as the exact same opportunity for his works to be revealed. It doesn’t matter who you are or what sins you carry inside of you. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got it all together or have everything falling apart. God sees you as a work in progress—as an opportunity for his glorious work of redemption to take hold. Amen.

Resurrection Now

Do we believe that God has the power to bring the dead back to life?
Do we believe that, as God’s incarnate son, Jesus has that same power?
Do we believe that God, working as the Holy Spirit, still has the power to bring us to resurrection?

The story of Lazarus being raised from the dead (John11:1-45) is the third time in a row when Sunday’s gospel lesson exhibits not only John’s verbosity but more importantly his exquisite ability to tell a story. It’s beautiful. Yes, it’s long, but read it aloud. And then read it again. It’s an amazing story. But I wonder whether it’s lost its power.

What does it mean to hear that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead? Biblical scholars will point out that this is a climax in a series of miracles that show Jesus’ power. This is the pinnacle of his messianic identity. As God’s anointed, he has the ability to do what only God alone can do—bring back the dead. Preachers will talk about Jesus’ prefigurment of his own resurrection through the raising of Lazarus—that this shows us a little bit of what’s coming up. I’m sure they’re both right, but I want to hear what Lazarus means for today.

Lazarus isn’t raised to the new life. He comes from the tomb but one day—we aren’t ever told when—dies again. And that second time he has to wait until everyone comes back. If this is merely a story of Jesus’ power to someday bring us back or a foreshadowing of what will happen to him, it isn’t good enough. I believe this story is about more than that. I want the power of this resurrection to break through in this life because I believe that the power of Jesus’ resurrection isn’t limited to a someday reality. It’s about transformation here and now.

What is it that binds us? What is it that buries us? The answer is different for all of us. Sin might be a summary term, but I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense of “bad deeds.” I mean it in terms of “all that isn’t right with the world.” It’s hunger for hungry people. It’s recovery for addicts. It’s freedom for those who hide in shame. It’s peace for the anxious. It’s reconciliation for the estranged. It’s all of that and more.

What is it that entombs us? Death will someday, but many of us are already dead. We walk through this life but are actually hidden in a tomb, bound in strips of cloth, desperate to be called out. “Lazarus, Come out!” Jesus commands the dead man. How does he say that to us today—not someday but now? “Unbind him and let him go!” Jesus commands those who are watching. How does he say that to us today—to those of us who have imprisoned others in the chains of expectation? How is he calling us to be reborn? How is he calling us to participate in the loosing of others from deathly bonds?