Thursday, August 28, 2014

Again, Not What It Says

The first thing I noticed this week when I read Sunday's gospel lesson (Matt.16:21-28) is that the translation we have on Sunday (NRSV) misquotes Jesus. (Or at least it misquotes the Greek that purports to be Matthew's account of the good news.) Start by reading the text below and see if anything sounds fishy:

Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

Earlier this week, Steve Pankey wrote a post entitled "When the Bible Doesn't Say What the Bible Says." It's a great post on this Sunday's gospel lesson, and you should go ahead and read that now. (I'll wait.)

Ok, Welcome back.

Now, I want to expand upon that concept he writes about and talk about what happens when 20th & 21st century translators choose gender inclusivity over a literal rendering of the text. Here's the same bit of scripture in the RSV:

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?

Some might say there's no real difference--other than the fact that the language has been updated to avoid unnecessary distractions that come from gender-exclusive language. Actually, I am all for gender inclusive language when we don't lose an important meaning from the text. But this is one of those cases when we need the original pronouns because the meaning changes without them.

No, I'm not saying that Jesus was excluding women from following him. Well, actually, he probably was--since his was a culture that had very separate and defined roles for men and women--but I don't think he was saying that women could never be his followers. Instead, he probably just didn't think of it that way. But the real issue is one of number rather than gender.

How's this for an awkward translation:

If anyone would follow me, let her or him deny herself or himself and take up her or his cross and follow me. For whoever would save her or his life will lose it and whoever loses her or his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a person if she or he gains the whole world and forfeits her or his life? Or what shall a person give in return for her or his life?

It's awkward, but I think it's important because human nature is to hide in groups.

You know that one team member who never pulled his weight on the projects you were forced to do in college? No one liked him. No one wanted him on her team, but the teacher insisted. And he got the good grade because of all your hard work even though he didn't deserve it. You know that guy? Well, we're him. We're her. All of us. No, not when it comes to classwork, but, at some basic level, when it comes to taking up a cross and following Jesus, we'd rather do that as a part of a group than stand there by ourselves.

Jesus points the finger at us--at each of us. He singles Peter out, and then he expands his condemnatory, challenging stare to each one of the disciples. And now he singles us out. Sure, there's something to be said for whether we as a congregation or we as a community or we as a country are doing what God is calling us to do. But, this time, Jesus is talking to each one of us as individuals.

So, yes, don't read the gospel lesson with all the double pronouns. And, no, I'm not a fan of the invented gender neutral pronouns "zhe" and "zher" because no one I know knows what the heck they mean. But don't lose site of the singular pronouns. Don't hide in the crowd. He's talking to you and me and to all of us as each of us. Will you (singular) take up your cross and follow Jesus? Y'all can figure out how to do that as a group next week. Right now, it's just you (singular) and him.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Power of Surprise

It surprises me that prayer has the power to surprise us.

In Acts 10, God speaks to two people through prayer. The first, Cornelius, is identified as a man who “gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.” Then, one afternoon at about three o’clock, while he prayed, he had a vision. In that vision, he saw an angel of God coming to him and telling him to get up and send men to Joppa to summon a man called Simon Peter to come and stay with him. Had he ever heard of Simon Peter? Perhaps. Had he heard that Simon Peter would be in Joppa, staying with a tanner who was also named Simon? Surely not. Instead, we are told that God brought that message to him—a voice from outside with instructions from above. Through a life of prayer, Cornelius was able to hear God lead him in ways he could not have determined on his own.

The next day, Peter was also praying. While up on the roof of the house where he was staying, Peter fell into a trance. In his vision, he saw a sheet being lowered from heaven—full of all sorts of unclean animals like reptiles and birds of prey and four-footed animals. These were things any faithful Jew would know not to eat, yet a voice from above called out to him, “Peter! Rise, kill, and eat!” Naturally, this did not make any sense to Peter. “I can’t do that. I have never eaten anything unclean,” Peter objected, but the voice cried out, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Every once in a while, we surprise even ourselves. Something hits us in a powerful way and leads us to see the world as we have never seen it. The ingredients were already there, but they are assembled in a way we could not have invented in our conscious minds. How does that happen? Where do genuinely new ideas come from? How are we led to ideas and beliefs and decisions we never would have thought possible? Can God—way up in heaven—guide us to places we never dreamed we would go?

In the Episcopal Church, a person can’t simply decide to be a priest. Calls to ordination must be discerned both by the individual and by the church. And, by “the church,” I don’t mean the individual congregation; I mean the wider church as constituted by the local diocese. Usually, that process starts when a person feels a sense of call, and then it progresses as she or he enters into conversation with a local clergyperson, the local congregation, other friends or family, and, finally, the bishop and other representatives from the diocese. At some point, before everything is cleared, that person sits down with a psychologist for an interview—ostensibly to make sure she or he is not crazy.

Imagine, then, sitting on a chair (no couch in my case) and explaining to a psychologist, who is constantly nodding his head while taking notes on a legal pad, that you heard a voice tell you that you’re supposed to be priest. I fumbled and stumbled and stammered my way through explaining that the voice I heard wasn’t an external voice but that internal voice…and, no, not the internal voice of some person living in my brain but that internal voice that all of us have…right?...other people have that voice, too, right?...Isn’t that normal? Long story short: when I was a freshman in college, I spent the second semester as a time for spiritual renewal. I went to the chapel every night to say my prayers. Every day, I was listening for God’s guidance in my life. And, one night, while I was lying in my bunk, I came to the startling conclusion that I was supposed to be a priest.

Looking back, it makes sense that I felt that call. Even as a little child, I was at home in church. This is where my life and my work blossom most fully. But, as a freshman in college, I didn’t see it coming. I was scared. I didn’t know what to say or do. I didn’t want to be a priest. I wanted to be governor of Alabama. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t want this. I didn’t think of this on my own. It just hit me, and the only way that was possible—that I heard God’s direction as a startling voice with a surprising message—is because I spent that semester in prayer.

Prayer is a powerful thing. Usually, we think of prayer as an opportunity to influence God. Like a child calling out to his parent, we approach the throne of God seeking to change the course of our lives. “God, would you please take this burden away from me?” “God, would you please heal my sick husband?” “God, would you please give my child the peace she needs?” But prayer is powerful not in that it changes God but that it changes us. Prayer has the power to startle us—to surprise us into knowing where and how God is working in our lives. Prayer makes it possible for us to see how God is intervening in the world around us. It shocks us into trusting that whether in life or death, in healing or in sickness, in anxiety or in peace, God is at work. We adopt a life of prayer so that we might become more open to the power of God—not so that we might wield that power to accomplish what we want but so that God might use his power to conform us to his will. 

Let's Rename the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Alright, everybody, it's official: I have posted on Facebook a video of me dumping a bucket of ice water on my own head. For a few weeks now, I've been waiting for someone to challenge me. (Thanks, Alana.) In that time, I've read lots of other people's posts about why the ice bucket challenge is great or why the ice bucket challenge is terrible. Now that I've joined the club, I feel that it's ok for me to share my thoughts about the whole phenomenon that is sweeping social media.

For starters, let me say that this isn't a post about embryonic stem cell research (ESCR). To be honest, I don't know what I think about ESCR. I have mixed feelings about the ethical conundrum that is the destruction of fertilized embryos to develop life-saving treatments for ALS, Parkinson's disease, etc.. Some argue that these ice bucket donations aren't being used for ESCR. Maybe not, but the ALS Association does engage in ESCR, so I think it's worth giving people a free pass on the challenge if they have moral grounds for skipping it. Let's not crucify them for simply ignoring the challenges they get. And, those of you who object for that reason, please don't use this as an excuse to talk about how evil ESCR is and how those of us who write a check to the ALS Association are supporting it. Even though I haven't made up my mind about ESCR, I wrote a check to the ALS Association because I felt it was the right thing to do. I can live with moral ambiguity.

So, now, to the challenge itself. As I understand it, the tradition is that, when someone is challenged, she or he has 24 hours to either write a $100 check to the ALS Association or dump a bucket of ice water on her or his head. Some people now say that those who dump still have to write a $10 check. Others think that the ice water gets you off scot-free. Either way, unless you're Patrick Stewart, no one wants to see a video of you writing a check. We want to see and hear people take in that desperate shocked breath that says, "Oh my gosh, this water is freezing!" That's why we challenge our friends--not to raise money for the ALS Association (although that might be a small part of it) but to force our friends and family and colleagues into showing the world their own moment of water-soaked embarrassment. 

It seems to me that the entertainment value has outgrown the value of the donations. That my children, who have no money of their own to give, think the ice bucket challenge is great demonstrates that point. Yes, we're raising tons of money for ALS research, and I think that's fabulous. But let's get back to the disease itself . That's why I think we should do away with the "challenge" part and instead use the ice buckets as an entertaining way to show the world that we've already given money to the ALS Association. Let's call it the "ALS Ice Bucket Campaign."

I wrote my check before anyone challenged me so that my gift would be a free expression of my support rather than an arm-twisted, motivated-by-public-shaming payment. I did not write the check so that I wouldn't have to dump water on my head. There are enough Facebook videos out there of me getting wet to show that I don't mind being soaked--even with ice cold water. I wrote the check because I think the ALS Association deserves my support. I know people who have died from ALS, and, although I have never cared for someone with the disease, I know, from a distance, how terrible it is. That level of suffering alone is enough reason to write a $100 check. And, if the ice water helps the world know that supporting the ALS Association is a good thing, then let's keep dumping water on our heads and posting videos of it online. But let's stop challenging people to do it and, instead, use the ice water as a way of demonstrating our support as a grace-filled invitation to others.

Everyone should feel invited to write a check to the ALS Association. Those of us who care deeply about the movement and want others to know it should dump water on our heads as a sign of solidarity with those who suffer from the disease. We shouldn't point the gun of shame at anyone by challenging them to do it. We should give because we want to. And they should do likewise only if they want to. And those of us who want to make a big deal about it should post our videos online.

In our church, we use an every-member canvass as the heart of our stewardship program. I disagree with my friend Steve Pankey, who wrote that an every-member canvass is motivated by guilt. Maybe that is true in his experience, but it is not the case in mine. Our canvass isn't motivated by pressure or guilt or shame. It's a way for those of us in the parish who are faithful stewards to invite others to do the same. We don't show up at people's houses asking for a pledge. We reach out to people, tell our own story, and invite others to participate. Whether they do or not is completely up to them. If your minister or congregational leaders rely on pressure and intimidation to fund the church's budget, you should find a new church--one in which the leaders are committed to grace. And, if your friends are pressuring you to write a check to the ALS Association or dump water on your head, ignore them. Write the check if you want to. Dump the water if you want to. But don't let guilt lead you to do anything. It takes the joy out of giving.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Liturgical Imperative

When I was first ordained a priest, I was surprised to find what priestly parts of the service I already had memorized and which ones I hadn’t bothered to learn yet. Having heard it over and over for so many years, I could recite most of the Rite One Eucharistic Prayer I by heart, but it took me a while to remember that the sursum corda—the initial part that has the “lift up your hearts” line—is different in Rite One and Rite Two. (And the church in which I served had an eastward facing altar, which means I had to turn my back to the book when I said that part.) The confession I could say in my sleep. The comfortable words were so comforting to me that I could recite them without effort. But the absolution was (and still is) something that I get mixed up when trying to say it without reading the words.

From time to time, someone will suggest to me that I mix up the blessing at the end of the service, and I probably give them an involuntary look that says, “You want me to do what? I’ve just learned the regular one by heart!” When the priest turns around (yes, eastward facing altar) and raises his or her hand in benediction and speaks God’s blessing upon the people, it feels to me as if he or she should be saying something with conviction—not reading something out of a prayer book. That’s just me. That’s a personal liturgical sensibility—my issue, not yours—but it’s one that makes end-of-service blessings pretty uniform.

I like “The peace of God, which passeth all understanding…” That’s my favorite—not just because I know it but also because it’s powerful just the way it is. There’s a reason that particular blessing is written in our prayer book (and has been for several editions). But as much as I love those familiar words, my heart does sore just a little bit when I hear a priest or bishop pronounce a blessing that uses other images—like this coming Sunday’sreading from Romans 12.

Here is Romans 12:9-21 with the few nonexhortative bits taken out:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all…[N]ever avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God…if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
That’s the kind of thing I’d want to hear my bishop say when he pronounces God’s blessing at the end of his yearly visit. Maybe that’s because it’s the kind of thing Paul wants to get across to a Christian community before he finishes his letter. I know he’s got four more chapters left, but this feels like an end to me. He’s telling them how to live—what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. He’s on a roll, and he’s giving them years’ worth of instruction all compressed into a few verses. Read them again. What an amazing exhortation!

Christianity is about community. We live together as the body of Christ. And most of the problems we face within the church are the result of neglecting our communal identity. We insulate ourselves from the joys and sorrows of others, failing to take in their ups and downs as Paul would have us. Differences in socioeconomic status cause ripples in a community today just as they did back then. Revenge is a powerful motive—strong enough to rip a church apart.

In today’s liturgies, there aren’t many texts delivered in the imperative mood. Preachers, on occasion, gently slip into the imperative, telling their congregations what to do or how to live. The sursum corda is an imperative and response: “Lift up your hears. We lift them up unto the Lord.” But, for the most part, the moments of divine-human interaction mediated through a clergyperson (usually just blessing and absolution) are statements of fact. Unless we’re reading the Decalogue, we don’t hear God telling us what to do—at least not directly. Romans 12 is a chance to hear some commandments for the Christian community. Maybe we should read this bit from Romans in a liturgical way every week.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Lectionary Mess

Dear Lectionary Authors,

I am sure that it was difficult to lay out all of the scripture readings in a three-year cycle. What should get left out? What readings get paired together? What will satisfy the demands of preachers and congregations alike? It was a challenge, and I admire your efforts. Still, I would like to lodge a formal complaint.

No, I am not complaining that too many Sundays give the preacher too little to work with. That might be my gripe ten or fifteen years from now, when all of my creativity has been sapped after six or seven trips through the lectionary. And I am not complaining about how my favorite, esoteric passage of scripture only gets attention on one of those Sundays when Lent is really late or Easter is really early. I am writing to complain about what you did with the gospel readings for the last two Sundays—Propers 16 & 17 in Year A.

For starters, you should have combined these two gospel readings. Yesterday, I heard two independent preachers take the first lesson (Matthew 16:13-20) and deliver a sermon that depends on the second lesson (Matthew 16:21-28). Both of them discussed the consequence of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah in terms of “take up your cross and follow me,” but that’s this coming Sunday’s lesson. What will this week’s preacher do? Preach the same sermon all over again? When a gospel passage (like Peter’s confession) depends so heavily on the passage that follows (like Jesus’ prediction of his death), please—for the love of all that is homiletical—put them together in one reading!

Second, both Sundays’ gospel readings end with lines that are confusing for preachers and congregations alike. Yesterday, it was “Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.” This coming Sunday it will be, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Sure, they are in there for a reason, but, unless the preacher wants to preach on that particular topic, they leave people scratching their heads. How can the congregation hear, “…there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man…” and the preacher not preach a sermon about unrealistic expectations of the second coming? The first one—sternly ordering them not to tell—is overcome if you combine the two lessons. The second one could be left off and lengthened if the preacher so chose. (We can lengthen lessons but not shorten them.)

As it is, preachers now need to rehash what was said last week, while trying to avoid misleading people with the last line of the gospel. All of that could have been avoided with some small changes to the lectionary. I notice that after this Sunday you skip all of Matthew 17. Why not combine these two readings from Matthew 16 and then give us the short passage of the coin in the fish’s mouth from 17:24-27

Again, I know you had a tough job, and, for the most part, you did well. But is it too much to ask that you think like a preacher when making these choices?

Yours faithfully,

Evan D. Garner

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunday Sermon: Knowing Jesus

August 24, 2014 – The 11th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16A

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

This sermon was written for the 5:00 p.m. service only.
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Have you ever wondered why it took the disciples so long to figure out who Jesus really was? Today’s gospel lesson comes from Matthew 16. By now, we’re about halfway through the gospel story. That means that Peter and the other disciples have been following Jesus around for more than a year, spending every day listening to his teachings and watching him perform incredible miracles. He has walked out on the water to them. He has stilled the storm. He has even raised the dead. Yet, still, the disciples can’t quite figure out who he is.

Equally puzzling to me is the fact that Jesus doesn’t just come out and tell the disciples who he is. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” he asks them. After listening to their speculations, he asks, “Who do you say that I am?” They’ve been together for all that time and still Jesus hasn’t bothered to sit down and tell them who he is. Why did he wait so long? Why did he wait until they figured it out for themselves? Maybe it’s because there’s a big difference between knowing that Jesus is the Messiah and knowing who Jesus really is.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Jesus was. I always knew. From before I was old enough to walk, my parents told me that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah, who came to earth, died on the cross, and rose again so that my sins could be forgiven and so that I could go into heaven. There was never a time when those concepts were unfamiliar to me, but, still, it took me a long time to really know who Jesus was. That’s because I needed to learn who he was for myself. By the time I got to college, I knew all of the titles we give to Jesus—Messiah/Christ, Son of God, Son of Man, Emmanuel, Savior, Lord, etc.—but I didn’t know what it meant to see the Jesus I had been taught about for all of those years as Messiah. I hadn’t made that confession for myself. Then, one night, I went looking not for the Jesus I had had described to me for all of those years but for the Messiah, the Son of the living God, who might change my life.

“Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,” Jesus said to Peter, “but my father in heaven.” Peter had made a risky statement. He had said something that would change his life forever. You can’t discover who the Messiah is without owing him your life. Part of recognizing who Jesus really is is recognizing that you must yield over to him everything you’ve got. You must follow him as your master. You must worship him as Lord of heaven and earth. You must take up your cross and follow him—even if that road leads to death. And that’s the kind of thing you can’t take someone else’s word for. You’ve got to know it yourself.

At the end of this amazing encounter, Jesus sternly orders the disciples not to tell anyone else that he is the Messiah. He doesn’t want the secret to get out. But that’s not because he wants to keep a low profile or because Christianity is only reserved for a few select individuals. Jesus wants people to keep it a secret because others need to discover it for themselves. If you’re here in church today, I’m guessing you’ve heard a little bit about Jesus. You’ve probably heard people like me talk about him as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. But have you really discovered who he really is? Have you found him to be the one to whom you must give your whole life? Until then, it’s just someone else’s story. You’ve got to meet the real Jesus for yourself.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Getting to the End

Part of my spiritual discipline is to read the upcoming Sunday's lessons every day during the week. At some point--usually in the morning--I navigate my web browser to the site and look at what's coming up on Sunday. This week, a funny thing happened. I made it half way through the week before I noticed the last line of the gospel lesson.

The last sentence of the reading is, "Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah" (Matthew 16:20). Someone in our weekly staff meeting pointed that sentence out to me, and I reread it thinking, "Wait a minute! When did that get in there?" I'm not 100% sure why I missed it, but I think it was partly because Peter's confession--"you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God"--was so bold that my brain did not pick up what my eyes read in the last line. In other words, I was so excited about the revelation of Jesus' true identity that I didn't hear him say to keep it a secret. I wonder if the disciples felt the same way.

In my role as a priest, I am occasionally told things before they become public. "We're getting a divorce, but we haven't told the kids yet." "We're expecting a baby, and we need your prayers, but we aren't telling anyone about it yet." "I'm getting ready to retire and close my business, but that isn't public knowledge yet." Usually, when someone shares news like that with me, they don't need to tell me not to repeat it. It's pretty well understood that clergypersons keep things like that to themselves. Still, sometimes the news is so big that I find myself pastorally reacting to the first part without considering the second. "Oh, you're getting a divorce" runs through my mind long before "Wait, you haven't told your kids? When will that happen?" In truth, sometimes the not-telling is bigger than the news not being shared.

How would Peter and the other disciples keep that news to themselves? This isn't an ordinary sort of realization. We're not talking about someone who found out she has cancer or who just got a big promotion. This is the messiah. Note that the NRSV capitalizes the "M" and the "S" in the titles given to Jesus by Peter. That reflects an interpretation that Peter isn't just attributing anointedness to Jesus--that he has messianic properties. By saying "the Messiah," Peter means the one we've all be waiting for. How do you keep that to yourself? Why would Jesus want them to keep it a secret? What does that say about Jesus' messiahship--that it wasn't time to share it yet?

Sometimes we, like Peter, discover a truth that is bigger than we can imagine, and it takes us a while to figure out what it really means. With a gift from God above, Peter stumbles onto the truth about Jesus. He makes the intellectual leap, connects all the dots, and identifies the miracle worker he's been wandering around with as the one Israel has been waiting for. Although the truth was out, it wasn't time to share it yet because, even though Peter said the right thing, he didn't know what he was talking about. The verses that follow show Jesus predicting his death and resurrection, Peter objecting, and Jesus saying to Peter, "Get behind me Satan!" That's because knowing the answer doesn't mean understanding the concept. It's not that Peter made a lucky guess, it's that he had the right answer even before he was ready to give it. What about our faith?

Have you ever met someone who had recently experienced a conversion of sorts and who couldn't stop talking about their new-found truth? Although they usually can't see it, others quickly discover that they can be pretty annoying. Have you ever been that person? I have. The good news is that getting the right answer is an important first step, but it is only the first step. The journey of faith is about figuring out what to do with the truth that God has led you to see. Inspiration comes in a moment, but understanding takes time.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Challenge: Why the Church?

When I saw this week's Acts 8 BLOGFORCE challenge--to answer the question "Why the church?"--I was immediately taken back to a sidewalk encounter I had in downtown Montgomery several years ago. It was the middle of a hot summer day. I had left Kiwanis and was walking back to the church when I saw someone I had not had contact with in almost ten years. He had been my co-counselor at a summer camp in north Alabama. We had spent a summer working there together, and one of those months was spent in the same cabin, looking after ten boys as if we were their parents. We made sure they brushed their teeth and changed their underwear. We tucked them in at night and took them to the bathroom if they woke up needing to go. There were a few moments when our "parenting styles" came into conflict, but we worked them out. We departed on good terms, but our divorce had been prearranged, and neither of us made an effort to keep up.

We began the conversation with pleasantries--trying to fill in a decade's worth of personal history. I was wearing a clerical collar, which makes it hard to hide my profession. He asked about my church, and I nervously told him where I was serving as a curate. The camp where we worked was and still is a Christian camp with strong ties to a particular denomination (not the Episcopal Church). I recalled that many of the counselors were very committed to their own expression of church, and, while working there, I tried to avoid denominational conversations among counselors for fear of getting into a "how-can-you-believe-that!" argument. Standing on this sidewalk, having experienced a hardening of denominational lines in the ten years since we last saw each other, I hesitated to return the question, but southern etiquette required me to show interest, so I asked. Where do you go to church? The answer shocked me.

"I'm not going to church," he said, but he showed no sign of embarrassment or hesitation when he spoke. In fact, he said it proudly. "Really?" I said, not knowing how to interpret this brazen heathenism. "Yes," he answered, reaching into his jacket pocket. As he handed me some religious literature, he explained that the church is a sign of evil in the world, that it has become corrupted, and that real disciples of Jesus were following their Lord and Savior without any institutional affiliation. Part of me admired him for leaving the kind of denominational hardlinership that we had experienced at camp, but another part of me quickly recognized that he was nuts. (Remember, I'm the one wearing the clerical collar--he was talking about me!) He launched into an explanation that I cannot really remember, but I left thinking three things: 1) I have no idea how you can be a Christian without any affiliation with church, 2) his strategy had merely substituted the formalized doctrines of "no church" for the church he had left, and 3) I wanted to avoid bumping into him in the future.

The church is the body of Christ. The Son of God is still incarnate, and the collection of believers that exist on this earth are the manifestation of that incarnation. The world might not need all of the churches we've got, but the church exists because there are believers. In other words, one doesn't need to belong to a church in order to be a Christian. One is a part of the church simply because one professes to follow Christ. In a very real way, the question "Why church?" has a simple and unavoidable answer: "because there are Christians." You can't have one without the other--no matter how wayward you believe that the institutional church has gone.

Throughout history, there have been repeated movements to reestablish the primitive church of the apostles. These groups argue over things like whether there must be one cup at Communion, whether music is allowed in worship, and what sort of headdress women are required to wear. Often, these movements are propelled both by a desire to get in touch with ancient expressions of Christianity and to leave behind a current expression with which the group is unsatisfied. The point is that human beings will always be dissatisfied with the institutional manifestations of Christianity, and they will continue to tweak them and abandon them and reestablish them and all because church is unavoidable. It is who we are.

This seems to be one of those times when churches are reinventing themselves. Shifts in secular culture, advances in science and technology, and internal disputes within the church have led us to a point where people are asking questions like "Why church?" I, for one, am not discouraged. Think about the apostle Paul and the challenges he faced in his various churches. He had a hard time getting them to respect one another's authority (1 & 2 Corinthians). He struggled to get them to sit down with one another (Galatians). He even had a hard time convincing them to believe in the basic principles of the faith (1 & 2 Thessalonians). But the institutional church--with its orders of ministry and forms of initiation and hierarchical affiliation and financial controls--arose with alarming speed. Within half of a century after Jesus' death and resurrection, the church (largely as we know it today) already existed.

When I think of the question "Why church?" I feel a tension between the human institution that modern Christians know and with which they claim affiliation and the sacred institution ordained by Christ as the entity against which the gates of Hades will not prevail (see this Sunday's gospel lesson). But remember that Christ is fully human and fully divine. That is the basis of the incarnation, and it is the foundation of the church. We are a painfully human institution, but that is why God became flesh--to experience pain. We are a broken body, but that is why God's Son came to earth--to take our brokenness upon himself. Why church? Because we are the body of Christ--literally. That's where we start. We can be no other. What it means to be that body and how we are to respond to that identity are questions for another day...and another BLOGFORCE challenge.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Violence Begets Violence

This article was featured in today's parish newsletter at St. John's in Decatur, AL. If you would like to read the whole newsletter, please click here.

A few weeks ago—before Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri—I heard an interview on NPR of R. Gil Kerlikowske, Commissioner of the U. S. Customs and Border Patrol, who spoke about the recent use of deadly force in his agency. The part of the interview that really caught my ear was his recollection of a mistake he had made while serving as Chief of Police in Seattle, Washington. Having heard from his officers that they had felt underequipped during a hostile protest on the first anniversary of the World Trade Organization demonstrations, he went against his instincts and allowed them to “harden up” with full riot gear during a Mardi Gras celebration a few months later.

When the alcohol-infused crowd became raucous, things escalated more quickly, and a young man was killed. Of his decision, Kerlikowske said, “Well, to tell you the truth, it makes it pretty difficult, when you're talking from behind a face shield with a gas mask, to engage with the public and say, ‘Look, let's, let's tone this down. Let's calm things down…’ It's pretty hard to engage in those discussions when you're hardened up. I regret that today.” In other words, the crowd’s violent tendencies were exacerbated by the police, who, because of their riot gear, added to the tension rather than deescalated it.

Recently, I have read several pieces that clergypersons have written about the shooting of Michael Brown, the police’s response to the incident, and the community’s outrage over the death. Some of them draw clear conclusions about what happened and who is at fault. Others are more speculative, exploring the societal implications of the death of a young unarmed black man at the hands of a white police officer. My tendency is to trust that in time the truth about what happened eventually will come out, and thus far I have resisted the temptation to decide who is to blame, but I confess that I have already reached one conclusion: the violence will not stop.

In Matthew 26, we read that, after supper, Jesus and his disciples had gone to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. That night, Judas led a great crowd armed with clubs and swords to that place so that they might arrest Jesus. When confronted by the authorities, Peter took out his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. But his attempt to defend his master was thwarted by Jesus himself: “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Matthew makes it clear that a victory by force was within Jesus’ power—“Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?”—but that was not the means by which God’s triumph would be declared. Instead, Jesus submitted to the violence that awaited him so that, through his death, God’s real victory might be achieved.

We live in a world where the powerful rule by force, but we worship a God who reigns through the power of peace. On the playground, bullies get their way by scaring the other children. In the streets, gangs control the community through intimidation. On the world’s stage, developed nations exert their will through economic and military might. But, in God’s kingdom, the meek inherit the earth; the righteous turn the other cheek; and the peacemakers are blessed.

In a bible study yesterday, someone asked that we pray for an end to the violence…and then he paused, not knowing how to put into a few words the long list of places where peace is absent. Indeed, violence seems to rule the day. We pray for peace in Ferguson, where protesters clash with police. We pray for peace in Gaza, where civilian casualties are mounting. We pray for peace in Syria, where fighting knows no limits. We pray for peace in Iraq, where religious militants are taking over parts of the country. We pray for peace in Ukraine, where nations seem ready to spill innocent blood. We pray for peace around the world—in every country, in every city, in every household.

Peace begins with us. We worship a God who demonstrated his might by choosing death on the cross, and we are called to take up our own cross and follow him. His example must be the pattern for our lives. The cross is not a weapon but a symbol of submission. If violence will ever cease, it must begin with us. We must put down our guns and knives and swords and clubs and tear gas and stones and instead wield the symbol of our faith as a sign of strength through weakness, power through powerlessness, and victory through defeat. Peace is not the business of diplomats or far-away governments. It is not the work of mediators in war-torn areas or negotiators in riotous communities. It is the work of the church. It is the work of the faithful. It is the work of you and me.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Putting Christ Back in Christianity

“That preacher is the next Billy Graham!” an excited worshipper said after hearing a young clergyperson deliver a powerful, heart-wrenching sermon.

“He’s a prophet—a new Martin Luther King!” a member of the crowd exclaimed after listening to the brilliant oratory of a rising star who called for justice.

“The future of the party rests on his shoulders—the next John Kennedy!” a pundit declared, summing up the attitude of the whole political convention.

Comparisons to great historical figures are dangerous. They might contain a thread of truth, but, in time, they usually disappoint us. Maybe the next John F. Kennedy is out there somewhere, but I doubt any of us know who she or he is. Perhaps the next election cycle will send important, selfless, visionary people into office, but we cannot expect a cookie-cutter replica of someone from the past. We might dream of it being true, and we might even stretch comparisons too far, but they almost never work because life doesn’t work that way.

In Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matt. 16:13-20), using a self-referential title popular in Matthew’s gospel account, Jesus asks his disciples who the Son of Man is. The answers include John the Baptist, Elijah, and Jeremiah. In other words, people can tell that Jesus is someone special, but they haven’t quite pinned him down yet. Like a team’s new quarterback, Jesus’s style of play is being compared with that of the hall-of-fame talents who have gone before. He’s a little like this and little like that. But, whoever he is, they can tell that he’s a great figure worthy of the most reverential comparisons. We’re not talking second-tier, here. This is as good as it gets.

Still, though, something is missing. Jesus is different from all of them. How so? “But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” That’s a risky thing to say—far riskier than comparing Jesus with one of the greatest prophets of the Jewish tradition. To call someone “the messiah” is to elevate the talk to a whole new level. There is no room for disappointment anymore. Either you’re the messiah, or you’re not. There’s a difference between being great and being God’s anointed one. Ontological categories that only have room for one make for bold and dangerous identifications. What will this mean—to call Jesus the messiah?

Jesus lets us know that Peter is right—that God the Father himself has revealed that truth to him. It’s a break-through moment that has its own observance on the liturgical calendar (The Feast of the Confession of St. Peter on January 18). That means that with Jesus no comparison is accurate. He’s not like any other. He’s unique. That is a fundamental principle of Christianity. Jesus is the God-Man. He’s the incarnate one. He’s not just a prophet with a wonderful message. Despite what our 21st-century sensibilities might want us to say, he’s not just another way up the mountain of psycho-social fulfillment. He’s different. We can’t dismiss the uniqueness of Jesus as an accident of history—an anachronistic doctrine worth revisiting. Without Jesus being like no other, our faith falls apart, and we might as well turn all of our churches into art galleries and concert halls.

After Peter’s amazing statement, Jesus says something remarkable: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Forgiveness of sin is something that belongs to God alone. Jesus gets in trouble for this right from the start of his ministry. (For example, read Matthew 9:1-8, where Jesus proclaims the forgiveness of a paralytic before offering him physical healing.) Jesus shows the world that he has the authority to forgive sins—authority given to him (note “Son of Man” in Matt. 9:6) by his father. Jesus then gives that authority to his apostles. That isn’t possible unless Jesus is who he says he is. And, if we have any hope of being reconciled to God, we need that authority to be real.

This Sunday is a chance to explore the uniqueness of Jesus. Thus, it’s a chance to ask, “Why are we Christians, anyway?” More and more, it seems the instinctive answer has something to do with “being good” or “doing good things for other people.” But, if that’s the case, we aren’t Christians; we’re just secular humanists who like a midmorning snack of bread and wine. Let’s get back in touch with the particularity of Christ. He is more than a teacher, more than a prophet, more than a spiritual guru. He is the one who has the authority to reconcile us to God and to give that power of reconciliation to those who carry out his ministry in his name. We’re still months away from Christmas, but let’s not wait to put the Christ back in Christianity.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ordinary People with Nothing to Lose

August 17, 2014 – The 10th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15A
Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here.

American Beauty is one of those movies that a priest cannot recommend from the pulpit because of its salacious content, but, tucked in amidst all of its titillating scenes are several eye-opening moments of deep theological reflection. One of those comes near the beginning of the film when Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey, is fired from his job for clear insubordination. In the exchange with the human resources officer, Lester demands a lavish severance package, using extortion and unveiled threats of the basest sort. When the H. R. guy calls him a “sick [fellow],” Lester responds, “I’m just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose.”

That’s the story of the Canaanite woman in today’s gospel lesson—an ordinary woman with nothing to lose. She was from the region around Tyre and Sidon—an area north of Jewish territory. She was a Gentile, and Matthew labels her as a Canaanite to les us know that she came from a culture and religion that were not acceptable to faithful Jews like Jesus and his disciples. Normally, she would have nothing to do with Jesus just as he would have nothing to do with her. But her daughter was possessed by a demon, and, like most of the mothers I know, she was willing to do anything to help her child.

“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!” the woman cried, but Jesus answered her not a word. Undeterred by his refusal to acknowledge her plea, the woman kept pestering the disciples, begging over and over for help. Finally, annoyed at her persistence, the disciples came and asked Jesus to send her away, but Jesus replied, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Still unwilling to accept defeat, the desperate mother flung herself at Jesus’ feet and implored him to heal her daughter. But Jesus looked down at her and said, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”—a direct refusal of the harshest sort. But the woman did not give up. She had nothing to lose.

“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Those are the words of a woman with nothing to lose. She knew that the only way her daughter would be healed was if Jesus would grant her request. Her faith was born from that place of desperation—the recognition that her only hope was Jesus. So she gave it her all. To her, humiliation meant nothing. The faith that she showed did not come from her ancestors. She had not learned about God in the synagogue. Instead, this Canaanite woman, who had no place among God’s people, demonstrated an unrivaled faith that was born from a desperate mother’s only hope.

Where does your faith come from? Is it something you inherited from your parents? Is it based on something you heard a preacher say? Or have you known the faith that comes from having nothing to lose? You might not feel as desperate as the Canaanite woman, and I hope you’re not as twisted as Lester Burnham. But we are all just ordinary people with nothing to lose. God alone offers you a love which can carry you through this life and beyond. God alone is your salvation. God alone can rescue you even from death itself. If the God who made us and loves us is our only hope, why wouldn’t we throw ourselves down at his feet, empty ourselves of all that we have, and give our lives to him completely? Amen.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Faith of a Foreigner

We are a “Track Two” parish, which means that we read the second of the optional Old Testament readings on the Sundays after Pentecost. That is a feature of the Revised Common Lectionary. Track Two is closer to the old Episcopal lectionary, which pulls in Old Testament readings that theoretically tie in thematically with the other readings. Track One, on the other hand, is also known as the option with “semi-continuous readings” because its Old Testament readings move more or less straight through a particular part of the Hebrew Bible. This year (Year A), those readings have been in Genesis. Some of the greatest stories of the bible are found in Genesis, and there have been several weeks this summer when I have read the Track One option with moderate preacher’s envy as I dream of preaching on a text that isn’t ours. This Sunday, however, I’m grateful for Track Two.

In Isaiah 56, the prophet declares,

And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant--these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

I doubt that Sunday morning is the right time for a sermon about the development of Judaism during the Babylonian exile, but it’s worth mentioning here that the words of Isaiah 56 reflect some substantial theological shifts that occurred during and after the period when the people of Judah were separated from their homeland and their temple. These were surprising words for a people who had been ransacked by foreigners. This was quite a turn from the days when the Lord asked his people to kill every man, woman, child, and animal that dwelt in the land they were coming in to occupy. This is a new teaching—not just to accept the foreigner living in your land but to include foreigners in the ritual temple worship—the religious cult that had always been exclusively Israelite. At some point during their darkest hour, God’s people recognized that the vision of that great day when God’s reign would be established across the earth incorporated the participation of foreigners in the religion of Israel.

But not just any foreigner would be included. Only those who “join themselves to the Lord” in a faith that is defined by loving the Lord’s name, serving him, keeping the sabbath, and holding fast the covenant would be accepted. What sort of foreigner might this be? Who might qualify? And, more importantly, when would this great day ever be accomplished? When would God’s house truly be a “house of prayer for all peoples?”

One day, when he withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus was met by a Canaanite woman who came to him seeking help for her demon-possessed daughter. At first, he ignored her. Then, when pestered by his annoyed disciples, Jesus declared that he was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Finally, the woman came to him, begging for help, and he dismissed her as one would shoo away a stray dog. But the woman had faith—enough to see that salvation’s crumbs that fall from Israel’s table were all that she needed. And Jesus honored that faith by giving her what she wanted and by praising her for her faithfulness.

Times change. Sixty years ago, a black man could not even sit at a southern lunch counter. Now, we have a black president. Ninety-five years ago a woman did not have the right to vote. Now, women’s votes are courted by every national candidate. One hundred fifty years ago our nation was divided over whether a human being could be owned by another. What about five hundred years ago? What about two thousand years ago? What about four thousand years ago?

The tension that makes Sunday’s gospel reading worthwhile is the friction between the expected faithlessness of the Canaanite woman (reflected in Jesus’ treatment of her) and the surprising discovery of real faith within her (reflected in her statement about gathering up the crumbs). To ask why Jesus was so cruel to her is, in a way, to miss the point. He was supposed to ignore her. She wasn’t supposed to get it. Jesus’ treatment of her isn’t as much about Jesus’ internal motives as it is about society’s expectations of a Canaanite woman. He needed to treat her like that in order for us to marvel at her faithfulness. Whether there was a part of Jesus who knew exactly what would happen isn’t important. We need him to be surprised because we need to be surprised. The woman’s faith is that unbelievable. Like God’s inclusion of the foreigner, her faith is so remarkable that no initial treatment is too harsh—no comparison is too degrading. We must inhabit that place of shocking inclusion by starting from the shocking reality that we shouldn’t be included either. But, by God’s grace, we are. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

All In a Name

In the bible, names can tell us a lot about the subtext of a various situation. I have a feeling that if I knew my Hebrew bible any better I would make a lot more of the connections that the New Testament authors are trying to lead me to. One of those, I think, is found in Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 15:10-28). After withdrawing to the district of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus is met by a Canaanite woman, and I don’t think it’s an accident that she is described as such.

When was the last time you met a Canaanite? References to Canaan or the Canaanites only appear three times in the New Testament—once in this story,  once in Stephen’s account of salvation history in Acts 7, and once in Paul’s speech in Antioch in Acts 13. The latter two examples are historical references—men reminding others of what happened a long time ago. Matthew’s use of the word is startling because it places a present-day woman in an ancient context. (Note that Mark uses “Syrophonecian” to describe the woman in 7:34—also an anachronistic term but one that Matthew seems deliberately to have shaded to provide a more powerful contrast by digging deeply into Israel’s history.)

The Canaanites were the people who occupied the land before Israel came in and took it from them. They weren’t just Gentiles. They were the ones standing in the way of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. They were the ones whose indigenous faith needed to be eradicated before the Israelite religion could be established in the land. This anachronistic reference brings this story to a whole new level. We are no longer dealing with a non-Jewish woman. Jesus is confronted by a representative of the exact opposite of Judaism. That means this story isn’t just a shocking tale of Jesus’ rejection of the woman but an incredible story of her faithfulness and eventual inclusion in the healing ministry of David’s son.

In other words, the word “Canaanite” shifts this story from “Why did Jesus do that?” to “Of course Jesus did that!” The reader isn’t supposed to dissect Jesus’ motive in excluding her. That isn’t the interesting part. The reader is led by Matthew to assume his harsh behavior. The part that leaves us scratching our heads is the faith of the Canaanite—the one whose ancestry was defined from Israel’s perspective by faithlessness. The right way to take Jesus’ harshness seriously isn’t to try to understand why he was being cruel or racist but to marvel at the theological shift that is accomplished in the end.

In the preceding verses (15:10-20), Jesus confronts the Pharisees about religious dietary practices. There was a dispute between them about how fastidious a faithful Jew would need to be in order to honor his or her religious heritage. Must a cup or plate be washed in a ritual fashion? Must the hands be washed for ritual purity and not just for hygiene? Jesus’ answer shows that purity or impurity starts within. It isn’t the prescribed observance that makes someone pure; the observance is a reflection of the purity that is found inside the heart of the believer. In this dispute, Jesus is pushing the boundaries of religious acceptance. Matthew is setting the stage for what follows. The encounter with the Canaanite takes the disputed question in the preceding bit and blows it apart.

It is no accident, I think, that the epistle reading is from Romans 11: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” Within forty years of Jesus’ death, the Jesus movement has transformed from “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” to “Believe it or not, God is still faithful to his covenant people.” The story of the Canaanite woman is the transformation of the Christian movement in miniature. Jesus is harsh to her because he is supposed to be—that’s what the religion of the day would expect. That Jesus accepts her reveals that God is able to honor the faithfulness of even the least likely person. There are no religious boundaries anymore.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Ministry by Improvisation

All week long, I’m writing about the encounter of Jesus and the Canaanite woman who seeks healing for her demon-possessed daughter in Matthew 15. Yesterday, I wrote about the need to take Jesus’ cruelty seriously. Since he’s Jesus, it would be easy to dismiss his racist behavior out of hand as something surely not as bad as it seems. But it is as bad as it seems! Now, I’ll spend the rest of the week trying to figure out how to make sense of this absolutely unbelievable encounter.

Today, I’d like to focus on geography. Let’s start where the story starts—in Gennesaret. Although it no longer exists, Gennesaret was a seaside community on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Remember, last week, Jesus walked out on the water to rescue the disciples, whom he had sent “to the other side” after feeding the 5,000 (Matt. 14:22). And, going back another week, remember that he had fed the 5,000 in a desolate place that he had reached by boat while trying unsuccessfully to escape the crowds (Matt. 14:13). And, going back even further, we see that Jesus had been in his hometown of Nazareth, which is not on the coast. There he had taught the people some perplexing parables but was not well received (Matt. 14:53ff.). So, he started at his home town, walked to the coast, went by boat to a lonely place (probably on the southern shore), sent the disciples north toward Gennesaret, walked out toward them, and rode with them in the boat until they made it to Gennesaret.

Why is that important? Because Matthew tells us that they left Gennesaret and went toward the region of Tyre and Sidon—even further north. In Jesus’ time, Tyre and Sidon, which are in present-day Lebanon, were not in Jewish territory. This was Gentile country. It was further away from Jerusalem. In other words, it was moving in the wrong direction. And, even more importantly, they didn’t just leave Gennesaret—they retreated from it.

The Greek word that is translated as “went away” is “ἀνεχώρησεν,” which is a form of the verb that literally means “to withdraw…[as] those who through fear seek some other place” (see Matthew also uses this word to describe the movement of Jesus and his disciples in 4:12: “Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee.” It might be an exaggeration to say that Jesus was “running scared” when he headed north toward Tyre and Sidon, but it’s clear that he wasn’t going there on purpose. It was a detour. It was a retreat. It was an out-of-the-way, not-where-we-want-to-go trip. And that’s what’s going on in Jesus’ mind when he is approached by the Gentile woman.

Have you ever been so focused on the task at hand that you miss an opportunity that is even more important? The other day I was hurrying to get somewhere. People were waiting on me. I needed to rush to meet them so that we could all start on the work that was ahead of us. Someone approached me in the parking lot and asked to speak with me. Feeling the pinch of my other commitment, I said, “This will have to be quick. I’m in a hurry.” I didn’t call her a Canaanite dog-woman, but I might as well have. My gruffness had less to do with her than with the hurry I was in. She wasn’t on my to do list. The people who were waiting on me had my complete attention. She was in the way. She was a distraction. She was holding me up. And I missed the chance to minister to her because of my one-track focus.

Maybe Jesus was upset about being pushed northward by the Pharisees who were angry about what he said. Maybe Jesus felt like he was going in the wrong direction. Maybe Jesus was trying to figure out how he could get his countercultural message through to the people he came to save. When the Gentile woman came up to him, she was in the way. She was distraction. She was holding him up.

In the end, of course, Jesus discovers that even this non-Jew in a non-Jew territory had the kind of faith he was looking for. I think she surprised him. I think she said something to get his attention. I think he had an aha! moment when he realized that there was important, valuable ministry to be done even if it was off track. That doesn’t excuse the cruel way he treated this woman in need, but it helps me understand what was going through his mind. And that helps me remember to look for opportunities for ministry that aren’t on my to do list.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Jesus and the Racial Slur

I love waking up on Monday morning, turning to the lessons for the coming Sunday, and discovering that I’m going to have a challenge on my hands all week. It makes the journey to Sunday a fun, bumpy ride. Although I haven’t made up my mind about the optional omission, this Sunday, we will read Matthew 15:(10-20), 21-28—the story of the Canaanite dog-woman unworthy of gathering up the crumbs under Jesus’ table. I love it!

Even if you remember the story, take a second and read it and let the vituperative words sink in:

Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matt. 15:21-28)

Matthew gives the reader as much tension and 21st-century angst as possible. The Gentile woman begs Jesus for help, calling him “Lord” and “Son of David.” She uses very Jewish language when addressing this rabbi, and what does he do? To use the King James Version, which actually pulls in the literal Greek, “He answered her not a word!” Persistent, she keeps crying out to the point where the disciples are annoyed, and they come to Jesus asking him to at least send her away. But Jesus makes his point even more harshly, saying he was only sent to help “the lost sheep of Israel.” A third time, Jesus encounters the woman’s plight as she throws herself at his feet, begging for help. And Jesus dismisses her, calling her and her demon-possessed child dogs.

What do you do when the Jesus you love brings out the racial slur? What do you do when your Lord and savior refuses to help someone because of her race?

You can chuckle quietly because he’s just telling a joke he heard at the country club. You can dismiss it as the kind of thing a man of his generation says without knowing better. You can pretend that it doesn’t matter because he’s just proving a point. You can soften the sting by claiming that Jesus was exhausted and overworked. But, however you deal with it, you’ve got to find a way to accept the fact that the “sweet little Jesus boy” you love and adore looked at a Gentile woman and called her a dog, unworthy of his attention or assistance.

This week, I’m trying to find a way to take the shock of this text seriously. I don’t want to explain it away with some homiletical hocus-pocus. I don’t want to pretend that it doesn’t matter. It does matter. But why? Why is it important that Jesus was so utterly harsh and cruel and prejudiced against this woman? Why did his mission and ministry focus on the Jews to the exclusion of Gentiles like her? How do we, the Gentile church, make sense of these provocative lines? What am I, a southern American white male, supposed to learn from this biblical racist tale?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Why Did You Doubt?

Yesterday, when blogging about Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 14:22-33), I wrote about Peter’s question (technically conditional statement): “Lord, if it is you…” Today, I’m drawn to Jesus’ question: “…why did you doubt?”

As a child, I loved this gospel passage because Peter was invited out onto the water. Peter was just a man. If Jesus could make him walk on water, then Jesus could make me walk on water, too. I dreamed of what it would be like. Would my feet sit right on top of the water as if it were solid ground? Would they float an inch or two below the surface and splash whenever I took a step? Would I lose heart when the wind picked up and start to sink like Peter? I’m sure all of these ponderings were to miss the point of the miracle, but I liked imagining that it was possible.

I’ve heard several preachers talk about how Peter represents us. He’s the one who boldly crashes into one embarrassing statement after another. Lord, you will never wash my feet! Lord, I will never deny you! If it is you, command me to come to you on the water! Like us, he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t always get it. He struggles to make sense of who Jesus really is, but he fumbles about enthusiastically. Perhaps that’s what gets him into trouble in this story. He’s bold enough to walk out on the water, but that adventurous first step isn’t based on solid reasoning or unshakable faith. It’s as if his heart is moving his feet instead of his brain.

And then the wind picks up. Peter begins to sink. He cries out, “Lord, save me!” And Jesus reaches out his hand and catches him, saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I’m not one to take sides here, but I’m not sure Jesus is being fair to Peter.

Little faith? What does little faith look like? Is Jesus saying to Peter, “If you had more faith, you wouldn’t have started to sink?” Is Jesus saying to Peter, “If you really understood who it was who called you out onto the water, you wouldn’t have worried when the wind picked up?” Or maybe Jesus is taking issue with Peter’s panicked response, “Lord, save me!” Like a child who worries that her father is going to drive off and leave her while she is inside the gas station using the restroom, what was Peter worried about? Did he think Jesus would let him drown?

Whatever lack of faith Jesus has in mind, I don’t hear him being critical of Peter. Jesus isn’t saying, “You should have had more faith.” Instead, he says, “You of little faith. Why would you doubt?” Of course I will save you. Of course you will be alright. Of course the wind and waves will not overcome you. It’s a teaching moment, not a corrective moment. Jesus is saying to Peter—and to all of us—I know you’ll have doubts, but don’t worry; I will always take care of you.

Even when Jesus walks out to us on the water, it is easy to let the storms of life terrify us. Even when Jesus himself comes to save us from our peril, it is easy to be afraid. Even when Jesus calls us out on the water to him, it is natural for us to get nervous when the wind blows up. Jesus isn’t questioning that response. He isn’t accusing us of anything. He’s simply reminding us that there isn’t any reason to be afraid.

What is your response when the wind kicks up? What would Jesus say to you in your moment of need?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

They Almost Missed It

When was the last time you almost missed something? Did you catch a glimpse of a celebrity out of the corner of your eye just before she got into her car? Were you relieved to make it to your son’s school play after your flight back into town was delayed? Did you make it to your father’s bedside just in time to say goodbye before he took his last breath?

Life is full of those moments—times when we might have missed something special but just barely caught it. And the degree to which we might have missed them heightens our appreciation of the experience. Our gratitude swells with the nearness of the miss.

In today's gospel lesson (Luke 9:28-36), we catch up with Jesus and his disciples eight days after Jesus had told them that he would be killed and would rise again. Then, he took with him Peter, James, and John, and they went up on a mountain to pray. While they were there, something amazing happened. Jesus was transfigured before them. His clothes and skin began to skin began to shine like the sun. They became a dazzling white. Two men appeared there alongside Jesus, talking with him, Moses and Elijah. A loud voice—the voice of God—boomed from the sky declaring, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” And then it all vanished, and things returned to normal. And my favorite part is the fact that the disciples almost missed it.

Peter, James, and John, Luke tells us, were “weighed down with sleep.” They were exhausted. They had been keeping a furious pace. And the recent revelation that Jesus—the one to whom they had pledged their lives—would be killed had exhausted them. They tossed and turned in their sleep. They stayed up late talking about it amongst themselves. Emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually, they were completely spent. Then, they came up on the mountain to pray, and their heads started to sag. Their breathing slowed down. And their eyes kept taking longer and longer blinks.

But, like a baseball fan who tries desperately to stay awake and watch his team battle it out in a game that goes into extra innings, sometimes fighting off sleep is rewarded. In the twelfth inning, a double off the wall sends a runner from first base all the way around to home, where he slides under the tag and wins the game in walk-off fashion. Just as the disciples started to doze off, the mountain was bathed in a radiant light, and their persistence paid off. They were able to see Jesus’ divine nature—the godhead dwelling within him—shining through. The Law and the Prophets, symbolized by Moses and Elijah, testified to Jesus’ identity as the messiah. God’s own voice confirmed it all by thundering through the cloud and proclaiming Jesus as God’s chosen Son. And the disciples almost missed it!

The Transfiguration is one of the holiest days in the church’s year. In the Orthodox tradition, it is one of the twelve great feasts, and in the Episcopal Church it is one of three observance that, in addition to the seven principle feasts, takes precedence over a Sunday. (That means it makes the top ten list.) Partly, we celebrate today the amazing moment when Jesus’ divinity was revealed to the disciples—the bright light, the mystic appearance of Moses and Elijah, the descent of the divine cloud, and the Father’s voice. But I also think the Transfiguration is about celebrating those fleeting moments that we almost miss.

A rainbow in your rear view mirror. A quiet moment on the couch with your daughter. A shot out of a sand trap that rolls into the cup. A tear-filled reading of the last page of a great novel. These are holy moments, and we could miss them if we aren’t paying attention. Like Jesus, they seem ordinary unless our heart’s sightedness shakes off the sleepiness of ordinary life and seeks out the transcendent. We walk through life “weighed down by sleep.” And God is shining through all around us. Will we stop and notice him? Will we persist through the dullness of normalcy until we glimpse the power of God?

If It Is Really You

Since my Transfiguration Day post will come out after I've preached at today's 12:10pm service, this is technically a bonus post even though it's coming out first. I wanted to get this out yesterday, but it didn't make it.

In Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 14:22-33), Jesus sees that his disciples are struggling in their boat. Fighting against the wind and the waves but losing, they were in great danger. So Jesus, who, as Seth Olson remarked at yesterday's staff meeting, "made the disciples get into the boat," set out after them. On foot. Across the sea.

Startled by the sight of a figure walking on the sea, the disciples screamed out, "It is a ghost!" But Jesus calmed their nerves--at least a little bit--by saying, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." And that's when Peter sticks his foot into his mouth (a habit of his) and says to Jesus, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water."

If? If? Are you kidding me? If it is you? Seriously, Peter, you're asking the guy who just walked out on the water whether it's really Jesus? Do you really have any doubt? Could it be anyone else?

Fast-forward to the end of the gospel story, when the risen Jesus appears to the disciples. Who is it? Is it a ghost? Is it really him?

Fast-forward another two-thousand years. When we proclaim the risen Jesus, what are we saying? What do we believe--that a ghost came out of the tomb and spoke words of encouragement to the disciples before vanishing into heaven? Or do we believe that the walking, talking, breathing, eating, flesh-and-blood Jesus was back from the dead?

Sometimes you face storms in your life. Sometimes I face them in mine. Although I grew up on the coast and remember having to speed into shore when a thunderstorm popped up, rarely are my crises water-related. Usually, they're problems with people--a child who is struggling, a parent who is struggling, a spouse who is struggling, a friend who is struggling. When we face more than we can handle, what do we believe in? What are we looking for? Do we believe that God himself has shown us that his love for us will transcend any storm that comes up by sending his Son--Lord of heaven and earth--to demonstrate his power over wind and waves and even death itself? Or are we hoping that a ghostly whisper of good cheer will find its way to our ear in a tough time?

I don't know about you, but I need Jesus to be more than a ghost. I need Jesus to be Jesus.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Getting to the Point

As someone who preaches pretty often, I’ve fallen into the habit of reading a lesson with a one-track mind, asking “What’s the point?” The preacher’s question takes several forms—“Why is this passage written?” or “In what way is this passage truly the good news?” or “How does this passage have the power to transform us?”—but it always takes us from a surface reading of what happened to a deeper sense of why it is recorded. This Sunday’s gospel lesson takes a long, long time to get to a fairly straightforward point, which makes me wonder whether I should throw the preacher’s question out the window.

Yesterday, we heard about Jesus going off in a boat to a lonely place but encountering a crowd that followed him on foot. Although it was cut out of the reading yesterday, the reason Jesus was seeking some time alone was the recent death of his cousin and friend, John the Baptist. Because he had pity on the crowd, Jesus never got that quiet time. This Sunday’s lesson (Matthew 14:22-33) picks up with Jesus insisting on it—sending the disciples ahead of him, dismissing the crowd, and going up on a mountain to pray. There’s a sermon waiting in there, especially with the first lesson being the story of Elijah and the Lord appearing in the sound of sheer silence (1 Kings 19:9-18), but that isn’t the point.

Then, the disciples and their little boat are battered about on the sea by quite a storm, so Jesus walks out on the water to them. So surprised are they to see someone walking on the water that they assume it is a ghost (actually a reasonable conclusion). Jesus offers them a comforting word: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Surely a preacher can find a sermon in that, but, again, it isn’t the point.

Peter isn’t satisfied. He wants to be a part of the action. He wants to take Jesus’ power and experience it for himself, so he asks Jesus to call him out on the water. Interesting, Peter says, “Lord, if it is you…” as if someone else might be walking out to them. Halfway to Jesus, the wind picks up, and Peter’s faith plummets, causing him to begin to sink. He cries out, and again Jesus saves him. There’s at least one sermon in there—Peter’s lack of faith twice over—but that isn’t the point of this lesson either.

Finally, when Peter and Jesus climb into the boat, the wind ceases. “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God!’” And there it is. Jesus has power over the wind. But no one has power over the weather except God! This is a moment when Jesus shows his disciples his résumé as the Son of God. Feeding the 5,000 was a nice trick, but Moses also found a way to feed the multitude in the wilderness. But no one other than God can command the storm to cease. That’s the point, but it took a long time to get there—maybe too long.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Sunday Sermon: Other People's Problems

August 3, 2014 – The 8th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13A
Isaiah 55:1-5; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

You know that moment late in the afternoon when your husband calls and asks if it’s ok if he brings his boss home for dinner? What’s the right thing to say to him in that moment? I know what you want to say, but what are you supposed to say? What would Jesus say? Well, according to today’s gospel lesson, Jesus would say, “That’s great, Honey. What will you be cooking for us?”

People have a habit of dumping their problems on us. Mom, I left my lunch at home. Could you bring it to me? Susan, something has come up. Could you watch my kids for few hours? Son, one of the workers here has stolen my porcelain figurine. Could you come down right away? It’s funny, isn’t it, how it’s always the same few people who seem to a crisis that needs our immediate attention? Most of the time, we smile and say, “Sure, I’ll help you out.” But, when it’s the third time this week, there’s something hiding behind that smile—words we’d rather say.

Jesus went out in a boat to a lonely place for some time by himself. His friend and cousin, John the Baptist, had just been killed, and Jesus needed some time apart. But the crowds were persistent, and they followed him on foot. When Jesus came ashore, he saw the pitiful people, who had brought their sick and lame to him, hoping that he might cure them. Moved with compassion, he began to walk among the people, stopping to speak to them as he reached out his hand and offered his healing touch. That went on for hours. As the sun dropped lower in the sky, the disciples became worried. “It’s getting late,” one of them said to the others. “Where are all of these people going to get food? If we don’t stop him now, he’ll keep going, and the shops will close before these people can buy something to eat.”

“Um, Jesus?” a disciple said in between miracles. “It’s getting close to dark. There are a lot of people here. You should send them away so that they can get something to eat.” Jesus paused for a moment and, as he returned to his work, said, “They don’t need to go away. You give them something to eat.” That’s when a wave of panic passed over the disciples, and they started saying to each other, “Whose idea was it to ask him about dinner? What are we supposed to do? We only have enough fish and bread for ourselves.”

There’s a difference between helping out someone in need and letting someone else’s problems become our own. The disciples let worry take them over. “What about these people? Where will they get food?” Jesus, on the other hand, wasn’t worried at all. “Things will work out just fine. They can go get food if they’re hungry. And, if you’re so worried about it, you deal with it. You give them something to eat.” “But we don’t have enough,” was their reply. “We don’t know what to do.” So Jesus stepped in and taught them a lesson.

God will provide. Don’t worry. Trust that other people’s problems will tend to themselves. You’ve got enough to worry about. If you spend your life trying to solve everyone else’s problems, then you don’t have enough faith that God will help you take care of your own. When you walk your kindergartener into school on the first day, you’ve got to let go. She’ll make friends. Or she won’t. You can’t do it for her. When you send your sixteen-year-old out on his first date, you’ve got to let go. He’ll make good decisions. Or he won’t. You can’t make them for him. And, when you place your elderly mother into the nursing home and she fusses and gripes about how miserable she is and asks how you could do this to her, you’ve got to let go. She’ll figure out how to be happy. Or she won’t. You can’t figure it out for her.

Having faith in God means trusting that God will provide not only for you but also for everyone else. It means knowing that, no matter what happens, somehow God will make sure everything works out just fine. Quit worrying about whether God will provide enough for everyone else, and start celebrating the abundance that he has already given you. Amen.