Thursday, May 29, 2014

Where's Waldo? Where's Jesus?

Where did he go? Seriously, where did Jesus go? I want to know. I’m an Augustinian, Calvinist, everything-needs-an-explanation Christian, and I want to know where the heck Jesus went.

Today is Ascension Day. It’s 40 days from Easter Day, and today we celebrate Jesus ascending into heaven. (Wherever that is. More about that in a minute.) Along with Easter, Christmas, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, All Saints’ and Epiphany, it’s a principal feast of the church. There are seven, which means that today is one of the seven most important days in the Christian year. And it’s also, for me, the most confusing.

For me, understanding an observance in the church involves understanding three things: 1) where did this observance come from, 2) why was this observance worth remembering, and 3) why does it still matter today. Christmas I get—incarnation, Jesus’ birthday, etc.. Easter? Yeah, I get that, too. Pentecost, Epiphany, and even Trinity Sunday I get. I’m a little unclear about All Saints’ Day, but I think I can wrap my mind around why we need to stop and remember all the saints (at least in principle). But Ascension Day?

First, where did it come from? Jesus had to go somewhere. He was raised from the dead as the firstfruits of the resurrection that is to come. That means he cannot die again. But clearly he’s not around anymore. So he needed to leave. The ascension makes sense. He had to get to heaven somehow, and being raised up into the clouds as the disciples looked on is as good a way as any. But where is heaven?

Jesus is incarnate. He was raised in physical form. As the resurrection appearances attest, that might not be quite the same physical form as his pre-resurrected self, but body is clearly involved. And he is still incarnate—or so we believe—but where did he go? At some atmosphere, the amount of oxygen thins out to the point at which life cannot be sustained. Plus, it gets really cold up there. Plus, where is up there anyway?

Here’s my problem with Ascension Day. I get the second and third parts of the observance. It was important to remember because the Ascension is the testament to the world that Jesus’ reign and authority and efficaciousness is ongoing. In other words, if he simply rides off into the sunset and disappears, we don’t have access to his power. He has to be exalted (key word) to the heavenly realm in order to transcend the temporal specificity of his approximately 33 years on earth. And it’s still important to remember because we aren’t worshiping a God of the past. Our God reigns today. Of course it’s a principal feast of the church.

But where did he go?

Heaven is up. We’re taught that when we’re little kids. Where is God? He’s up there…somewhere. But, with the other persons of the Trinity, God is acorporal. God doesn’t need a physical dwelling place. But God the Son is incarnate. Jesus is still Jesus. So where did he go?

My answer? He went wherever we’re going. I don’t know where that is, and I don’t have to know. Did he ascend into the clouds but then vanish off the radar screen when he hit 15,000 feet? Maybe. Was his exaltation kind of like Obi Wan Kenobi’s disincorporation? Was he assumed into the Force? No, that’s not quite right. But it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that we’re going there, too.

Where is heaven? If it’s contained in this universe, we’re in trouble because, whether by heat death or by big crunch, eventually this universe will be destroyed. Cosmologists tell us that, and I tend to believe them. In the face of science, it’s easy to dismiss the physicality of our hope. Bodily resurrection? Impossible. But that can’t be right. All that is must be reconciled—that means body and soul. Our hope lies precisely in the inexplicability of Ascension Day. We can’t know the answer now. Jesus going up into the clouds doesn’t really make sense, but neither does much of what we believe in. And, for me, that’s what makes Ascension Day worth observing. We celebrate that the physical Jesus went somewhere/somewhen/someway. We cannot see beyond this universe. But we can see that Jesus is gone before us. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Eternal Life Means Today

Sometimes, when I’m writing, I feel the need to use italics or ALL CAPS to emphasize something. I do that pretty sparingly, trusting that the words themselves should express the emphasis. But sometimes I want to make sure the reader “hears” me landing heavily on a word. For example, yesterday I sent an e-mail to someone about how in some cases mission overtakes all other concerns and becomes the real focus. As a heading, I used the phrase “Mission is Ministry,” but I wanted the “is” to stick out, so I wrote, “Mission IS Ministry.”

Sometimes I wish the editors of bibles would give John that kind of emphasis because he is known to use the word “is” in powerful ways that, because of the relative insignificance of the linking verb, get overlooked.

God IS love. (1 John 4:8)
God IS light. (1 John 1:5)
…the Word WAS God. (John 1:1)
Your word IS truth. (John 17:17)

And don’t forget this Sunday’s gospel lesson (John 17:1-11). In recording Jesus’ final prayer with his disciples, John writes, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” This IS eternal life… If there’s ever been a moment to listen up and pay attention, it’s now. Want to know what the most important thing in the whole universe is? Here you go. If we take that “is” seriously, this passage becomes transformative.

What is eternal life? To know God and Jesus Christ. Jesus doesn’t say, “If you want to have eternal life, you must know God and Jesus Christ.” He doesn’t say, “Those who have eternal life are those who know God and Jesus Christ.” Nor does he say, “The way to eternal life is knowing God and Jesus Christ.” He comes straight out and says, “Eternal life IS to know God and Jesus Christ.”

Put a great big equal sign between the first part and second part of the sentence:

Eternal Life = Knowing God + Knowing Jesus Christ

What, then, is eternal life? It’s not going to heaven (thought maybe that’s part of it). It’s not being forgiven (though of course that is included). It’s not being delivered from the hands of our enemies (though that is implied). Eternal life is knowing God and Jesus Christ. That isn’t a life that stretches on forever. It’s a life that runs a deep as forever.

Eternal life isn’t more of what we’ve got stretched out for eternity. Eternal life is living a completely full life. Jesus isn’t offering a conditional statement. He’s giving his disciples and us an instruction. If eternal life is to know God and Jesus, that shifts the goal of our faith. We aren’t focused on our heavenly destination. We’re supposed to focus on so totally and completely being filled with God and Jesus that the life we live is as rich and deep and full and fruitful and confident and complete as possible. In short, eternal life isn’t about tomorrow. It’s about today.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Radical Grace in John 14

The gospel never made sense to me until someone told me about radical grace. I understood that God loved me. And I knew that there was nothing I could do to earn his love. But I also thought that I had to decide to be a Christian. It went something like this:

Step One: If you want to go to heaven, you have to pray to God, tell him you’re sorry for your sins, and ask him to send Jesus into your heart.

There is no Step Two.

Sounded easy. I’ve always enjoyed following directions. They couldn’t get any simpler than that. So I did it. I said that prayer, and I gave God every single ounce of my heart, my will, my intention, my mind, my everything. And it didn’t work.

So I tried again. Kind of like the directions on a shampoo bottle, which invite you to rinse and then repeat, I went back to Step One and tried it again. And again. And again. And every night I said that prayer, and every morning I woke up wondering whether it had worked. Looking back, I now understand salvation to be that confidence one has that God will take care of you. It was missing, so I suppose in that sense salvation had eluded me. I tried pretty much every night for a dozen years and got nowhere.

Finally, I explained this frustrating experience to a friend and mentor, who then smiled warmly and put his hand on my shoulder and explained to me what radical grace is. “Evan, you can’t earn God’s love. You’re still trying to earn it by praying that prayer. You can’t decide for God to love you. God just loves you.” That night my prayer changed, and I only had to say it once. Here’s how it went:

Step One: If you want to go to heaven, good news! God already loves you and has sent his son Jesus Christ in order to make that possible. You don’t have to do a thing.

Step Two: Say thank you.

Step Three: Now that you know salvation, what are you going to do about it?

It’s a very different model of salvation. It’s one that says that we don’t decide whether we go to heaven. Just like we can’t decide whether God loves us. Either we’re going or we’re not and it’s all up to God. Heaven-bound or destined-for-Hell…either way, it’s up to God and not up to you. The God I know is a loving God, a saving God, a God who yearns to bring us into his kingdom. So I have that confidence (i.e., faith) that God will take care of me and all of creation. And it’s one that allows the believer to live into that unmerited love for the rest of his life.

This Sunday is an opportunity for me to remember that. In John 14:15-21, Jesus says to his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” My “radical grace” mentality has refused to hear that as “If you don’t keep my commandments, you don’t love me,” but a part of me has always wondered whether I’m doing Jesus justice. Although I would never whisper this from the pulpit, I’ve thought to myself, “Maybe Jesus really is saying that what it means to love him is to be obedient to the commandments.” But that throws everything I know and have experienced about grace out the window, and I don’t like it. So I’ve avoided it. But, this year, I’ve found a new foundation upon which to stand.

A men’s bible study that I’m a part of has been pouring over 1 John. To condense a five-week study into a few sentences, I’ll say that John was writing to a community that seems split over issues of Gnosticism (whether the physical world really matters or not). He writes, “But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother [or sister] in need, yet closes his heart against him [or her], how does God's love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17). As best I can tell, some in that community had claimed that since we’re all heaven-bound nothing in this world matters, including the needs of our fellow Christians. But that can’t be right. And we know it.

Reading and studying 1 John has given me new confidence in my description-not-prescription approach to John 14. Jesus isn’t telling us that we must keep his commandments in order to love him. He’s saying exactly what the text says…that if we love him, we will [we must] keep commandment to love others. Loving Jesus is transformative because of the power of his love. Step One: God love us in his son Jesus. Step Two: That love changes us forever. Step Three: We live our lives in response to that transformative love. That’s what keeping the commandments is all about.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Currency of God's Provision

What’s your all-time favorite movie car chase? I like the chase at the end of The Blues Brothers. Unlike the “realistic” chases of movies like The Bourne Identity and The French Connection, this one is supposed to be ridiculous. There are station wagons full of neo-Nazis flying through the air and falling inexplicably from hundreds of feet up, crashing down through the street below. There are dozens and dozens of police cars crashing into massive pile-ups. And, as the chase nears its end, the Blues Brothers’ black and white Dodge throws a rod, and oil begins to spray up on the window. Jake leans out the passenger window and wipes the windshield with his jacket sleeve. He makes a tiny little grimy break in the oil slick through which the driver can barely see anything. How they navigate the rest of the way to the Richard J. Daley center isn’t clear, but it also isn’t really important.

In today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 6:19-24), Jesus says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is healthy, your body will be full of light, but, if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.” Jesus uses an image—a metaphor—that doesn’t quite make sense in the 21st century. But I think we get the gist of what he’s trying to say. The eye is the window through which light enters in. Light, of course, is good, and darkness is bad. We want light to come into the body, and it makes sense that if one’s eye isn’t working properly one can’t get light inside. Medically speaking, that doesn’t make a lot difference to your spleen or your stomach or your kidneys, but we gather from Jesus’s example that back then it was thought to be important. But Jesus isn’t worried about our physical health. He’s trying to make a point about our spiritual lives.

In addition to your eye being the lamp through which light enters the body, you also have a lamp inside of you, which has the potential to shine out into the world. But, just as a bad eye has the ability to prevent light from entering the body, so, too, is the lamp inside vulnerable to obscurity. Jesus is asking us whether our lamp is able to shine. What has the power to snuff out that lamp? Money. Jesus talks more about money than about anything else. It’s his favorite topic because he knows that it has incredible power to quench our internal light. You cannot serve two masters, he says. And it’s remarkable to me that 2000 years later we’re still struggling with the same thing.

Money itself isn’t bad. Neither are wood and stone and precious metals, but human beings have a tendency to take those things and make idols with them. So, too, does money become an idol of our worship. What is it that provides food for your family? What is it that makes it possible to live in your house? What do we retire on? What do we send our kids to college with? What is the source of our very life? Is it money, or is it God? It’s hard to retire on God. Banks and colleges and grocery stores won’t accept our prayers. But money isn’t bad. Money is merely the currency of God’s provision. It takes practice and intentionality to remember that money isn’t what drives our lives. It takes faith to remember where it all really comes from. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Today's post is also the cover article in our parish newsletter for this week. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.

In the past few days, the Old Testament scripture lessons appointed in the Daily Office have turned from Exodus and the conclusion of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness to Leviticus and the mandates that God gave his people as a way of remembering their relationship with him. Recently, I have been rereading the story of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, which is chronicled in Leviticus 16. God commanded that on that one day of the year all of his people should assemble in order to recall their sins and seek God’s forgiveness. Having heard the story before, I remembered most of the details, but several little points seemed new to me.

For example, did you remember that there were two goats involved in the atoning ritual? Both were brought to the entrance of the Holy Place by the High Priest, where lots were cast, designating one as a sin offering and the other as “Azazel” (a Hebrew word of uncertain meaning and etymology that is often rendered as “scapegoat”). The first goat was then killed, and its blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat and on the altar as a way of atoning for the people’s uncleanness. The second goat, however, met a surprising fate. God commanded that the High Priest would lay his hands upon the head of the goat and “confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel” and then send it out into the wilderness, where it was set free. As metaphor became reality, the goat literally bore the sins of God’s people and carried them out to a place where no one would find it—out of sight, out of mind.

And then what? Don’t you want to know what happened to the goat? My instinctive desire for closure makes we wish that the story ended in a different way. God could have commanded that the scapegoat be utterly destroyed—burned, annihilated, or consumed until nothing was left. Or God could have commanded that there only be one goat and that the one on whose head all the transgressions were laid be slaughtered and its blood sprinkled on the mercy seat and the altar. But that is not what God told his people to do. God commanded that the Azazel goat be lead into the wilderness and set free. The end of the story is not really an end at all. Sure, like Schrödinger’s Cat, we might assume that the goat never made it out alive, but we cannot know that. We are not supposed to know that. Part of the ritual’s beauty is its unfinished nature.

People often come to me with a problem or a circumstance that they cannot seem to get beyond. Sometimes a friend betrays us, and we cannot find forgiveness for that person. Sometimes we hurt someone we love, and we cannot let go of our guilt. “If only there were some way I could put this feeling in a bottle and throw it into the sea,” we might think to ourselves. But then what? Where will the bottle end up? How will we find real peace? How will we know that our brokenness is gone forever?

The other day, a friend of mine sent me a short reflection on forgiveness that was written by Edmond Browning, former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. In it, Browning stresses that to forgive is not merely to forget. Real forgiveness is harder and more costly than that. True forgiveness is to encounter the transgression and, through love, to embrace transformation and renewal while still remembering the wrong. In other words, to pretend that the wound never existed is to deny its true healing. Only by accepting it and remembering it can we move past it.

The persistence of life’s struggles suggests to me that we cannot simply send our brokenness away and pretend that it never existed. And maybe that is the root of the scapegoat observance. Part of us must always wonder what happened to the goat. Yes, it is gone. Yes, it will never be seen again, but its memory still lingers. Real forgiveness—true reconciliation with God—means that God knows our sins yet forgives us anyway. It is not as if they never happened. If that were the case, even a momentary recollection of our transgressions would be an interminable punishment of our own creation. Instead, God’s love encounters our wrongs and overcomes them. For me, that is the only source of real, meaningful hope—that forgiveness is not “out of sight, out of mind” but a fully conscious love that remembers our brokenness and loves it into renewal.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Sermon on Stephen?

I like the story of St. Stephen, and I think it's a shame that we only get a glimpse of it in our reading this Sunday. Well, I'm thankful that we don't get his entire speech. (Go back and read Acts 7. There are 53 long verses of his speech against his opponents. It's great reading but not from the lectern in church.) But I wish we had more of the story.

Here's the synopsis:

  • Some of the widows were being neglected, and the apostles didn't have time to make sure they got their bread, so seven deacons were appointed to help out. Stephen was one.
  • Stephen is never recorded as doing deaconal work. Instead, he goes straight into testifying about Jesus in the synagogues.
  • He is arrested and brought before the religious authorities, where he launches into a speech decrying his opponents as "stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, [who] always resist the Holy Spirit."
  • Enraged, they mob him, rush him out of the city, and stone him to death, where Saul looks on approvingly.
Our lesson from Acts on Sunday only gives us 6 verses of the story. As a result, we're left with several things going on at once, none of which receives full treatment.

First, it's a transition in the life of Saul. This is the zealous, anti-Christian foundation that precedes his conversion, which is skipped over in next week's lesson from Acts (Paul preaching at the Areopagus). But there's not much to it. We don't get to see the conversion, and the preacher might end up preaching on something that isn't there.

Second, it's a statement about what Stephen sees--the Son of Man at the right hand of the father. That's a statement about Jesus' exaltation, which we won't really deal with until Ascension Day--two weeks from now. It's a remarkable piece of theology, but this doesn't seem like the time to say it.

Third, it's a passage about forgiveness. His last words are, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them," which is a powerful statement about seeing the good and hope even in those who are killing you. Maybe there's enough there to preach on, but I have a feeling that Acts is going to be read and largely ignored in a lot of churches this Sunday.

Maybe there's a thread of rejection in all of the lessons this week. The mob "cover their ears," refusing to hear the testimony that Stephen gives. Peter writes about those who reject the stone (Jesus), which has become the chief cornerstone. Jesus addresses Philip, explaining that whoever has seen him has seen the father--a stretch to equate that with a theme of rejection, but it's possible.

Still not sure what will come this week. I've written a funeral sermon on John 14. I've also written a sermon on 1 Peter 2 in my mind that relates to the Rite 13 Celebration we have this Sunday. I've also imagined a sermon on Stephen that hasn't quite taken shape. It makes me nervous that it's Thursday and the "right" answer hasn't shown up yet. We'll see what comes out by Sunday.

Funeral Sermon on John 14

Burial of the Dead – Charles Lloyd Dinsmore, Jr.
Lamentations 3:22-26; 31-33; 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:9; John 14:1-6
16 February 2014

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

When we were young, there was a kid in our grade named Michael. Every school has a Michael. He was the one who sat in the corner during P.E. and put his finger in places where it didn’t belong. (I know, gross.) Then, when you weren’t looking, he’d run up behind you and scare you by putting his hand in your face. Quickly, Michael earned a reputation as the kind of kid no one wanted to be around. We gave him nicknames and other labels that identified him in no uncertain terms as repulsive. And those are the kind of labels that don’t come off very easily. It’s been twenty years since I’ve seen him, and I’m ashamed of this, but it would be hard for me to meet him and not think of what he did in P.E. class so long ago.

The disciple known as “Doubting Thomas” has a similar reputation. When the other disciples came and told him that they had seen the risen Lord, he’s the one who told them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails and place my finger in the mark of the nails and put my hand in his side, I will not believe.” That’s the kind of statement that’s hard to escape. In fact, we read it every year in church on the second Sunday of Easter, continuing to condemn Thomas’ doubts two-thousand years after he first demanded physical proof. So, whenever we hear another story about Thomas—like the gospel lesson we just read—it’s hard to think of him as anything but Doubting Thomas.

But I think we should give Thomas another chance: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” It’s easy to hear that as another example of Thomas’ faithlessness, but I wonder what happens if we allow him to ask that question as a reasonable, hopeful, faithful inquiry that stems from a heartfelt desire to be with Jesus. This comes in the middle of Jesus’ farewell address to his disciples. Jesus had already explained to them that he was going to a place where they could not follow him now. He was leaving them to return to his father—to be in the immediate presence of God, where no human could travel. It was a place they did not know and could not know. And Thomas just wanted to know how they were going to get there.

If we start from a place where Thomas is asking the kind of question any of us would ask, then Jesus words are also transformed from a reprimand into an encouragement: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” In this world of political-correctness and inclusion, this verse can sound a little harsh—as if Jesus were excluding from the kingdom anyone who did not go through him. We might be able to reach that conclusion from this one verse of scripture, but I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he said it. He was simply offering Thomas the answer to his question. How will you get to the place where I am going? How is it possible for you to enter the very presence of Almighty God? The answer, Jesus said, is me.

I am. You know me, Thomas. And if you know me, you know the father. Be encouraged, Jesus said. Trust that I am the one to show you the way to the father because I am the one who has shown you what the father is really like. The father is in me, and I am in the father, and that means that everything you see about me is giving you a taste of what God is really like. And that means that God is inviting and welcoming and including—just like Jesus. And it also means that God is loving and peaceful and gentle—like Jesus. And, if there is anything we are supposed to take with us to the end of life and through the grave, it is the confidence of knowing that Jesus has shown us the way to the father through his immeasurable love for us.

I do not know when Charles Dinsmore first became aware of that love. He was a parishioner here a long time ago, and I never met him. But his children told me that the night before he died he said to his caretaker, “I’m ready.” The words startled him, so he asked Charles, “What did you say?” And he replied simply, “I’m ready.” Naturally, he thought he meant “ready for bed,” so they went through their nighttime ritual together, but by morning Charles had died. He was ready—ready for what lay ahead of him. He was at peace. He knew what it meant to be loved by God and to be at peace with whatever lay ahead.

We give thanks to God this day for the life of Charles Dinsmore. We thank God for the peace that he had at the end of his life. And we thank God for the gift of peace that he gives to each one of us through his Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Not One Stroke of a Letter

I can’t remember where I heard it—perhaps I made it up—but I remember hearing some “expert” say that when a parent is sitting with a child, watching television or a movie, and sees someone on the screen smoking, the parent should gently remind the child that smoking is a bad habit. That’s one way to undo the unspoken influence that seeing a smoker in a prominent role has on a child. So I do it. Every time. Some of my loved ones have died or are dying from smoking-caused illnesses. I’ve heard them wheeze, and watched them suffocate slowly because their lungs can’t exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. The threat is real to me, and, in age-appropriate ways, I want my children to know it, too.

But I’ve taken that practice out of the den and from in front of the television screen and carried it to the rest of the world. When we’re walking down the street or playing in a park or watching a tee-ball game and we see someone smoking, I quietly say to my children, “Smoking is bad for you. It’s a nasty habit. Don’t ever smoke.” I don’t try to hide that from the person smoking. I figure if they can unleash their bad influence on my child by smoking in front of him or her, I should be able to point out that influence and try to counter it. For the most part, that quiet exchange is a private moment that no one else notices…except when my child sees the smoker first and points at them and yells out, “Oooh! Daddy, that person is smoking! That’s a nasty habit!”

Now, in addition to fighting the smokers’ influence, I’m also fighting the tendency to confuse bad actions with bad people. “Smoking might be a bad thing to do, but it doesn’t mean that a smoker is a bad person.” It’s hard to convince a four-year-old that good people sometimes do bad things, and I feel certain that’s a lesson he’ll learn on his own in due time. Truth be told, it’s hard to convince me, a thirty-three-year-old priest of the same thing. And that leaves me wondering how we as Christians understand that good people can do bad things. How do we escape the taint of original sin even though we live as redeemed children of God?

Jesus spent a lot of his time with the smokers of his day. Worse than that, of course, they were the real sinners of society: prostitutes and tax collectors and lepers and lazy-good-for-nothings. He welcomed them to his table. He went out and looked for them. And every time he did it, he challenged the assumptions of the day—that sinful people were bad people, unworthy of God’s blessing. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t hold them to the same high standard that God’s people had known from their earliest days as the people of Israel.

In today's gospel lesson (Matthew 5:17-20), Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” It doesn’t surprise me that Jesus hung out with the scum of his day. What surprises me is that he still said things like this—that all that the Law of Moses demanded was still being demanded. Why? Because it’s hard for me to understand that good people do bad things.

Jesus’ life and ministry honored the personhood of even the most despicable sinner of his day. He sat at table with them to show the religious elites of his day that God had a place at his own table for every man, woman, and child on earth—no matter how sinful. But, over and over, Jesus calls all of us—saint and sinner alike—to a life of holiness. He says to us, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And he means it. But what we have to remember is that our righteousness comes not from keeping the Law but from being loved by a merciful God. Yet, as God’s righteous children, we are called to live into that righteousness in remarkable ways.

Go and sin no more. Jesus’ love is transformative. He reaches out to those whom religion has given up on and says, “You, too, can be made new.” In many ways, he’s not doing anything different than the most stringent of the Pharisees. His call to holiness is as robust and demanding as theirs. But he issues that call to everyone. And it starts with sinners like you and me. Amen.

A Letter to a Discouraged Christian

This letter was the cover article in yesterday's parish newsletter, The View. You can read the rest of the newsletter here.

Dear Friend:

You and I have not spoken much lately, and I am sorry about that. I have noticed that you come to church less and less often. Many of us slip out of the habit of going to church for no one specific reason at all, but I sense that your absence has less to do with the distractions and demands of life and more to do with a disaffection for the church and for religion altogether. That is not uncommon or alarming. In fact, it is a perspective that I encounter frequently. I hear a lot of people—whether in personal conversations or through social media—talk about their dissatisfaction with the church. I do not know whether a letter from a representative of organized religion is the most effective way to get through to someone who seems to have had enough of Christianity, but I want to share some of my own thoughts with you about the state of the church in an increasingly secular world and, thus, my perspective on the future of our religion.

For starters, Christianity has been a movement for people dissatisfied with organized religion since Jesus first confronted the authorities of his day with proclamations like “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces” (Matt. 23:13). Jesus held in contempt those who used the power of their religion to oppress the underclasses and elevate themselves. He famously and controversially cleansed the temple by turning over all of the tables and chasing out the money changers, declaring that their holy place should be “a house of prayer for all the nations” instead of the “den of robbers” that it had become (Mark 11:17). Unfortunately, that human drive for self-seeking still exists in the church, and I believe that, if Jesus were here today, he would focus most of his ire at those who use his name for selfish gain.

Hypocrisy, however, is not merely a characteristic of today’s religious authorities. Over and over, Christians of all sorts hold other people in contempt for doing or saying things that they find objectionable. Too rarely do those people of faith remember that Jesus’ words—“first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your sister or brother’s eye”—were meant for them as well (Luke 6:42). For me, one of the most frustrating things about human nature (including my own) is an instinctive desire to justify oneself at the expense of others. Whether political, economic, or religious, disputes and conflicts of all sizes often boil down to human beings wanting to prove themselves as better than others. That remains true in the church, but it is also true in every other institution in all of human history.

There is no charity, club, school, church, business, municipality, or any other organization that can escape the brokenness of human nature. Sometimes that brokenness shows up in terrible ways—through dishonesty, theft, or even physical harm—but more often it comes in the form of hypocrisy. Hypocrites are all around us. I am one, and you are one, too. No one is proud of his or her innate proclivity to distort the truth in his or her own favor, but it is a struggle that we all must deal with. And the only organization I know of that is willing to tackle that hypocrisy head on is the Christian faith.

Jesus spent most of his time with outcast sinners—those on whom polite society had given up. He showed the world that God never gives up on any of us—especially the hypocrite that lives inside us all. At its best, this is the mission of the Christian faith: to acknowledge the brokenness that we carry and to offer the transformation that comes only through universal love and acceptance. The church I know is full of hypocrites, and most of us by coming to church have admitted our struggle with hypocrisy. Are we perfect? No, of course not. Could we do better? Yes, a thousand times yes! Does God love each and every one of us regardless of the selfish lives we too often lead? Absolutely and without hesitation. Any church or preacher or Christian who says otherwise does not know the same Jesus I know and love, and I know of no other institution that will make that claim.

I hear many people talk about the need to be “authentic”—a buzzword that captures society’s dissatisfaction with archaic institutions and manufactured rituals. Organized religion is often the target of that dissatisfaction, which is frequently justified. But authenticity can only happen when individuals and institutions are honest about their shortcomings and take them seriously. Although it is plagued by the brokenness it seeks to remedy, the church is willing to acknowledge that brokenness in a way that enables real, personal and corporate change. That change was the life and witness of Jesus two-thousand years ago, and it gives me hope for the twenty-first century.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, I want you to know that it is alright for you to stay away from church for a while. God loves you just the same whether you come to church or not. Someday, I hope that you will discover a way to know that love and the power that it has to make you the person whom you were made to be. I believe that that love is what the church represents, and maybe you, too, will find it here in the future. If I am wrong about that, please help me see it because I do not want to spend another day working in an institution that is built upon anything less than the saving love God has for the whole world. I wish you every peace and joy, and I invite you to call me anytime to talk about it.

Yours faithfully,

Evan D. Garner

Monday, May 12, 2014

Two Funeral Sermons?

Does any other preacher out there have a hard time hearing John 14 without thinking of a funeral? That might be true for parishioners, too. We do 10-12 funerals a year in our parish, and I’d guess that nearly half of them have John 14:1-6 as the gospel lesson. Well, this Sunday’s gospel isJohn 14:1-14, and I’ll have the chance to preach on it twice. We’ve got a funeral scheduled for Wednesday, and the family has picked the same gospel lesson—I presume with no regard for the overlap. Will I be able to separate the two? Should I?

Now that we’re on to the second half of Easter, the lessons shift from “Oh my! It’s the risen Jesus!” to “Oh no! What are we going to do when Jesus leaves?” That’s what brings us to John 14. It’s actually Jesus speaking to his disciples before his death, but the sentiment is the same: “I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” Jesus assures us that we have a place with him in the father’s house. And that’s good news, since he’s not around anymore to convince us of that. And this week, because I’ll be preaching this bit of good news twice, I find myself wondering whether the immediacy that comes with the death of a loved-one adds focus to this passage in a way that carries over to Sunday morning. In other words, is the sermon really any different?

As Holy Week moves to Easter and toward Ascension Day and Pentecost, we’re on a theological roller of sorts. Jesus rides in to Jerusalem triumphantly, but then he is arrested and killed. He dies a terrible defeating death on the cross, but then God raises him from the dead, defeating death itself. Then Jesus appears to his disciples, giving them new confidence before vanishing from their sight, showing them that he’s in a different state now and cannot be held on to. Soon, these joyful resurrection appearances will end, and Jesus will ascend into heaven, leaving the world momentarily comfortless, but then the Holy Spirit comes and shows God’s abiding presence in the world. We’re in the middle of that up and down and up and down cycle, and I think there’s a similarity with caring for a family member until and beyond the point of death.

We have good days and bad days. Things get tough and then they become peaceful. We share joyful memories and also cry tears of grief. Ultimately, we find ourselves standing on a threshold, having escorted one we love all the way to the end of life, but then we have to let go. We can journey no further. We trust that in Jesus Christ the future is open—that more lies ahead—but we can’t see it and can’t know it yet. We say farewell to our father, our mother, our spouse the same way that the disciples say farewell to Jesus—with hope and trust and faith and clinging to his every word. Yes, there is something waiting for us. We know that because of what Jesus did and said. And we know it most powerfully in those moments of moving from this life to the next.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Selective Biblical Memory

When it comes to the Old Testament, I have selective memory. My knowledge of the bible was shaped by those Sunday school teachers and preachers who more or less thought of the New Testament (i.e., Jesus) as the solution for the Old Testament (i.e., Judaism). It’s a logical and easy-to-explain approach to Christianity, but it’s inadequate, untrue, and more-than-a-little anti-Semitic. I give thanks for those teachers and preachers and friends and colleagues in college and seminary and beyond who have helped me think and talk about the Hebrew scriptures in a fuller way. Still, though, I can’t help what my brain remembers about the Old Testament.

In particular, I remember that God will punish children for the sins of their parents—to the third and fourth generation. I remember it because it’s one of those things that scared me when I read it as a child in Sunday school. That particular statement is found in today’s OT reading (Exodus 20:1-21). God gives the Ten Commandments to his people, and he explains the second commandment (no graven images) by declaring that he is a “jealous God,” who will punish children for their parents’ transgressions. But, as I read the passage this morning, I discovered something that had totally fallen out of my selective memory.

Here’s how that sentence of scripture that deals with idols actually reads: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” Did you see that bit about steadfast love to the thousandth generation? 1000. I can barely name my eight great-grandparents, and, counting my own children, that only covers five generations. Who knows where we were 30,000 years ago? That’s five times as long as the people of Israel have been the people of Israel. Is there any way to estimate God’s gracious love? That’s a comparison of 1000 to 4. Do you get it?

But we don’t remember the love promised to the 1000th generation. We remember the fire and brimstone—and not only from the Old Testament but also from those preachers and teachers who gave us the gospel of fear. There is no gospel of fear! But those who wield our faith as if it were a threat to those who are not in agreement have poisoned the well that springs to eternal life. I hear from lots of “recovering evangelicals,” who ran away from the church of their childhood because they were spiritually beaten into accepting a God who is terrifying. But that’s not who God is. The God of the Old and New Testaments is a God of eager love, who beckons his wayward children to return to him. He is ready to shower his people with love for 1000 generations—which is to say for as long as we can imagine and even longer. Those of us who preach and teach about our faith need to be sure that that’s what those people in our charge remember twenty years from now.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

All Things in Common

Do you remember the days when new converts to the Christian faith used to sell everything that they had and give all the money to the church, who held it in common trust, taking care of the needs of the faithful? Yeah, me neither. But what a Confirmation requirement, huh?

This Sunday is "Good Shepherd Sunday," so named because the gospel lesson in all three liturgical years is taken from John 10. We read the 23rd Psalm along with it and pray a collect that opens, "O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people..." The overwhelming metaphor for the day is that we are sheep and God's son, Jesus Christ, is our shepherd.

But then there's the reading from Acts. It's short, so I've pasted the whole thing here:
Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)
Notice that third sentence. Everyone who believed held everything in common. And what happened? The Lord added to their number. In other words, they grew. A lot of people in the church these days are talking about growing the church (or at least about slowing the decline of the church). They throw out lots of ideas. How many of them work? I wonder if local, Christian, congregational communism would.

In some ways, it's a silly idea. I don't want to go to the Church of the Everything in Common. But that's because I don't trust other people. And that's why it's also a wonderful idea. What would happen if everyone in a Christian community trusted each other with their lives and their livelihoods? What would happen if everyone in a congregation gave everything they had--not just money but also their whole hearts--to the good of the community? What would happen to the church if believers stopped thinking of themselves as separate members of a confederation of communicants and instead recognized that as the body of Christ they share everything in common already--every joy, every sorrow, every hope, every struggle, every challenge, every opportunity?

It runs against every political, social, economic, patriotic, and philosophical instinct in my being. But isn't that why it's worth considering? What does it say for our Kingdom-identity to be other worldly? Isn't that the point? What should the Acts 8 movement learn from Acts 2?

Monday, May 5, 2014

Recognizing the Gate

I had a conversation over the weekend with someone who is preaching at St. John’s this coming Sunday. She’s preaching on the gospel lesson (John 10:1-10), and she had some good insights that I’m also mulling over in my mind.

Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.”

What does the gate look like? One assumes that it would be more difficult to climb over the fence or dig a tunnel into the back of the sheepfold, but, as my to-be-preacher friend pointed out, sometimes the gate—the “right way”—isn’t as easy as jumping out the back.

The good shepherd leads us down the right path, but the right path isn’t always the easiest one. Sometimes following Jesus is difficult. Sometimes it causes us pain. (Jesus is clear elsewhere about renouncing familial obligations and relationships in favor of the gospel.) But how do we know the right path is the right path when it sometimes feels easier to turn around and walk another way? Because the voice of the good shepherd leads us there.

When the path is difficult, who is really with us? Not the thief or the bandit. Not the stranger whose voice the sheep do not recognize. But the good shepherd walks down the difficult path with us. He journeys all the way to the cross, and he invites us on that journey. If he were not the good shepherd, he would send us on ahead by ourselves, but he is always with us—even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

I’m looking for the gate—the door through which the good shepherd enters. It might not be what I expect it to be. It might even be painful and difficult. But I’ll know it when the good shepherd leads me down it.