Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Idle All Day

Whenever I hear the parable of laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), I automatically jump to the ones who were hired first and who worked all day. Usually, that’s the message I need to hear. I get resentful when I don’t feel like I’ve received what I deserve. (Don’t we all?) As the firstborn son, I was born to be right all the time. I was born to make sure that everything else is fair. I was born to impose my perfect sense of right and wrong onto the world in order that the world might be a better place. What do you mean the late-comers get the same amount as the early-risers? That’s not right!

But today that’s not where my eye fell when I read this passage. Instead, I was drawn to the exchange between the landowner and the last laborers, who were standing idle in the marketplace. He went out at 5:00pm and found still more laborers just standing around. “Why have you been standing here idle all day?” he asked. And they replied, “Because no one has hired us.” Why were they still standing there? And why hadn’t anyone hired them yet?

Preachers like me love to talk about grace and for good reason: it’s what Jesus is all about. We talk about how God loves us unconditionally. We talk about how there is nothing we can do to earn God’s love. We preach a gospel of free grace—undeserved, unmerited favor. That is the bedrock upon which my life is built, and I am convinced with every fiber of my being that it is good news for the whole world. But what I so often fail to consider—and what I believe many other preachers forget, too—is that grace might be free, but it isn’t easy to accept.

Human nature is what leads the laborers to stand around in the marketplace idle all day. Why would anyone want to pick us? We’re the scrawny ones. We’re the unkempt ones. We’re the ones who didn’t quite make it here on time—just a little late, but landowners notice things like that. The world tells us that we are the last ones who would ever be picked, and we believe it. What is there within us that would make anyone want to hire us? Another day will pass, and we will again struggle to feed our family.

That’s how it feels to be human. We aren’t worthy. You might not be able to see it, but there’s a whole lot of mess going on inside of me. And that’s true for all of us. We’re not worthy. No one should pick us—certainly not God. And so we stand idle all day because we have convinced ourselves that the landowner would never hire us—that God would never call us into his kingdom.

Grace is free, but it isn’t easy to believe. In the parable, the landowner keeps coming back, hour after hour, to see if there’s anyone else who hasn’t been hired. There’s always room in the vineyard for more laborers—even the measly dregs at the bottom of the barrel. Finally, the last are called, and, when they are paid, they receive the same payment as those who come first. This parable is about the radical, hard-to-accept truth that everyone is invited into the kingdom. Ironically, we are both the first to be hired and the last to be called. We’re both. We can’t believe that the least-deserving would receive as much as those who were hired first, yet we’re also the ones who were called last. Hear God’s gracious invitation. Stop listening to the world, which tells us that only the best get chosen. This isn’t the Olympics or the NBA draft. This isn’t the World Cup’s “Group of Death.” This is God’s vineyard. You don’t have to be good to get in. You’re already in. You just have to hear the owner’s call.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

God's Promises

This is a sermon being preached tonight at Harold Coomer Evangelistic Association's New Life Recovery Ministries gathering in Decatur, AL.

June 24, 2014 – The Nativity of John the Baptist

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Whether we believe it or not, God keeps his promises. He always does. That’s who God is. That’s who we know him to be—the faithful one. God has shown himself to be the one who is always faithful. There’s never a time when God does not keep his promises. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be God.  

Anyone who has run a business knows that it’s dangerous to make claims like that. If you tell the whole world that you will always have a pizza delivered in 30 minutes and you stake your identity on that claim, you’d better follow through…because, if the world discovers that you can’t deliver a pizza in 30 minutes, you’re in trouble. You’re a fraud. You’re a liar. And no one wants to buy pizza from a 30-minute pizza company that takes 45 minutes to make a pizza.

God is the one who always keeps his promises. Always. Always is a long, long, long time. It’s a long time for it not to happen. It’s a long time for God to fail to keep his word. But if that happened, God wouldn’t be God, and we’d be lost. All it would take is one time for God to fail to keep his word, and there would no longer be any reason for anyone to believe in him. In other words, the only way the promise of forever faithfulness is possible is if it’s true. 

And you know what? Something funny happens when we believe that. Yes, God always keeps his promises whether we believe it or not, but, when we do believe it, when we stake our whole lives upon it, something happens. We become “children of the promise,” and the power of God’s faithfulness takes hold in our hearts in a way that transforms our lives.

Today is June 24. Tomorrow will be six months until Christmas. In the church calendar, today is the day we remember the birth of John the Baptist. Why June 24?  Because when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would give birth to Jesus, he also told her that her relative, Elizabeth, was in the sixth month of her pregnancy with John the Baptist. If you do all of the math and add nine months here and subtract three months there, you end up with a birthday for John right around June 24—today. But what we celebrate today is a lot more than a birthday. Today is a wonderful day to celebrate how God always keeps his promises.

You remember the story. Zechariah and Elizabeth were a devout couple who were unable to have children. Having a baby has always been a sign of God’s blessing, and back then it was even more culturally important to be able to have children. The fact that this couple were unable to have a child was thought to be a sign that God was withholding his blessing from them. Then, one day, while Zechariah was fulfilling his duty as one of the priests in the Jerusalem temple, the angel Gabriel appeared and told him that his wife would have a son whose name would be John. He would be a special child, called by God to “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God.” He would be the one “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

But for Zechariah this was too good to be true. How could this be? He and his wife were too old to have children. Plus, they had been trying to have a child for a long, long time and knew that it was impossible. Why now? So Zechariah said, “How shall I know this? What sign will you give me so that I will know for sure that I will have this child?” And the angel said, “You want a sign? I’ll give you a sign. I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God. Because you did not believe me, you will be mute—unable to speak—until this promise is fulfilled!” And Zechariah left the temple and went out to those waiting on them. And, when they saw him and figured out that he was unable to speak, they were amazed and wondered what sort of sign he might have seen.

Just like in our culture, people get excited when a baby is coming. As the months passed, word spread throughout the region that the old couple who were unable to have a child were expecting. Those from whom God had withheld his blessing had indeed been blessed. And the strangest thing happened, too. The rumor was that the father was unable to speak, that he had seen an angel, that God himself had brought them this baby. “I wonder what sort of child he might be?” the people whispered to each other. “He must be someone special!”

When the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, her family and closest friends gathered to celebrate the arrival of the new baby. The visitors came and went, bringing food and gifts for the family. And the whole time, Zechariah stood there, smiling but still unable to say a word. He shook the hands of the visitors and patted them on the back in a sign of appreciation, but he couldn’t say anything. He was still mute. On the eighth day, the whole family came together for the tradition of circumcising the baby boy. This was (and still is) the Jewish custom—that a baby boy is given the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham and given his name on the eighth day of his life.

Because Zechariah could not speak, they asked Elizabeth what name was to be given the child, and she told them “John,” just as the angel had declared. But that couldn’t be right. No one in their family was named John. Why would they name the baby that? So they turned to Zechariah and began motioning to him, asking him to let them know what name the baby should have. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote down, “His name is John.” And immediately his mouth was unstopped, and he began to sing a song of praise to God: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, who has come to his people and set them free!”

For nine months, Zechariah was forced to think about God’s promise to him. Unable to speak, he spent that time listening—only listening. And, as he listened, he heard more and more clearly the fullness of God’s promise—not only to him but to all God’s people. On the day his son was circumcised, Zechariah confirmed his belief in God’s promise by naming him John. And, as his mouth was opened, he sang a song of promise to all of God’s people.

“God is giving us a savior,” he declared, “a descendant of David to lead us just as he promised long ago. He has remembered the mercy that he promised to our ancestors. He has fulfilled his word to save us from our enemies and all who hate us.” After nine months of listening and thinking about God’s promise, Zechariah had come to believe what the angel had promised: that his son John would prepare the way for all of God’s people to be saved. Although Jesus was still six months away from being born, Zechariah could already see how God’s promise to send his people a savior was being fulfilled.

Sometimes it starts as simply as that. We hear a promise of God, and we take him at his word, and then the faith that comes from believing in God spreads through our heart and leads us to see how amazing God really is. God has promised to save us. In Jesus Christ, God has shown the world that he will always love us. That’s the biggest promise we can ever receive. The empty tomb is God’s way of saying to us that even when we give him our worst—even when we crucify his only son—he will still redeem us and save us from our sins. That’s a hard thing to believe—that sinners as bad as you and me are still given God’s unconditional love. But it’s true. It’s God’s promise to you. And he’s asking you to believe it.

What might happen if you take God at his word? What might happen if you stop letting the world tell you what a failure you are and start hearing God say that he loves you anyway? What might happen to your life and in your heart if you believed that God has promised to love you no matter how bad things get? What might happen? Could your acceptance of his promise lead you to see even more of how God has promised to take care of you? Could a first step of saying, “Yes, Lord, I believe,” be all it takes for you to know the life God has in store for you?

God has promised to love you no matter what. That’s what Jesus really means. Will you believe that? Can you believe that it’s true? Say yes to God’s promise and watch what happens. Amen.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Can I Preach on Slavery?

If there’s something I feel the need to be careful preaching about, it’s slavery. My former boss’s wife once said to me, “You’ll say anything.” I looked at her and thought about it for a while and then replied, “You know, I will.” I think it made her and her husband nervous that I seemed to take it as a personal challenge to do just that. Still, though, there are things I don’t feel comfortable talking about, and slavery is at the top of my list.

In Sunday’s epistle lesson (Romans 6:12-23), Paul continues to write about the consequence of sin. It seems that he’s writing to a community that struggles with the same sort of thing with which we still struggle—how to live the lives of the redeemed. Yesterday, we heard that we have died with Christ in our baptism—died to our sin so that we might live. This Sunday, that image switches to slavery. “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”

Slavery was a part of life in Paul’s day. People who had been sold into slavery worked without compensation. That’s slavery any way you cut it. But the institution of slavery in the ancient near east wasn’t really analogous to the slavery that was propagated in my part of the world. The American south was built on the lives and deaths of men and women and children who were captured in their homeland and shipped across the sea to work for the white men and women who owned them. There was no “present yourself as obedient slaves.” It was simply “do this or die.” The comparison breaks down, but, still, Paul uses slavery as a way of describing our transformation from sin to life.

As a southerner, I don’t feel like we’ve finished talking about slavery. I don’t feel like we’ve fully addressed the wrongs that were perpetrated upon the African slaves and their descendants. Because of that, I don’t feel like I can get up in the pulpit and speak to an almost totally white congregation about how Paul compares our transformation from obedience to law to obedience to grace as a transfer of slavery. Yes, we are slaves to righteousness. Paul says so, and I believe him. But, in my community, slavery evokes an image of such unparalleled power that remains unturned (to use Janet Martin Soskice’sterm) that I feel the need to hold back. Surely it was a powerful metaphor for Paul. Surely he used it to grab his readers’ attention. Surely he chose that metaphor carefully in order to convey the full sense of dominion and obedience that he has in mind. But will that same image work in 21st century Alabama? Or is it still too hot to touch?

And that begs the question…what am I going to do about it?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Humility and Irony

Have you ever known someone whose marriage caused a little scandal? Maybe they got married too young without the approval of either family. Maybe they got married really quickly because of a pregnancy. Or maybe one of them was substantially older than the other, causing the “ladies in the church” to raise an eyebrow at the news.

In premarital counseling, I like to point to the bible as a book that tells the real story of marriage—not some fairy tale of princesses and knights in shining armor. Think of David and Bathsheba. Think of Sampson and Delilah. Think of Adam and Eve. I hadn’t thought of Moses and the Cushite woman until today’s OT reading (Numbers 12:1-16) brought it up.

Aaron and Miriam, the siblings of Moses, begin to gossip about their brother. “How can Moses be so special? He married a Cushite woman!” The marriage, of course, isn’t the real issue. It’s the presenting problem. She was black, and the family didn’t like it. But it wasn’t the fact that she was black. As we see in the story, Aaron and Miriam were tired of Moses’ popularity: “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?”

God decides to handle this once and for all. He calls the three siblings to the tent of the meeting and explains that Moses is the only one who is to talk with God face-to-face. Yes, God speaks through the prophets, but only Moses can speak with God directly. And when the pillar of cloud departs, Miriam is white as snow—covered with leprosy. “Oh God, please heal her!” Moses instantly cries, but God sees fit to make her carry that burden for seven days, and the people of Israel remained camped there until Miriam’s illness had passed.

Ironic that Miriam was made “white as snow” while Moses’ wife had the dark skin of an Ethiopian. Irony is sometimes a sign of another’s humility. As the text explains, Moses was a very humble man—“more so than anyone else on the face of the earth.” He knew he did not need to defend himself, or his relationship with God, or his marriage to the Cushite woman. Humility is what it takes to let God sort things out. Humility is how we relax in the face of adversity and allow irony to work a result far more compelling than any we could manage on our own.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Justification and Sanctification

Yesterday, I read an article by John G. Stackhouse called “The Hard Work of Holiness” in The Christian Century about purgatory and how some protestant pastors are reconsidering the doctrine. As the article makes clear, these protestant theologians aren’t ready to give up one of the hallmark doctrines of the Reformation. Instead, they are thinking of purgatory in a new way. The article points to a book by Jerry Walls, an evangelical philosopher at a Baptist seminary, entitled Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation as an example of how we might reconsider the important process of sanctification in this life. Maybe purgatory is where we are right now.

Although I’m not willing to jump on that bandwagon just yet (the reader will be comforted, I know, to hear that my adherence to the 39 Articles is still intact), this Sunday’s epistle lesson (Romans 6:1b-11) got me wondering about the whole justification/sanctification process. Paul writes,

Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?  By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

I love logic. I live by logic. Paul is as logical as any other New Testament author. But I must admit that the whole baptism, sin, justification, sanctification thing confuses me a little bit. Yes, Paul, we are baptized into Christ’s death. Yes, Paul, through that baptism we are changed—we die to sin and are already raised to new life. Should we go on sinning? No. But do we? Of course. So what do we make of it?

If I am free from sin—if I have died to sin through my baptism into Christ’s death—then why do I keep on sinning? As Paul writes elsewhere, why do I do the very thing I hate? If sin really has no consequence in this life, then why does it seem to be such trouble? Is there really an ontological change experienced in baptism—is the stain of original sin really washed away? Or is baptism merely psychological—a reminder of God’s saving love?

Even though it doesn’t answer all my questions, I like how Paul describes it as this week’s passage concludes. We are set free from slavery to sin. Sin no longer has dominion over us. Our lord is now Jesus Christ. “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.  For whoever has died is freed from sin.” We are freed. That’s a different image that I usually think of. Instead of worrying about still sinning, maybe I should think of sin’s powerlessness over me.

In the divine economy of salvation, dying to sin means that sin has no more power over us in the eternal sense. Do I struggle with sin? Yes. We all do. But does sin have any power to affect my relationship with God once I have died with Christ? No, I don’t think it does. It might feel like it, but God has already justified me—I have already been made right with him. The sanctification process, then, is me figuring out how to live the rest of my life fully conscious of God’s justification. Call that purgatory? Probably not. But it is a struggle.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Psychology of Self-Sacrifice

How does a squad leader send his troops into a firefight in which he knows most of the soldiers will die? How does a captain send his firefighters into a blazing building from which he knows most of them will never return? How does a terrorist convince a suicide bomber to give up his life in order to advance their cause against the enemy?

I have never had to deal with life-and-death circumstances like those. The most I ask people to give up is the first ten percent of their income or their Sunday mornings as a volunteer teacher. I’d like to believe that, if I believed strongly enough in a cause and was convinced that such action was absolutely necessary, I could send others to their death. And, if I had to do that, I think I’d start by reminding those people that we believe in something that is even more important than our lives. We are part of a cause that transcends even our own individual lives. I wouldn’t lie about the prospects. I wouldn’t pretend that things weren’t dangerous. But I would appeal to the individuals’ sense of transcendent good.

In Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 10:24-39), Jesus warns his disciples that, as they carry his message to the ends of the earth, they will face of persecution, torture, and even death. By the time this passage was written, the Christian community had suffered persecutions under Nero and Domitian. As followers of a strange, new religion, they were not tolerated until the Edict of Milan was issued in 313 by Constantine. Many were killed. Public worship was forbidden. Evanglism was outlawed. Those who worked to spread the good news of Jesus very well may have been executed for their efforts. Still, Jesus sent them out, and he did so with powerful yet frank words of encouragement.

When it comes to scripture, I’m not a fan of paraphrase. Give me the straight, unadulterated literal, word-for-word translation and trust me to figure out what the euphemisms are supposed to mean. But this passage seems to contain enough scary words to make the whole thing sound scary. But Jesus wasn’t trying to be scary. I think Jesus was trying to be overwhelmingly affirming. So here’s what I’m hearing Jesus say.

Guys, don’t be surprised if they treat you badly. They’ve been calling me Beelzebul, so you can expect the same—if not worse. Don’t be afraid. Eventually, the truth will come out, and the world will see who is right and who is wrong. They’re going to hurt you, torture you, and kill you, but do not be afraid of them. The only thing you should be afraid of is the one who has the power to send you into hell. As long as you remain true to me—even in the face of your persecutors—I will remember you in the next life. Compared with the life that is to come, this life means nothing. The only thing that matters is the life that waits for us. It’s so important than even the most important things in this life—like the love of your family—don’t matter. Stay focused. Yes, it’s a tough job, but being a part of me and my kingdom requires sacrifice. Those who give their lives for the cause will find a life far more blessed than they could ever imagine.

I don’t want to make this passage out to be a lesson in brainwashing. It’s not that. But it also isn’t a passage of warning. Jesus isn’t using these words to scare would-be-disciple-pretenders away. He’s urging them to stay faithful—even in the face of struggle. This is good news. It is THE good news. Because of Jesus, even death itself has no sting. We can give ourselves to the cause—even our whole lives. No, we usually don’t risk torture or death for our beliefs, but we can give up everything we have and everything we are for the sake of the gospel. Yes, the path of discipleship will be difficult at times, but isn’t it worth it?  

Monday, June 16, 2014

I'm Back, But Do I Want to Be?

 I just got back from Alabama Cursillo #193 at Camp McDowell. It was a great and exhausting weekend. Elizabeth and I were on staff, which means that we got there on Wednesday afternoon and worked straight through until yesterday afternoon. Wireless communication is never easy at Camp, but Cursillo makes it virtually impossible, so please forgive me for dropping off the grid for most of last week. I’m back, but I’m not sure I want to be.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Thanks, Jesus. Happy Cursillo to you, too.

I wonder how many of the pilgrims from this Cursillo will return to their churches full of renewed energy and new excitement only to scratch their heads and frown a little bit when they discover next Sunday aJesus who wants them to hate their fathers, mothers, in-laws, and other membersof their households.

Now that we’re done with Easter (including Pentecost) and Trinity Sunday, we settle into the long summer of readings from Matthew. Some of these upcoming readings will be great. They’re miracles and parables and counterintuitive teachings that preachers love to climb into the pulpit to preach. But this Sunday we’ve plopped down in Proper 7 (think “we now join regularly scheduled programming already in progress”) to find angry Jesus barking about the real challenges of being a disciple. (We didn’t cover these at Cursillo.)

Let’s break this week’s gospel down a little bit:

·         Jesus starts with disciples & teachers and slaves & masters to drive home the point that if the world rejects him falsely as being from Beelzebul surely it will reject his disciples, too.

·         Then, he encourages them that even if they are killed they have nothing to fear: their heavenly father is with them.

·         But, he continues, following him requires sacrifice, and discipleship has a way of turning families against each other.

·         Finally, he concludes that love of him is more important than love of family and adds the famous bits about taking up one’s cross to follow him and losing one’s life in order to gain it.

This is supposed to be good news. The disciples are supposed to hear these words of Jesus and say, “That’s encouraging!” At its core, Jesus is saying that even when things get really, really bad they will be taken care of. But we initially hear that as such terrible news. Above, I called this “angry Jesus,” but he isn’t angry. He’s not picking a fight. He’s trying to encourage the disciples without denying the reality of the challenge before them. In other words, instead of lying to them and telling them that everything will be pleasant and delightful, Jesus gives them the hard but encouraging truth: being a disciple will cause you pain, but God will carry you through it.

Is this a chance to preach an anti-prosperity-gospel sermon? God doesn’t want you to be rich and happy. He wants you to be fulfilled even if it hurts you in this life. He wants you to place so much value on what he will give to you that the struggles of this world fade away.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Practice Makes Perfect

In a bible study on 1 John a few weeks ago, a participant asked me whether a particular passage (I can’t remember which one) was a reference to the Trinity. Like any good preacher trying to explain something he or she doesn’t really understand, I used an analogy: “That’s kind of like asking Leonardo Di Vinci whether his sketches of a primitive helicopter were drawings of a Boeing 747.” Yes, there’re related. Yes, we can look back and see how something that was written around the end of the first century anticipates a theological conclusion that would take several more decades--maybe even centuries—to ratify. But to ask whether a New Testament author was writing about the Trinity is to project our understandings of a doctrine backward into its antecedents where it comes from but doesn’t quite fit. Another analogy would be to imagine going back in time and wearing 21st-century clothing to a 15th-century gathering. People would think you were a little strange.

The New Testament doesn’t talk about the Trinity. (Well, almost.) The word “Trinity” certainly doesn’t appear anywhere in the bible. Although John gets tantalizingly close to saying it, nowhere in the bible does it say unequivocally that Jesus is God. Although clearly the Spirit is something that comes from God, there is absolutely no understanding that the Spirit or “breath” of God is the third person of the eternal and blessed Trinity. Paul frequently ends his letters with an appeal to the three persons of God: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost…” But the concrete thought “God is one God in three persons” never crossed his mind. So what do we have? Where in the bible does it tell us that there is a Trinity? What lessons do the lectionary crafters select for a Sunday that has no direct biblical referent?

Practice makes perfect. It seems that the early church—even before understanding that there is a Trinity—baptized its members in the Trinitarian name. As Matthew concludes his gospel account, he recalls Jesus sending his apostles out to “make disciples of all nations” and to baptize them “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” That was key to them. It was more than an early kerygma—it was the central practice. They knew that Jesus was God’s Son. They knew that he had been sent by God and that he had sent them the Holy Spirit. To baptize converts in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit was to immerse them in the whole story of salvation.

It took a while before the church figured out how to talk about Jesus’s divinity without arguing for more than one God. In the west, we still aren’t all that comfortable with the Spirit, but we’ve figured out a way to have one God in three persons. Where did it come from? Practice. Sometimes we have to do things before we understand them. Sometimes we have to trust that in time our mistakes will fall away and leave us with truth. How did the church overcome the Arian heresy? How did we survive the Spirit-fighters? How did we get past the confusion of natures and persons and Jesus’ potential multiple-personality disorder? It started with the practice of baptizing people in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit. All of the rest of the details got worked out over time because we believe that God remains active in our lives and in the life of the church.

Sunday Sermon: The Spirit's Pull

June 8, 2014 – The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday
Acts 2:1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 7:37-39

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here.

The first time I heard someone speaking in tongues, I thought a classmate of mine was being murdered in the seminary chapel. It was late at night, and I was walking along the quad at Ridley Hall, on my way back to my room. As I passed by the chapel, I heard a bloodcurdling scream bellow from within. It stopped me in my tracks. I paused for a second, and I heard it again—an unintelligible wailing with trills and ticks that soared from a high pitch, sliding all the way down to a deep bass rumble. Over and over, the screams continued. I went over to the chapel—the door was locked. But all of us had a key, so I opened the door and walked into the narthex and looked through the windows down the aisle. There, kneeling at the front of the chapel, was a friend of mine—hands held high in the air, eyes clenched shut, a pained expression on his face. His voice rose again, and, although I could not understand what he was saying, it was clear to me that he was engaged in a form of prayer deeper than any I had ever witnessed before.

As the weeks went by, I recognized that, for my friend, praying in tongues was a daily practice. It seemed so strange. I was fascinated. Why did he pray in tongues? How did he get started? How long had he been doing it? Did he know what he was saying? How did he know he was saying anything at all? Would he let me pray with him? For weeks, I joined him in prayer—not every day but regularly. We would meet in the chapel early in the morning for an hour. During that time, he prayed, but I just moved my mouth. I practiced the same sorts of trills and ticks and bellowing sighs, but I always knew that there was no Spirit speaking through me. I prayed for that gift. I prayed that if the Spirit wouldn’t give me the gift of tongues that it would at least enable me to interpret the earnest prayers of my partner with whom I shared those early mornings in the chapel. But I got nothing. I did have a dream once in which I was praying in tongues. It was a strange moment at a baseball game when I knelt down in the middle of the aisle and started praying in a language I could not understand, but that was as close as I got.

To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.

The problem with people who exhibit the gifts of the Spirit is that they’re usually pretty strange. At the very least, by definition it isn’t normal, and it’s often downright weird. That’s because the Holy Spirit usually works in ways that we don’t understand. Sure, there are some Spirit-filled people whom we admire—like quirky authors and exuberant preachers—but lots of them just scare us. Have you ever had a stranger come up and offer to lay hands on you? You know those guys who walk down the street talking out loud to Jesus? Does anyone really enjoy the bullhorn-prophet who calls the world to repent? What are we supposed to make of people who claim to have the Spirit working within them when it seems to be working in a way that we don’t like?

One of the challenges that the apostle Paul routinely confronted were false prophets—those who claimed authority in the early church but really worked to lead people away from the truth. While he travelled from one community to another, he had to keep in touch through his letters. He wrote to communities like the church in Corinth, reminding them to hold fast to the truth and only follow those who preached the real gospel of Jesus Christ. But, in the passage we read today, it seems that the problem wasn’t reminding his readers to stay away from quacks and pretenders but encouraging them to give the diverse range of Spirit-filled Christians a place in the community. He writes, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” No one. “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” In other words, as strange as they might seem, we’re all in this together.

No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. But how much effort does that take? That’s as basic as it gets. The earliest Christian confession was to acclaim Jesus as Lord. That’s not complicated. That’s not much of a litmus test. But that’s the point. Anyone who says that Jesus is Lord has the Spirit working within him. He might sound funny. He might do things that make us uncomfortable. And we might even disagree with what he thinks the Christian faith is all about. But the Spirit’s work is to take a wild diversity of people with a tremendous range of gifts and ministries and unite us all under one Lord, who is Jesus Christ.

The Feast of Pentecost is a celebration of the Spirit’s movement in two directions. First, it moves out from the center to the fringe, carrying the good news of Jesus Christ to every country and every language. But then it also moves back in from the edge to the middle, pulling together that muddled panoply of Christianity into one universal Church. We are all in this together. We are all under one roof. And for our place under the biggest tent of all, we say, “Thanks be to God.” Amen.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Before the Time

When I was a child, my mother would let me help her out in the kitchen. Sometimes we would do complicated things like bake a cake, but usually they were simple tasks like chopping onions. It didn’t really matter what we did. I just wanted to be standing on a chair next to her, helping with whatever she was doing. One of the chores I considered a special treat was to put the icing on the cinnamon rolls, but my enthusiasm and excitement always made me impatient.

Is it time yet? No, son, we have to put them in the oven first. Is it time yet? No, son, they have to finish cooking. Is it time yet? No, son, they need to cool off just a little bit first. Is it time yet? Yes, son, it’s time.

In today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 8:28-34), Jesus sailed across the Sea of Galilee, and, as soon as he got out of the boat, he was met by two demoniacs. According to Matthew, these were fierce individuals. They had interrupted the lives of everyone in the town. Like a long-running construction project on a major thoroughfare, everyone in the community had to steer around them. They would torment anyone who came by. And, if they were waiting by the seashore, it probably meant that a major part of the community’s life had been cut off because of the havoc they brought to the area. No one could pass by them.

When they saw Jesus, they cried out to him, “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Before the time. That caught my ear and eye this morning. Before what time? In the gospel accounts, demon spirits are often given insight into who Jesus really is. They can see his spirit—his divinity, which has come down to earth in the incarnation. When God comes to live on the earth, it is a sign that all things are being fulfilled. The time means the end time—the ultimate time. And Son of God here on earth carrying out the divine mission is a sign that that time has come. But, of course, it also hadn’t come yet.

As the story continues, Jesus did what he showed up to do—he casts the evil spirits into a herd of swine, who rush down into the sea and drown. Then, the townspeople come out to see what happened. The herdsmen told them how Jesus had freed the demoniacs from the spirits that tormented them. They relayed to the town how Jesus had finally set them free from the one thing that plagued them. And what was their response? Please, go away. We don’t want you here. You’re not welcome here. We’re not ready for you. Go somewhere else.

I’m baffled by their response. Why would anyone shoo away the one who set them free—who did such a wonderful thing for them? Is it because the time had not come yet?  The town’s unwillingness to welcome their savior is as surprising as it is expected. The time had not yet come. But it also had. Jesus was doing end-of-the-world stuff before the people were ready for the world to end. Jesus represents the fulfillment of all of God’s promises, but, as wonderful as that is, we aren’t ready for it yet. It’s too scary. We’re not willing to accept it yet. We need just a little bit longer.

Jesus shows the world that God is already breaking into it in ways that challenge our readiness. No, I’m not talking about being ready for heaven before you go to sleep at night. That’s the kind of “thief in the night” that it’s easy to be ready for. I mean the fact that God has come to turn everything upside down—to bring joy to the downtrodden, to set the captives free, to give life to those who are broken, to pull the rich down from their mighty thrones and to lift up the poor and lowly. Are we ready for that? I’m not. But I should be.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Who Preaches on John 7?

Shhhh! Don't tell anyone, but the bishop is coming to St. John's this Sunday. You've heard the joke about the rector and the bishop standing in the back of an empty church? Disappointed at the turnout, the bishop asks the rector, "Did you tell anyone that I was coming?" The rector replies, "I sure didn't, but it's clear that somebody did!"

Well, the bishop is coming to St. John's this Sunday. Actually, he's a great preacher, and it will be fun for us to have him here in person. (We don't welcome the bishop, of course, since he's the ordinary of every parish in the diocese. We simply acknowledge his physical presence in his own church.) It's also Pentecost, and there are lots of lectionary options for this week. So, a few weeks ago, when I contacted the bishop's office about what lessons he would prefer to have read this Sunday, I decided that I would let him choose not only the lessons for the 10:30 service, when he will be here, but also for the 8:00 service, when I will be the preacher. And what did he choose? John 7.

It's a short gospel lesson, so I'll paste the whole thing here:
On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, `Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.'" Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37-39)
I'm preaching this week, and I'll probably focus on the reading from Acts, which seems to be the "featured lesson" for Pentecost, but I don't want to let John 7 go by without mention. Mainly, I want to ask what in the world John meant by "as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified?"

Surely he doesn't mean that there was no Holy Spirit. But it seems that he does mean that the Spirit hadn't come because Jesus hadn't been glorified yet. (Forget what Luke writes about John the Baptist being full of the Spirit even before he was born.)

Maybe the exciting thing to pull from this passage is the belief that John sets out that we don't get the full benefits of Jesus until after he's gone. This is echoed elsewhere in John, when Jesus tells the disciples to be thankful that he's going because they can't get the Comforter until he leaves them. In my mind, that sets up a timeline that places a primacy on Pentecost that we don't often celebrate. Pentecost seems like the end of something. Indeed, it's the last day of Easter. But, of course, it's also the beginning of something--and not just the church. It's the beginning of our ability to have God's power instilled within us. Jesus shows us that power. He gives us access to that power. But the power itself only comes at Pentecost.

Maybe there's a good reason to preach on John 7 after all, but I'd be surprised if many of us will.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Heaven is for Real...Sort of

This post is an expansion on yesterday's sermon.

Every once in a while, someone will ask me if I’ve read the book Heaven is for Real, the first-hand account of the four-year-old boy who “went to heaven” during emergency surgery. (A Google search informs me that the movie is out in the cinema right now.) In short, my answer to the question is no. I’m not running away from the book. I just don’t have any desire to read it.

I believe that heaven is for real—at least that the promise of an everlasting conscious physical existence in the presence of God is real. But I think that Christians have confused eschatological literature that foretell of the end times (e.g., Revelation, Daniel, and some parts of the gospel) with what we’re called to hope for. Go back and read the gospel—all four accounts. How often does Jesus talk about coming away to live with him in paradise? Sure, it’s in there, but it’s not in there a lot. Jesus seems far more interested in the establishment of God’s kingdom here on earth. So what are we really supposed to be waiting for?

Yesterday, I preached a sermon on John 17:3. Jesus said, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” If you didn’t hear it yesterday, you can read it or listen to it here. In that sermon, I compare the Church’s expectation of heaven with the Church’s condemnation of Galileo in the 17th century. Essentially, I ask, “What if we’ve been wrong about the central hope of the Christian life for centuries?” But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in heaven. I just don’t believe that the Church is talking about heaven in the right way.

We should take Jesus at his word: eternal life is knowing God and Jesus. And knowing God and Jesus isn’t about floating around in some cloud castle where the music is played on the lyre and harp and the fried chicken is out of this world. Jesus didn’t come to earth in order that we might experience the best of this life for eternity. Heaven isn’t golf every day, no taxes, and dessert for breakfast. Heaven—even the word itself has become distracting—is supposed to be the representation of the fulfillment of God’s promises. Knowing God means knowing that we’re loved. Does that love last forever—even beyond death? Absolutely. Do I believe in the physical resurrection? Absolutely. Do I believe that there is a pearly gate? Do I believe that St. Peter will be there to check me in? Do I believe that a four-year-old boy who was undergoing an emergency appendectomy was given insight into what heaven is really like? No, no, and no.

For millennia, the problem with religion has been that people become too specific in their hopes. Pretty soon, that increasing specificity results in a religion that is out of step with the culture of the day. And that is how religions die. What are we hoping for? If God’s deepest promise to us really is a life in the clouds, we’re in big trouble. Yes, it’s about resurrection, but let’s not tell the world exactly what heaven is going to be like. And let’s get all those images of what heaven will be like out of our heads. They’re almost certainly wrong. Get back to the basics. Know God. Know that you are loved. Trust that that love will follow you even to the other side of death. That is eternal life—nothing else.

Sunday Sermon: 7 Easter

June 1, 2014 – Easter 7A

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here

The story of Galileo Galilei has always bothered me a little bit, but this week it’s become especially troublesome. You might remember him as the one who looked up into the heavens and discovered that the only way to make sense of the movement of the planets was to place the sun at the center of the solar system. Actually, that was Copernicus’ gift to the scientific world, but Galileo was the one who tenaciously defended that position in the face of considerable political and religious opposition.

The Church had always maintained that the earth must be the center of the universe. Just look at the scriptures. The Psalms make it clear that the earth has been fixed in its place by God and cannot be moved (93:1; 96:10). Ecclesiastes asserts that the sun rises and sets and returns to its place while the earth holds still (1:5). And, of course, that makes sense. We humans are the crown of creation. We are the pinnacle of God’s handiwork. How could it be possible that the earth moves around the sun? How could it be possible that anything but us is the center of the universe?

In 1616, Galileo’s writings were officially banned by the Church, and he was ordered to deny his heretical claims. In the succeeding years, he busied himself with other work, but, when a new pope was elected in 1623, he was encouraged that perhaps his scientific work on heliocentrism would receive a more positive reception. In short, it did not. He attacked the religious community head-on, even portraying the Pope as a character in his book named “Simpleton.” He was tried by the Roman Inquisition and found guilty of vehement suspicion of heresy. Placed under house arrest, Galileo spent the remainder of his life unable to pursue his life’s work. All of his writings—past and future—were banned. He died in disgrace, thus unable to be buried next to his ancestors.

It took a century for things to change. At first, in 1718 redacted copies of some of his works were allowed to be printed and circulated. After another century—in 1835—his works were finally removed from the banned books list. Then, in 1939, the Pope for the first time praised Galileo for his work and courage. Finally, in 1992, 350 years after Galileo’s death, Pope John Paul II acknowledged that the Church had made a mistake in condemning the brave scientist’s work and apologized to the world for its shortsightedness.

Can you imagine being so convinced that you are right that you would let three and a half centuries pass before admitting you had made a mistake? I can, and that’s what makes me so nervous.

There is a verse in today’s gospel lesson that I cannot get out of my head: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” It’s the knowing that bothers me. Jesus said, “This is eternal life—knowing God and Jesus Christ.” It’s not a conditional statement. He doesn’t say that in order to get eternal life you must know God and Jesus. He says that eternal life is knowing God and Jesus. That means that if we want eternal life—and I’m pretty sure that all of us do—we’d better figure out what it means to know God and to know Jesus Christ, whom he sent. And, for my whole life, I’ve been pretty sure that I know who God is and who Jesus is, but what if I’m wrong? What if the Church is wrong? There are a lot of Christians out there who talk about a God and a Jesus whom I barely recognize. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? We can’t afford for it to take us 350 years to figure it out.

For starters, I think the Church has been misrepresenting what eternal life really is for as long as anyone can remember. What does the word eternal even mean? A long time ago, I used to stand in my parents’ front yard, pointing a flashlight up into the night sky and imagining that the light beam might go on forever. I would flash it on and off and on and off in some make-believe Morse code that an alien life in a faraway solar system might be able to see. Maybe there was a little green kid on a distant planet that could see my blinking light and know that someone else was out there, too.

How far is infinity? How long is eternal? As far as my little flashlight can shine and then some? To this little kid, eternal life meant life with no end. Like my light, it starts here and keeps on going. One day becomes two days becomes two thousand days becomes two million days becomes more days than anyone could ever count. It just keeps going. But is that really what we’re hoping for?

The other day as we were riding back from the store, our middle child announced that he was going to try to live to be “a hundred.” “That’s a long time,” I replied, not willing to talk about the challenges I have seen hundred-year-old men and women face. Math is an expanding reality for our four-year-old, who, upon second thought, declared that we was going to try to live to be “twenty-hundred.” “Two-thousand is pretty old,” I replied. “Do you really think you would want to live that long?” And then it hit me. Eternal life? Life with no end? More of this day after day after day with no hope for a destination? Is that really what we’re after?

It turns out that the word that is so often translated as “eternal” literally means “age-long.” In other words, Jesus is promising us an “age-long” life. But the word “age-long” doesn’t really mean anything unless you think about its opposite. Like the word “wellness,” which is defined as the state of not being sick, “age-long” really means “not fleeting” or “not cut-short.” Maybe a more effective way to talk about eternal life, therefore, is to discuss a life that is “complete” or “well-rounded” or “finished.” Yes, it has no end, but I don’t think time really has anything to do with it. Jesus isn’t offering us an interminable, never-ending existence but a full, complete, and perfect life that will never be cut short. That sounds like something worth hoping for, but it doesn’t sound a lot like the “eternal life” I so often hear Christians talking about.

But maybe that’s the point Jesus is trying to make. Yes, he came to give his followers eternal life, but eternal life isn’t a ticket to heaven. Jesus isn’t talking about spending forever with him in paradise. I bet if Jesus heard the way we talk about the goal of the Christian life as leaving this world behind so that we might spend eternity in the clouds he would scratch his head and say, “Wait, what do you think this is all about?” That’s because for Jesus eternal life—that life which is full and complete—is knowing who God really is, and we learn who God really is by knowing the one whom he sent, his son Jesus Christ.

So, for a minute, forget everything you think you know about what it means to be a Christian. And set aside everything you’ve always imagined heaven to be like. And start with this: God sent his son into the world so that you might know that you are loved without limit. That’s what it means to know the one true God. If you look at the story of Jesus, you discover what it really means to know God—not what you’re supposed to do or who you’re supposed to be in order to get into heaven but simply that God loves you. That is eternal life, and, besides that, nothing else matters.

If you’ve ever thought that God wants you to say a special prayer so that you can go to heaven, think again. If you’ve ever believed that God is watching you to judge whether you’re a good person or a bad person, please, leave that behind. If you’ve ever thought that what it means to be a Christian and what it takes to go to heaven is living a life that would make your saintly grandmother proud, I hate to disappoint you, but that’s not it at all. Eternal life is knowing who God is through the lens of love that is Jesus Christ. And that is all you need to know in order to make your life complete. Amen.