Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Preaching Foolishness?

When I read the parable of the wicked tenants (Matthew 21:33-46), I can't help but wonder who is more foolish--the landowner or the tenants.

The landowner spends a ton of money preparing a piece of property to be productive. He did everything right: planted a vineyard, built a wall around it, dug a wine press in it, and set up a watchtower over it. Then, like so many landlords in Jesus' parables, he put someone else in charge of it and went far away. When the time came, he sent some slaves to come and collect his share of the produces. But the tenants beat them--even killing one--and sent the slaves away empty-handed.

So what does the owner do? He sends more slaves--this time a larger group. And what happens next? The tenants do the same to them, abusing them and sending them away empty-handed.

So what does the owner do? He sends his son, thinking that the tenants will respect his son. And what happens next? The tenants kill the son, hoping to seize the land for themselves.

So what does the owner do? Even the hearers of the parable know what happens: "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time."

What sort of owner thinks that sending his own son into that kind of violent, lawless situation is a good idea?

What sort of tenant thinks he can kill the heir and steal the inheritance for himself?

In the story, who is more foolish--the landowner for sending his son to meet his death or the tenants for thinking they could get away with murdering the owner's son?

This Sunday, preach foolishness--God's foolishness and the world's foolishness. God loves us enough to send his own son into a world that continually rejects him. We love ourselves enough to think that we can do it on our own. As Paul writes, "the wisdom of the world is folly with God" (1 Cor. 3:19).

Only a fool would reject God's love. Only a fool (according to the world's understanding) would love those who continually reject him.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Nine Weeks in a Row

As Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary is nearing its end, we’re also approaching the end of Matthew’s gospel account. Regarding chapters, we’re up into the 20s, and we’ll stay there until Advent starts (unless you observe the readings for All Saints’ Day on November 2). Yesterday’s lesson (Matthew 21:23-32) comes on the heels of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the temple. That means that every Sunday from now until November 30 will have a gospel reading that comes from the last few days of Jesus’ life. It’s kind of like nine weeks of Lent and Holy Week—heightened emotion, increased conflict, and impending doom. I’m not sure we can handle it.

This coming Sunday’s reading (Matthew 21:33-46) is a continuation of yesterday’s lesson. When the Pharisees’ question Jesus’ authority with regard to the cleansing of the temple, Jesus responded with a short parable of two sons—one who refused to help his father’s request for help but helped anyway, and one who agreed to help but then neglected his duty. Although the images were tangential at times, the overall message was clear: those in the kingdom of God serve the Lord with their actions not just their words.

Just in case they (we) missed it, Jesus tells another damning parable. This time, it’s the story of the owner of a vineyard who leased it out to some pretty wicked tenants. When he sent his slaves to collect his share of the produce, the tenants attacked them, giving them nothing. So the owner sent his more slaves, but they were treated in the same way. Finally, the owner sends his son—the heir—thinking that the tenants will respect them, but, of course, they kill the heir, dreaming that they might keep the vineyard for themselves. We know how it ends—with a violent overthrow of the tenants and a reappropriation of the vineyard.

We’re in the middle of a series on fruitlessness. Here’s a breakdown of Matthew 21 & 22:

  • Jesus enters Jerusalem to a cheering crowd, which exclaims the messianic line, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Can this be the one we’re waiting for?)
  • Jesus heads straight to the temple, where he overthrows the religious apparatus by turning over the tables and chasing out the money changers. (Is this a sign that God’s anointed has come to reform the worship of God’s people?)
  • Jesus sees a fig tree but finds no fruit (Psst! spring isn’t the right season for figs), so he curses it, and it withers. (What else might Jesus find that is bearing no fruit?)
  • Jesus’ authority is challenged by the Pharisees, and in reply he asks them about John the Baptist’s baptism—is it heavenly or earthly?—but they refuse to answer. (What will it take for the religious authorities to align themselves with God’s true work in the world?)
  • Jesus tells the story of the two sons. (Are we serving God with our lips or our lives?)
  • Jesus tells the parable of the tenants in the vineyard. (Are we bearing fruit for ourselves or for the kingdom of God?)
  • Jesus tells the parable of the wedding feast—those without the right garment are thrown into the outer darkness. (What does it mean to be “dressed” for the kingdom? Are we prepared to enter God’s banquet?)
  • The Pharisees try to trap Jesus on the issue of paying taxes to Rome, and the Sadducees try to trap Jesus on the issue of resurrection, and then the Pharisees try to trap Jesus on the issue of whose son the messiah really is, but Jesus silences them all. (What is our response when confronted with the kingdom of God? Do we push back?)

It’s hard to hear this message of the kingdom over and over and over. It’s hard to come to church each week and be beaten up by Jesus, who continually questions whether we’re fit for the kingdom—whether we’re bearing fruit. It’s an important message, but can we hear it for two months in a row? It’s only week two, and I’m already looking for a new angle.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Lips or Lives?

I find this Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 21:23-32) a little confusing. First, there’s the question of authority: “By what authority are you doing these things,” the Pharisees ask. Then, there’s Jesus appeal to John the Baptist as a reply: “…Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Then, there’s the stand-off between Pharisees and Jesus, to which Jesus responds with the parable of the sons. It feels like a whole lot going on at once. What’s the point? Why does all of this happen together?

Let’s get to the heart of the matter, and I think the parable is the right place to start. Two sons are asked by their father to go and work in the vineyard. One refuses but then goes to work. One agrees but then goes elsewhere. Which one did the will of his father? The first, of course.


Because doing is more important than saying. Because actions show where our heart really is. Because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg. Because God isn’t interested in baseless words but heartfelt deeds.

To me, that seems to be the takeaway. In my mind, it’s hard to read the parable any other way. Because of that, I think the rest of the lesson—the bits about authority and John the Baptist and the stand-off and the final criticism at the end of the passage—are all about words vs. deeds.

The Pharisees ask Jesus by what authority he is doing “these things.” As Seth Olson pointed out in staff meeting yesterday, “these things” mean the cleansing of the temple and the other post-entrance-into-Jerusalem drama that is unfolding. But Jesus knows that an answer won’t do. Words can’t satisfy these skeptical, angry opponents. Nothing he could say would convince them of the truth. So Jesus appeals to action, refusing to engage their question until they answer the question about John the Baptist.

Yesterday, Steve Pankey wrote a great piece about why John the Baptist is important. In short, the answer is because those who followed John were predisposed to recognize Jesus. Thus, the question Jesus asks them about the nature of John’s baptism is another way of forcing the Pharisees to sort between words and actions. Their debate among themselves shows this: “If we say ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us…” They already recognize that words and actions aren’t lining up. To say something is of God requires real response. Lip service just won’t do.

So what does the preacher say? I’m not preaching this week, but I’d ask, “Are you a Christian with your tongue or with your heart?” Think of the General Thanksgiving from Rite One Morning Prayer (BCP 59): 
…And, we beseech thee,
give us that due sense of all thy mercies,
that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful;
and that we show forth thy praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to thy service,
and by walking before thee
in holiness and righteousness all our days…
Isn’t that the point here? Isn’t this exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees really about how we live the Christian life? Do our words and actions line up? Do we testify to the gospel seven days a week or only Sunday morning? Have we acknowledged the lordship of Jesus Christ only with our mouths, or have we given him our whole hearts?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Sharper Than a Two-Edged Sword

Occasionally, I hear people complain that Episcopalians don’t really know their bible as well as other Christians. Usually, when that happens, it’s Episcopalians who are talking to me. That might be true. I, for one, have a hard time citing chapter and verse. I’m getting better at it, but I still hesitate before telling someone where a specific quotation is in the bible. Sure, all of us—even Billy Graham—need to spend more time reading the bible and learning from it, but today’s gospel passage (Luke 4:1-13)—the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness—reminds me that there’s more to our faith than parroting back chapter and verse.

According to Luke, Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, is led in to the wilderness for forty days. During that time he fasted—ate or drank nothing—and was tempted by the devil. And that’s the part of the story that is recorded for us—the tempting. To be honest, I’d rather hear about the long walks and the camping out and the stars, but I guess the tempting makes for a better story.

“If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread,” the devil whispered to the hungry Jesus. It wasn’t a bad strategy. Surely, Jesus was starving. Maybe the delusional hunger itself is what brought the devil into the situation. And Jesus was the Son of God. He had just been anointed by the Holy Spirit in his baptism, and, although Luke doesn’t make it clear, we presume that the voice from heaven confirming Jesus as God’s beloved son was heard by others. So what’s the danger here? Well, Jesus knew better. His ministry wouldn’t be about seizing center stage. Quoting scripture, Jesus replies to the tempter, “One does not live by bread alone.”

The scene repeats itself—this time with authority and power as the temptation. After showing Jesus all of the kingdoms of the world, the devil offers to hand them over to Jesus if he will simply fall down and worship him. This seems like an easier temptation to brush aside. Power and authority may be attractive, but at what cost? Worshiping the devil? Surely not! Jesus replies with another quotation of scripture, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

Finally, things get really interesting. It’s the third temptation that shows the devil at his most clever. After taking him to the pinnacle of the temple, the devil asks Jesus to thrown himself down, but then he does something remarkable. The devil, having learned from the first two instances that Jesus appeals to scripture for the strength needed to resist temptation, quotes scripture: “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Wonderful!

The devil is right. He cites Psalm 91:10-12. He knows his bible. He knows that in the sacred scriptures of God’s people it is written that God’s angels will bear up God’s servant so that he is not injured. Of course, the Psalmist didn’t have this particular moment in mind, but it still applies. It’s written right there in the Hebrew bible. Green light, Jesus. Go ahead and jump. But Jesus, turning to another passage of scripture, replies to the devil, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” And, finally, the devil left him…until an opportune time.

“The word of God is living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword,” the author of Hebrews writes (4:12). Two-edged indeed. One must be careful that scripture, when wielded as a weapon, doesn’t bounce back and cut the one holding it. How do we use the bible? How do we approach the bible? Almost everyone can find a passage or two to support his cause—Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, Libertarians, Hawks, Doves, Pro-This, Pro-That. When two bible-quoting sides of a social debate are screaming passages of scripture at each other, which one is right? Exactly.

How do we hold the bible? How do its words shape us? Are we using it as a weapon to support our cause? In other words, are we approaching the bible as if we already know what it says? Or do we let the words of scripture wash over us, day by day, year by year, until we are worn down, shaped into the smooth stone God has called us to be? The greatest temptation of all is to be right. And, when we have the bible on our side, how could we ever be wrong? But, if we approach life from that perspective—assuming that we could never be wrong—we’re already wrong from the start. We’re no different from the devil. The question, therefore, isn’t how well we know the bible. It’s how fully scripture has shaped us.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Country Club Church

Did you read that last week the membership of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews has voted to admit women to its prestigious club? Gosh, what’s the world coming to? What will we have next—women ushers?

I don’t mean to make fun of antiquated male-dominated organizations (I am an Episcopal priest, after all), but the gospel lesson for the feast of St. Matthew (Matt. 9:9-13) makes me wonder what it was like to be in the room when that vote was taken.

When the Pharisees began to question Jesus’ disciples about why their master ate with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, `I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” It’s hard for me to imagine a more transformative, world-changing concept than the Son of God calling sinners to follow him.

At Fairhope High School, I was in the Key Club, and, back then, despite the civic/service nature of the club, the current members interviewed prospective members and voted to admit only those they deemed worthy. I don’t remember voting people out, but I do remember being interviewed (a process akin to hazing). In college, I was a member of Theta Chi fraternity. We didn’t have a “blackball” policy, where one no-vote was enough to reject a prospective member, but we did require something like 80% agreement to invite someone to pledge. Only once did I find myself in conflict with the will of the chapter—a difficult moment when I had to go and sit down with a freshman and tell him that he wasn’t going to get in. I wouldn’t say that his rejection on superficial grounds haunts me, but it’s a moment that still brings me shame. I’ve been a member of a country club, but, thankfully, as a clergy member, I didn’t get to vote on who’s in and who’s out. I’ve never served on our diocese’s Commission on Ministry—the group that helps discern whether someone is called to lay or ordained ministry—but I do serve on the Standing Committee, which must certify that an individual who has been trained for ordained ministry is suitable for the office.

What’s it like to have the power to decide whether someone gets in or is left out? What’s it like to assess whether someone is worthy to join your club? On what basis do we discriminate? Looks? Wealth? Gender? Race? Religion? Political persuasion? Intelligence? Ancestry? College football allegiance?

One might imagine that the incarnate Word of God would choose the most pure, the most religious, the most holy followers to build his movement around, but Jesus spent most of his time with traitorous tax collectors and immoral sinners—those whom religion had already excluded. Why? Because those who are well don’t need a physician. He came to call sinners to follow him. Imagine that—sinners! It’s one thing for a politician to surround himself with less-than-reputable followers, but the religious leader of the day, whom we discover to be the very Son of God, preferred the kind of people we wouldn’t let into our churches.

As a “religious official” of my own day, it’s fun for me to think what the Jewish leaders thought of Jesus and his movement. “We can tell that he is a wise and powerful religious figure. Clearly, God’s spirit is upon him. But he’s one of them—the kinds of people who show no interest in the faith. Should we listen to him? Should we give him a share of our leadership? Or should we squeeze him out?” The incongruity of an individual’s holiness and his followers’ wickedness was too much for the Pharisees to grasp. It didn’t make sense. And it still doesn’t—as long as you approach the world in the black and white terms of who’s holy and who’s not.

What did Jesus tell them? Go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” That’s a quotation of Hosea 6:6—a word from a prophet who was critical of Jerusalem’s empty religious practices. He was calling God’s people back into real relationship—one defined by the ends rather than the means. It was Jesus’ message for the religious leaders of his day. And it’s still God’s message for the church.

Who belongs in God’s house? Who is invited to come to the Lord’s table? Whom would Jesus eat with? Yes, the answer is all of us, but who are we? We are not called because we are worthy. We are not called because we are holy. We are not called because we are righteous. We are called because we are sinners in need of forgiveness. When we come to the table, do we come because we feel holy or because we seek holiness? When we invite others to join us at the table, are we looking for good people who belong or for sinners like you and me who only belong because Jesus has called them?

Jesus called the immoral outcasts of his day. As the church, we exist not to provide a club for saints but an open door for sinners. Who are the last ten people to join your congregation? What brought them there? Are you attracting members like a country club, or are you bringing in the dregs of society?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sunday Sermon: Life's Not Fair

September 21, 2014 – The 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20A

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here.

Have you ever had those moments when you hear yourself teaching your children the same lessons that your parents taught you, which makes you stop and think, “How did I ever grow up to become my parent?” One of the lines that I heard often as a child seems to come up a lot in our house right now, and I’m sure it’s one you know as well: “Life’s not fair.” She got a bigger piece of cake than I did! I’m sorry, son, but life’s not fair. Why does he get to use the iPad longer than I do? Well, honey, because life’s not fair. But, daddy, you promised that you would let all of us have a turn. I’m sorry, kids, I know I did, but life just isn’t fair. Considering how much I hated hearing that when I was a child (and how much I still hate hearing it today), I’m surprised how often I say it to my own children. But you know what? Life isn’t fair, and that’s one of those lessons we all have to learn the hard way.

But what happens when life gives us more than we deserve? No one ever says, “Life’s not fair,” when something good happens. “I got an A on my term paper even though I threw it together at the last minute. The boss gave me credit for all of your hard work. You’ve been playing golf all your life and have never had a hole-in-one and I got one the first time I teed it up. Oh well, life’s not fair.” No, we point to the unfairness of life when we’re not happy with the way things turned out—when we got the short end of the stick. That’s because we go through life expecting to get what we deserve, and, when we get less than what we are owed, we whine about it until someone reminds us that life isn’t fair. But, when we receive an unexpected, undeserved windfall, what do we do? We usually go quietly about our way, hoping that not too many people noticed.

That’s the message behind the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. The question isn’t whether life in the kingdom of heaven is fair. It’s not. The question is whether we’re grumbling about it or sneaking away when no one is looking.

You don’t have to read the parable very carefully to realize that Jesus is using our sense of fairness against us. The owner of a vineyard went out at six o’clock in the morning and hired some laborers to work on his property, agreeing to pay them a denarius—the usual daily wage. Then, he went out again at nine o’clock and at noon and at three o’clock, and hired additional workers, each time promising to pay them what is right. Finally, at five o’clock in the evening—one hour before quitting time—he went to the marketplace and hired everyone who was still standing there. But when it came time to pay the workers, he gave all of them the exact same amount—a denarius, the usual daily wage. As we would expect, those who worked all day wanted to be paid more. They were furious. “How can you make them equal to us?” they asked. “We did all they work. We deserve more than they do!” Now, Jesus doesn’t tell us what happened to the workers who were paid first, but I’d bet they slipped away as quickly as they could, hoping their angry colleagues wouldn’t find them. And my question for you this morning is this: what sort of worker do you think you are—one who started first thing in the morning or one who showed up at the last hour?

Of course, the parable assumes that the hearer thinks of himself or herself as one who worked all day. It wouldn’t be a very interesting story if it didn’t play against our sense of fairness and hook us because we think we deserve more than those Johnny-come-latelies who show up at the last minute. You’re dang right we deserve more! We’ve been here from the beginning. We’ve been serving the Lord our whole lives. Although we’d rather not talk about those years when we were in college…or in our twenties…or those Sundays during football season…you’d better believe we deserve more than those lifelong heathen who only recently started going to church. They’re only here because their new wives expect them to be.

But that’s not how the kingdom of heaven works. That’s not how God works. Instead, in the person of Jesus Christ, we discover that God loves the sinner as much as the saint…the prostitute as much as the Pharisee….the drug dealer as much as the DEA agent…the abuser as much as the victim. And we don’t like that. It’s ok for Jesus to show his love for the societal outcast as long as it’s the kind of outcast we’ve never met. But we don’t like it when people who have spent the majority of their lives as deadbeat dads and child molesters undergo a last-minute change of heart and then get to sit next to us in heaven. They don’t deserve it. They should, at the very least, have to spend eternity in a lower state of paradise—the public housing section of heaven, perhaps. But they don’t. They’re right there with us.

And, if that were all this parable had to teach us, it would be enough. One of the greatest struggles of being a Christian is accepting that God grants repentant sinners of all stripes a full share in his kingdom. We could spend a lifetime striving to grasp the concept of God’s indiscriminate love. But accepting that others receive a full share is only half of the lesson. The other half—the much harder half—is learning to accept that we are just as undeserving as they are.

What’s more infuriating—that the lazy-good-for-nothings get paid as much as those who worked all day or the fact that those who worked all day only got as much as those who barely worked at all? In the parable, all of the workers were paid the same amount. In other words, no one was compensated on the basis of the work he did. No one was singled out for doing a good job. No one got a pat on the back or a thank you for what he did. Why? Because the intrinsic value of the laborers is based not on what they contributed but purely on the fact that the master called them to work. It’s hard enough for me to accept that other people get a full share in the kingdom, but I also must accept that I don’t deserve the kingdom any more than they do. That’s the double-edged sword of grace: anyone gets in because no one deserves it.

Our place in God’s kingdom is a gracious gift; we didn’t earn it. Whether we were called at six o’clock in the morning or at five o’clock in the evening, we are all invited into the vineyard. It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how long you work. That isn’t fair, but thanks be to God that it’s not. You belong in the kingdom not because of what you’ve done but because God has made a place for you. That’s good news. If you’re grumbling at the master because of what other people are getting, you’ve missed the point of God’s love. No, they don’t deserve it, but neither do you. Would you rather have it any other way? Amen.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Good or Evil? Something's Gotta Give

On most days, I write about the upcoming lessons for Sunday. I think my preaching benefits from spending time each day reflecting on them, putting some of those thoughts into words, sharing them with friends and colleagues, and, most of all, reading what other people have written about the same lessons. In that way, we stretch each other. My sermon preparation is never as much fun as when I am a part of a good back-and-forth among preaching friends who like to ask unanswerable questions and the postulate possible answers.

But today I cannot get away from the Daily Office. Specifically, I’m focused on the Old Testament lesson for today, which the final passage from the Book of Job (42:1-17). For a moment, forget that the Lord has made a deal with Satan to test his servant Job. And forget that, after losing everything, the Lord restores it all back to Job and rewards his faithfulness by doubling what he had before. And forget that the Lord threatens to punish Job’s friends unless they ask Job to offer a sacrifice on their behalf. All of that is worth writing or preaching on, but there is a damning verse right in the middle of the story that has the power to undo everything we’ve built our faith upon:

“Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house. And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him. And each of them gave him a piece of money and a ring of gold.” (Job 42:11 ESV)

…for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him.

Imagine repeating .gif of preacher doing double-take here!

This is crazy. How can the Lord—the holy one, the source of all that is good, the omnibenevolent creator—be responsible for bringing evil upon anyone? Evil is the devil’s business. It’s the serpent beguiling Eve. It’s the wickedness that God wipes off the face of the earth in the flood. It doesn’t come from God. By definition, it is not of God. The Lord is good. Always. Forever. The end.

So, here’s the thing. We’re theologically squeamish. The culture I live in craves simple answers. We like movies that have good guys and bad guys. We like it when they have labels or costumes that let us know who is who. We might enjoy movies that leave us wondering who the real hero was, but, in those cases, we don’t leave the cinema with a sense of closure. Instead, when everything gets mixed up, what we enjoy is the confusing part. Sometimes we like scratching our heads and wondering what happened. But not when we’re dealing with God.

When it comes to our faith—our very western, very Greek, very rational, very logical faith—we need to know who is good and who is bad. We need God to be on one side of the eternal divide and Satan to be on the other side, and we don’t like it when they talk with each other and share a plan—which is EXACTLY what is depicted in the Book of Job. And that drives us crazy. But that’s the point.

We want God to make sense, and we want life to make sense, but neither happens. Instead, inexplicable tragedies happen. Nonsensical disasters happen. Unfathomable accidents happen. Something must give. There are three forces at play—God’s goodness, God’s power, and human experience. Something must give. Either God is good in ways that don’t always make sense or God is powerful in ways that don’t always make sense or human experience isn’t quite what it seems or maybe it’s a little bit of all three. But you can’t have a God whose always-goodness meets the Disney definition of good and a God whose power over all things is unquestioned and a world that isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. Will we accept that the “evil” we experience might not be all that evil after all? Or will we live with mystery?

Job is a book that tackles the mysteries of life by offering an explanation—“for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him”—that doesn’t satisfy. And that’s the point. We can shake our fist at God and demand an answer, but where were we when God laid the foundations of the world?

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Working Only One Hour

On Sunday, we will hear the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). You remember the story: a man hires workers at different hours throughout the day but pays them all a full day’s wage—even those who only worked an hour. Jesus tells the story from the perspective of those who worked the whole day. Presumably, that’s because they take our place in the story. We are the ones who were invited first yet were paid the same as those who came in at the last minute. Their grumbling and complaining—“you have made them equal to us”—is our grip at God.

But what about the others? What about the ones who only worked one hour? How did they feel?

Were they surprised to be paid a full day’s wage? In the parable, the owner promises to pay them “whatever is right.” How did it feel to receive the whole amount? Were they startled? Did their eyes light up and their face show an uncontrollable grin?

Were they embarrassed to be paid so much? They only worked an hour. They hardly did anything. Did they blush with discomfort at being rewarded so handsomely? Did they feel as if they were cheating the system?

Where they ashamed to be paid as much as those who had worked all day? Did they run away quickly so that their angry counterparts wouldn’t have a chance to take their frustration out on them? Did they feel the urge to apologize or even share some of their compensation with those who felt shorted?

Were they confused by their compensation? Did they wonder what the motive behind the payment was? Did they struggle to make sense of the owner’s logic? Did they somehow feel like they were being used in a strange power struggle?

Did they feel undervalued? Since the owner paid everyone the same amount seemingly with no regard for their labor, did they ironically sense that they did not matter as individuals? Was their plight—their standing around idle all day because no one had called them—subsumed by the owner’s magnanimity?

Usually we hear this parable and we think of ourselves as those who grumble about deserving more. And there’s definitely a sermon to be preached on our sense of entitlement. But today I’m curious about those other workers—the ones we forget about. Maybe some of us feel closer to them. Maybe we’re confused or embarrassed at being given what we do not deserve. What about them? What do they teach us?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Make the People Angry

I wonder whether some truths are so familiar to us that we can’t hear them anymore. As I preacher, I find myself saying the same earth-shaking theological truths over and over yet wondering whether the congregation really notices. “God loves you no matter what. No, really, he does. Seriously, I mean it; he really, really does.”

That’s when it’s time to speak in parables, and this week’s lessons (Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Matthew 20:1-16) provide the perfect opportunity to do it. The princaiple at play, here, is the belief that God’s mercy extends to those who do not deserve it. In Jonah, the title character is angry because God has seen the Ninevites repentance and has decided not to destroy them all. In Matthew, the laborers who worked all day resent the equal pay given to those who only worked an hour. As Christians, we resent that God’s love and grace and mercy and forgiveness belong as much to the wicked as to us. But how do we get that point across?

Parables. It’s time to preach a parable.

Once upon a time there were two sisters. The younger daughter remained close to her childhood home, and the elder moved across the country, where she raised a family of her own. As their parents grew older, time and time again, the younger daughter stepped in to help. The storm that blew a tree down on the roof—the younger daughter helped. The time that the pipes froze and burst—the younger daughter took care of it. The day their mother fell and broke her hip—the daughter stepped in and made sure everything was ok.

As the years went by, the older daughter came in for Thanksgiving and Easter—the two times of the year that she visited her parents—and called every week or two. She voiced concern when her mother was in the hospital, and shared her worries when her father’s health began to decline, but the burden of care always fell to the younger daughter. Still, the parents doted on their older child. When their father died, the mother clung to her older daughter—even though she left to go home after two days. When her mother was bedridden and moved in with her younger daughter, all she wanted was to see the girl who lived out of town. Finally, when the older child arrived at her dying mother’s bedside, the mother said, “At last, I have seen my beloved daughter. Now, I can die,” and she breathed her last.

And, two days later, the older daughter left town to go back home, where she waited for her half of the estate to come as a check in the mail.

We’re supposed to be angry when we read these stories. We are supposed to seethe when we read of God’s willingness to spare the Ninevites. Those barbarians had tortured the Israelites for generations. They would raid the northern towns, burn the farms, and kidnap the women and children. They were terrorists. To faithful Israelites like Jonah, they were the ISIS of their day. And yet God spared them? But the story of Jonah, we protest, is a story of a giant fish who swallowed a man who wouldn’t listen to God! Really? That’s bull****. Read the story again. It’s a terrible tale of God’s forgiveness of even the worst possible sinners.

When Jesus told the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, he was being controversial. His hearers were supposed to listen to that story and think, “Wait a minute! That’s not right! You can’t do that!” We’re supposed to hear the parable and get angry at the landowner and at Jesus for telling it. “That can’t be what the kingdom of heaven is like! That’s not fair! I don’t want to be a part that upside-down, backwards, socialist place Jesus is speaking of!”

But we’ve heard these stories before. And we’ve heard preachers deliver sermons about how upside-down the kingdom of heaven is and how provocative God’s mercy really is. Well? It’s time for a parable. Find a story that will make the congregation angry—really, deeply angry at how God’s kingdom works. Is it forgiveness for murderers? Is it a communist manifesto? Is it selling the altar guild’s silver and giving the money to drug addicts? What will push us over the edge? The bible is supposed to do it, but I worry that it’s familiarity has made us immune to its power. Preach the word with gloves off. Make the people squirm. Make them want to throw something at you right in the middle of the sermon. Then, you will have done your job.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Working Hard to Forgive

September 14, 2014 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19A

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Listen to the audio of this sermon here.

Forgiveness is a spiritual exercise that may be harder than we think.

In last week’s gospel lesson, Jesus urged his disciples to look for opportunities to forgive those within the church who sinned against them. “Go when it is just the two of you and point out the fault while you are alone. If that doesn’t work, take one or two witnesses with you. If that doesn’t work, tell it to the whole church…” At each step, the hope is that reconciliation might be possible. But Peter—who often plays our part in the story—approached Jesus and asked, “Wait, how far does this forgiveness stuff go? How many times are we supposed to forgive—as many as seven times?” “No,” Jesus replied, “Seventy-seven times.”

What are the limits of forgiveness? How far should forgiveness go? Our youngest child is at the point where he likes to test the boundaries of what he can get away with. How many times will we forgive him playing with his milk or throwing a toy against the wall or turning the hose on outside? We might put him straight in timeout for doing the thing he knows very well not to do, but, ultimately, there is no limit to how many times we will forgive him. He’s two. How can you not forgive a two-year-old for being a little spunky?

What about the addict who tells you how sorry she is and begs for your forgiveness and support as she tries to turn her life around? After her tear-filled speech, which leaves you crying, too, she goes into your bathroom and steals another piece of your jewelry so that she can sell it to get high? Do you forgive her again? What about the next time? And the next? Seventy-seven times, Lord? Really?

Forgiveness doesn’t mean stupidity. Sometimes the best thing we can do for an addict is to treat her like an addict. And forgiveness doesn’t mean acting like nothing happened, either. That would be too easy. There’s no spiritual exercise there. Forgiveness means you looking at me and me looking at you and both of us acknowledging what happened but living together in that place of stasis—that place of shalom—that means neither one of us is holding on to the past. That’s hard work, but it’s gospel work.

Every once in a while we hear amazing stories of forgiveness—Pope John Paul II going into prison to forgive the man who tried to kill him, a father taking the stand at a serial killer’s sentencing to say that he has forgiven the one who killed his daughter, the Amish community forgiving the man who walked into a school and killed five girls before killing himself and embracing the shooter’s family at his funeral. In cases like these, no one would think less of the victim who was unable or unwilling to forgive. In our minds, those who have experienced unthinkable tragedy owe no one anything. If they want to hold onto their grief and anger, who could stand in their way?

Yet Jesus begs us to forgive—even those who have hurt us the most. He asks us not to pretend that the wrong has not occurred. He asks us to look our transgressor in the eye and, fully conscious of what transpired, to offer a hand of forgiveness anyway. Why? Because that is how God works. God knows all the wrongs we have ever committed and all the wrongs we will ever commit, and still he embraces us and forgives us. The real power of forgiveness is knowing the fullness of the hurt yet offering love in response. That’s hard to imagine. That’s hard to understand. And that’s the point. God is doing the unthinkable. God is reaching out to us in nearly unimaginable ways. And the only way we can ever know what it means to be forgiven like that is to offer forgiveness in the same way. Amen.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Power of Forgiveness

I had lunch the other day with someone who helps me see the world in a new way. He's a poet (actually, really a poet), and his insights seem gentle at first, but their power lingers for weeks afterward. We discussed family and church and God and lots of stuff in between. At some point in our conversation, we spoke of the language we use to speak of God, and Harry remarked how much of our religious vocabulary has to do with money--redeem, indebtedness, absolve, forgive. In preparation for this Sunday, I've been reading Matthew 18:21-36, and I've had his words in mind as I've considered the transaction of forgiveness.

Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. I dated a Presbyterian once, but it became clear that reciting the Lord's prayer would always keep us apart. Still, that's the real language of Jesus' prayer. We've tallied up spiritual debts against God, and we know forgiveness of those debts as we offer forgiveness to others. It's transactional.

It's no accident that the parable Jesus tells to illustrate the importance of forgiveness centers on two debtors. One slave owes a tremendous amount to his master and is also owed a pittance by another slave. The master forgives the huge debt, but the slave refuses to forgive his peer's obligation. When the master finds out, he holds the first slave responsible for the entire amount, "hand[ing] him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt."

Except in the cases when money is involved, we probably don't think about forgiveness in these transactional terms, but I believe there is a real and clear exchange going on when we forgive or are forgiven. Instead of money, though, the exchange is one of power.

When you wrong me, I have something to hold against you. I can snub you. I can shame you. I can make you feel guilty. And, even if you're immune to my maltreatment, I can feel justified in what I do. "She hurt my feelings, so I'm going to get her back," we say to ourselves with impunity. But, when we forgive the one who has hurt us, we give all of that power back. We say to the other person, "Even though I might have a very good reason to hold this over you, I choose to give that back." Forgiveness doesn't mean forgetting, but it does mean I don't get to hold you accountable (notice the money word) for what you did.

The truth is, though, that there's another channel of power at work in a moment of withheld forgiveness. If you have wronged me and I refuse to offer forgiveness, you continue to wield power over me through the original act. Even if we don't see each other again, when I lie down on my bed at night and think of you and how angry I am at you, you win. I am still in your control. In a sense, therefore, forgiveness isn't just a one-on-one transaction. It's also something that can be exchanged internally. You might not ever know that I have forgiven you, but, when I have made peace with you and your wrong--when it no longer has any affect in my life--that means that I have forgiven you.

Forgiveness is about the exchange of power. Forgiveness is about yielding back to the other person that which is rightfully ours. Forgiveness is about finding equilibrium (shalom) in a relationship. God has more than enough reason to hand us over to be tortured until we have paid the entire debt, but instead he wipes the slate clean. He absolves us of our obligation. He gives that power back to us. That transaction cannot be real to us until we model it in our own lives.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Death Schmeath!

Last fall, when we did our series on death and dying, someone remarked that I seemed a little too cavalier when it came to talking about death—not that I was courageous or confident but careless and insensitive. That was something I hadn’t even noticed. I might have been too flippant because I was hoping that all of us would finish the series more comfortable talking about death. Or maybe it was because I spend a pretty good bit of time talking with people who are dying and have become overly familiar with end-of-life issues. But it might just be because I don’t take death all that seriously.

Keep in mind that I have never buried a parent or a spouse or a child. I have buried people whom I love deeply, and I have wept bitterly as someone important to me took his last breath. But, still, I don’t get overly sentimental when  someone dies. I think that’s a little bit defense mechanism but also a whole lot theology.

Today’s gospel lesson from John (11:1-16) is puzzling on several fronts. For starters, Jesus learns that his friend Lazarus is gravely ill, but he still stayed two more days in the place where he was before setting off. Also, Jesus keeps talking about Lazarus’ illness and death in ways that confuse his disciples and us. “This illness does not lead to death,” he says. “Rather, it is for God’s glory.” Later on, he remarks that “Lazarus has fallen asleep,” but John then explains to us that he didn’t mean sleep but death. There’s also a bit in the middle about walking while it is day and not stumbling. And, finally, Thomas, bold but somewhat confused, remarks that they might as well head off with him to die.

As my six-year-old daughter has been saying around the house lately, “Waitwhaaat?”

I’m drawn to two different ways to resolve all of that confusion. First, I could take Jesus’ cryptic comments and cavalier attitude as evidence that he knew that he would raise Lazarus from the dead. If that’s the case, the statement, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory,” becomes a foretelling of the miracle that follows. And it all makes sense that way. Jesus isn’t worried because he knew he had the power and plan to bring Lazarus back from the dead. But I think there may be more power in approaching these enigmatic statements from another angle.

What if we take Jesus’ confidence not as evidence of a miracle that will happen in a few days but as the perspective of someone who knows through and through that God’s love has the power to carry us through this life, through our death, and into what awaits us? Instead of Jesus merely predicting his own miracle—kind of showy, anyway—what happens if this is Jesus’ display of faith that even if Lazarus dies that death isn’t the end of the story? What if Jesus’ point here isn’t to show off his dead-raising talents but to encourage us to have that same sort of peace even in the face of death? Maybe that’s how Lazarus’ illness leads to God’s glory.

Usually, I stick to the simplest-is-best approach to biblical interpretation. And, still, that’s probably the case here. But, today, when I find myself wondering what encouragement John 11 gives to the 21st-century Christian, I’m looking not in the shallow hope that Jesus might show up four days after a loved one dies to bring him back to life. Instead, my hope lies in the bigger miracle that the story of Lazarus points to. And that’s surely the purpose here: if Jesus can raise his friend from the dead, God can raise all of us to new life through his son.

How do you approach death—whether your own on that of someone you love? How in touch with the resurrection are you? Since there’s little chance of Jesus showing up at your bedside, it may seem like the promise and power of resurrection lies far away, but it’s not. Death is not the end. If we knew that—if that were true to us in everyday life—how different would our conversations about death be?

Christian Community

This post was originally an article in our parish newsletter. To read the rest of The View, click here.

A remarkable thing happened on Sunday night: a group of youth sat around a table and decided how they would live together for the coming year—a process which reminded me of the value of Christian community.

Although I participated in the discussion, I did so mostly as an observer. Kristin Hanson, our youth director, guided the conversation, but the real substance of the debate came from the youth themselves. “What words or phrases do you think of when you hear the word ‘community,’” Kristin asked. After everyone had an opportunity to contribute, we were then asked what makes a Christian community different from other types of community. “Prayer,” someone said. “Serving others,” another suggested. Then, once the foundation was laid, we turned to the real issues.

As if on cue, one of the boys at the table pulled out his cell phone to check a text message he had just received. “What about cell phone use?” someone asked. “What are the rules about that?” Seizing the opportunity for community building, Kristin responded with another question, asking, “What do you think the rules should be?” At first, the conversation went much as you might expect: teenagers voiced their reluctance at having to keep their phones in their pockets, next whined about having to turn them off, and then balked at the notion that they should surrender them upon walking through the door. As I feared, the ubiquity of handheld technology—a covetousness I share—threatened to unravel this burgeoning community before it even got off the ground.

Then, guided by a different spirit, the attitude in the room shifted. Our posture changed from one of defensiveness to one of mutual concern. We listed all of the possible options for handling cell phone use during EYC, and Kristin asked us to name our reservations about each. When it seemed as if the whole group had reached consensus about one option, she articulated a proposal that more or less comprised everyone’s perspective. We then went around the table, and each of us responded to the proposal with “yes” (showing our agreement), “no” (indicating that the proposal was something we could not live with), or “pass” (suggesting that the proposal was not what we wanted but something we were willing to accept for the sake of the group). The process was repeated, and, before long, we had adopted a policy that everyone could accept. When we had finished, despite all the odds, we passed around a bag, into which all of us voluntarily placed our phones.

Last Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 18:15-20) is a text about how to deal with conflict in a church. This coming Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 18:21-35) includes a conversation and a parable about the importance of forgiveness. For two weeks in a row, we will hear sermons about the value of Christian community and how we are called to sacrifice our individual wants and needs for the sake of the community to which we belong. Our shared identity is built upon the principle of mutuality above self. What will hold us together? What must we let go of in order to strengthen our ties to one another? As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are supposed to act as he did—not by standing up for what matters to us but by yielding all that we have for the sake of the other.

Jesus said, “Whoever would be first among you must be servant of all.” That is how a church is built. That is what it means to be the body of Christ. On Sunday night, the youth group demonstrated that they understand what Christian community is all about. Will the rest of us take notice?

Monday, September 8, 2014

So Now You Tell Us!

Yesterday's gospel seemed to be about excommunication--what does it take to kick someone out of the church? This Sunday, the lesson picks up right where yesterday's left off, and we discover that what Jesus was really thinking about was forgiveness--how many times should we forgive?

Here's how I see the scene unfolding:

  • Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep, stressing that the shepherd (God) will leave everything behind in search of the one lost member.
  • Jesus tells his disciples what to do if a member of their fellowship sins against them, prescribing a three-fold process of seeking reconciliation, ultimately ended in the excommunication of the unrepentant sinner.
  • Peter, surprised at what he hears, asks Jesus how many times forgiveness is appropriate?
  • Jesus, leaving no doubt, tells a parable about the consequence of our unwillingness to forgive.

Peter is startled at this puzzling direction from Jesus, but he's NOT startled in the way that I am. I want to stop Jesus and say, "Wait, you want us to kick someone out?" But Peter, who asks Jesus, "If another member of the church sins against me, how many times should I forgive--as many as seven times?" heard Jesus' instruction not as a condemnation but as a surprising message of forgiveness.

Over and over, the cultural gap between now and then leaves me misinterpreting the gospel text. I think Jesus is being harsh, but Peter thinks he's being lenient. I think Jesus is interesting in kicking people out of the church, but Peter is shocked that he's willing to put up with unrepentant shenanigans for so long.

The shocking, amazing, foundation-shaking truth is this: forgiveness has no limits. How will that be real to us?

Here's a list of some ways that we miss the point of the gospel in everyday life:

  • Habitual offender laws or "three-strikes laws" that indiscriminately impose mandatory sentences (sometimes life sentences) for third felony convictions
  • Pete Rose's place on the permanently ineligible list of Major League Baseball
  • Capital punishment

Even Marge Schott, the blatant racist and Nazi supporter who owned the Cincinnati Reds, was reinstated two years after receiving a lifetime ban from baseball. Even the NFL's new domestic violence policy, which threatens a possible lifetime ban for a second offense, imagines that an individual can apply for reinstatement after the first year. Even those incarcerated for life without the possibility of parole have the opportunity to seek reconciliation with those they have hurt.

Jesus shows us that we must always leave room for repentance. It might not happen, and we might be forced to treat someone "as a Gentile and a tax collector," but we must always look for the possibility of reconciliation. How willing are we to forgive--not just as individuals but as a society?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sunday Sermon: Forgiveness Matters

September 7, 2014 – The 13th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18A
Ezekiel 33:7-11; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermons can be heard here.

One of the things we tell our acolytes is that, if they’re doing a good job, they will more or less disappear. And the same is true for the clergy—especially the one who is standing at the altar saying the words of the Eucharistic Prayer. Our job is to get out of the way. All of us—priests, acolytes, choir, ushers, and every one sitting in a pew—we are all here to experience God’s presence, and, if any one of us is drawing attention to himself, the rest of us have a harder time staying focused on the one who meets us here—the Word made flesh.

That’s one of my favorite things about the way we do church. Although there is plenty of time for the preacher to shine (or not), most of our service has less to do with us and more to do with Jesus. When we come to the altar rail to receive the bread and wine, we come to meet our Lord—to commune with God, not with our priest. Yes, some of you like to look the clergy in the eye and feel a gentle squeeze as the bread is placed into your palm, but, when we’re at our best, what transpires up there is an unmediated encounter between worshipper and God. The ministers disappear, and all that’s left is you and Jesus.

But sometimes that isn’t possible.

A few times in my ministry, I have noticed when one of you has crossed over the aisle to take Communion on the other side. Sometimes clergy disappoint their parishioners. And, once or twice, I have hurt one of you enough that you didn’t want me to be the one who handed you the Communion bread. What you may not know is that sometimes those roles are reversed. Sometimes parishioners disappoint their clergy. And, once or twice, one of you has hurt me enough that I didn’t want to be the one to hand you the “body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” I’ve never swapped sides or skipped over anyone, but I’ve thought about it once or twice because the truth is, whether parishioner or priest, it’s hard sharing this holy encounter with someone who has wounded you deeply.

There’s a page in the prayer book that outlines the procedure for withholding Communion from “a person who is living a notoriously evil life” or “those who have done wrong to their neighbors and are a scandal to the other members of the congregation” (BCP 409). Excommunication is the harshest punishment the church can bestow on its members, but it seems that there are times when it really does come to that. It’s not very well known, and I’ve never heard of anyone using it, but I think it’s important to put that procedure in there—not because I ever expect to need it but because all of us are supposed to remember that we cannot be the body of Christ if there is an unreconciled brokenness among us.

Today’s gospel lesson is recorded in a chapter that deals almost exclusively with forgiveness. After telling his disciples the parable of the lost sheep—the story of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine in search of the one who has gone astray—Jesus tells them what to do when a fellow disciple sins against them. First, go and point out the wrong when the two of you are alone. If that doesn’t work, bring one or two witnesses with you and see if you can regain that one. If that still doesn’t work, tell the whole church. And, if the hardhearted one refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. In other words, cut him off completely—from your worshipping community, from your social circle, from your business, and from every aspect of your life. That seems pretty harsh coming from the one who spent most of his time with tax collectors and prostitutes, but, given the enormity of God’s forgiveness, it makes sense.

God is the one who leaves everything behind in search of the one who is lost. God is the one who sees the magnitude of our sin and loves us anyway. God is the one who knows that we will always turn our back on him, yet he sent his son to show us that he will always be willing to welcome us back. If we allow our sin against one another to linger and fester in our community, the power of God’s forgiveness will never be real to us. We cannot be the body of Christ and sit across the aisle from someone who has hurt us. We cannot exist as the forgiven people of God if we refuse to seek forgiveness among ourselves. We cannot know heaven’s forgiveness if we cannot find forgiveness here on earth.

Then what should we do? Jesus said, “If another member of the church has sinned against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Notice where he places the burden of reconciliation—not on the one who has done the wrong but on the one who has been hurt. The truth is that it’s easier simply to avoid the one who has hurt us. It’s easier to sit on our side of the aisle and look with hatred at the one who has caused us such pain. But we cannot know what it means to be forgiven by God until we are willing to bear the cost of going to that person in search of reconciliation. God’s forgiveness might be free, but living as the body of Christ sometimes costs us everything.

Who is that person whom you cannot seem to forgive? Who is the one who makes you cross the aisle in order to avoid encountering that person at the altar rail? Who is it that has hurt you so badly that you cannot encounter the fullness of God’s forgiveness until you seek reconciliation with that person? We are the body of Christ. We are the forgiven people of God. But that cannot be true unless we are willing to forgive just as we have been forgiven. God’s forgiveness must fill us so completely that we become willing to sacrifice our own woundedness on the altar of reconciliation. Let go of your hurt. Seek out the one who has wronged you. Pursue that person in the name of forgiveness. Only then can God’s grace reign among us. Amen. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Preach Forgiveness

There are two ways to read Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 18:15-20)—as a passage about excommunication or a passage about reconciliation. All week long, I’ve been reading it as if Jesus were setting up a structure for kicking unrepentant troublemakers out of the church.

Someone sins against you? Go to that person in private. Still no agreement? Take someone with you and confront that person. Still nothing? Bring the matter before the whole church. If that doesn’t work, kick that person out!

In some ways, that’s true. In this passage, Jesus outlines a process for excommunicating those who refuse to live by the community’s standards. It’s elaborate. There are clearly defined steps. There is a substantial consequence—treat that person as a Gentile and tax collector. And, if it weren’t for the rest of Matthew 18, I’d think I was supposed to preach a sermon on slamming the door in someone’s face.

Take a minute and read these verses from the surrounding text
  • “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (18:3)
  • “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?” (18:12)
  • “Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.’” (18:21-22)
  • “…So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (18:35)

Somehow, this Sunday’s passage—even though it’s about the consequences due an unrepentant person—is built upon the importance of forgiveness. Taken in isolation, it sounds final and harsh and condemnatory. Taken in the context of Matthew 18, it becomes a passage that pushes the limits of forgiveness.

Next Sunday’s lesson (18:21-35) is the exchange between Jesus and Peter about forgiveness and the parable of the unforgiving servant. As it was a few weeks ago, when one week’s gospel lesson (Peter’s confession of Jesus as the messiah) anticipated the following week’s lesson (Jesus’ prediction of his death), it’s easy for the preacher to steal next week’s thunder and preach on both from the start. For the sake of my colleague, who will climb into the pulpit next Sunday, I will try my best to leave Peter’s question about how many times we should forgive out of this week’s sermon, but I have to build that sermon on forgiveness. It’s what the passage is really about.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Acts 8 BLOGFORCE Challenge: Why Anglicanism?

I can think of no other religious tradition that embodies the heart of the gospel more fully than Anglicanism. Its history, its theology, its structure, and its future are all stories of grace. Why Anglicanism? Although it isn't perfect, Anglicanism is the most grace-filled, gospel-centered expression of religious or philosophical thought I can think of.

This week, the Acts 8 BLOGFORCE team is calling for responses to the second of its three-part series on reforming the church. This week's question is "Why Anglicanism?" which is a topic very close to my heart. My thoughts on the topic are wide-ranging, but I'll offer three brief reasons and wrap it up with a tie-in to Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 18:15-20).

First, history and theology, which are intertwined. Anglicanism is a product of the Protestant Reformation. Its origins belong in the same crucible as the reforming of the continental churches by Luther, Calvin, and their successors. It was born during a search for a church that is re-grounded in scripture. It comes from a desire to dismantle the human-centered institutions and recapture the basics of the church of Paul's letters and the Acts of the Apostles. Although politics and money and sex all had a role in the process, the Reformation ostensibly was a return to the gospel-first approach to church, hence the five solae--sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, sola Christus, sola Deo gloria. Yes, Anglicanism's history is different (and that's important), but its Reformation origin is central to its unique place in Christendom.

Things were different in England, and the political process steered the Reformation process in a parallel but substantially mitigated fashion. Henry VIII was a faithful Catholic, but, for personal reasons enshrined in catchy tunes like "I'm Hen-e-ry the Eighth I am.,." he rejected the authority of the Bishop of Rome. His halfhearted reforms, combined with the back-and-forth of Protestant and Catholic that accompanied the successions of Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, left Anglicanism somewhere in the middle. Finally tired of killing people on the wrong side of the Tiber-divide, the leaders of the church and nation, under Elizabeth I, decided that faithful inclusion simply meant showing up and worshiping together. Catholic-leaning clergy and people were allowed to stay in the church as long as they stayed in the church. The uber-Protestants were unable to completely reform the church to their liking. As a result, Anglicanism was born, and its grace-focused foundation was laid. It is Protestant, but it is open. It is Catholic, but it is congregational. It is worship-focused and prayer-focused rather than doctrinally-exclusive.

Second, structure. Something special happens when you take centralized authority and divvy it up among local people. And something really special happens when you take that authority and invest part of it back in hierarchical institutions. We are a congregational church. Decision-making happens at the local level. Congregations call their own clergy. Congregations are responsible for the use and upkeep of their property. Congregations make decisions for themselves. But we are also a hierarchical church. We have bishops (a narrowly reached decision that almost left us without people in purple), and they are the chief pastors and priests and teachers and theologians in a particular diocese. We rely on bishops to ordain clergy. Congregations cannot leave the authority of the bishop without leaving the church entirely. Anglicanism is built on a structure that values the individual's role and ministry in the church, but it also reflects our belief that we belong to something bigger than ourselves. We are subject to the authority of the church, and the church is guided by us. That's grace at work. It is not forced or dictated, nor is it subject only to the whim of the individual. The relationships at all levels of the church are important and interdependent.

Third, future. If you had to predict the role of Christianity in the world in 500 years, what would that look like? Another way to ask that question is this: what sort of church would attract a new, previously unchurched believer in 2514? I have a feeling it isn't the kind of church that says, "We know better than you do what's good for you, how the world works, and what your future is." Instead, I think it's the kind of church that says, "Want to explore life's meanings in a community that supports you and takes your experience and knowledge seriously? Come join us."

I define fundamentalism as an approach to the world that allows religious beliefs to take unquestioned precedence over other beliefs. Decide to ignore what science tells us about creation or evolution? You're a fundamentalist. Decide to ignore what experience tells us about death and resurrection? You're a fundamentalist. Think the bible or the creed or the church's teachings are immune to the skepticism of contemporary inquiry? You're a fundamentalist. Churches that grip tightly to their own world view and refuse to adapt--or are even reluctant to adapt--will have no place in the future. Because of its history, theology, and structure, I believe Anglicanism is more willing to change and adapt to the changing world than any other religious tradition. We are defined as traditional yet reformed. We start by worshiping together rather than discriminating along doctrinal lines. We are built to value the input of the individual, and we are bound to one another in our shared identity. We are not threatened by the future, nor do we seek to govern it.

This Sunday, we have a difficult passage from Matthew as the gospel lesson. In it, Jesus gives unbelievable authority to his disciples--the power to loose or bind on earth in ways that have a heavenly impact. But Jesus also places incredible responsibility on the shoulders of Christians--the requirement that we address brokenness within the church head on. To me, that sounds a lot like Anglicanism. We recognize that the church is carrying out God's work in the world, and we see remarkable, God-given authority invest in its leaders. But we also recognize that the work of ministry is done by everyone. Fellowship among believers is important. The emphasis is on relationship, not doctrine. Jesus lays out steps for making sure that the congregation is of one heart even if it is not of one mind. In a very real way, that's Anglicanism in miniature.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Gentiles and Tax Collectors

In an exaggerated gesture of “good riddance,” Jesus says of those who refuse to listen when confronted about a wrong they have done, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Good news: our church is full of Gentiles, so I’m not really sure whether those stinging words will have any effect. What does it mean to treat a member of the Gentile church as a Gentile and a tax collector? I don’t know of any IRS agents who go to St. John’s, but I could be mistaken. Still, I doubt we’d treat them any differently than the rest of us. So what does Jesus mean?

This Sunday’s gospel lesson is Matthew 18:15-20. And this is one of those weeks when the preacher will either have to reinterpret Jesus’ imperative into modern parlance or preach a sermon about the imperative rather than preach the imperative itself. And that’s where I’m leaning. Honestly, given how quickly the Christian movement became a predominantly Gentile church, I’m curious how this particular line survived in Matthew’s account. Why leave it in? By the time people were reading Matthew’s gospel text, treating a fellow Christian as a gentile would have meant about as much as it does today. Plus, Matthew himself was a tax collector, which makes me wonder what this is really all about.

Is Jesus really saying, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector—an untouchable enemy who has no share in your fellowship,” which is what a Jewish reading of the text would imply? Or is Jesus saying, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector—a sinner who needs redeeming and, whenever he comes to his senses and repents, should quickly be readmitted into the church?”

The problem is distinguishing between what I want this text to be about and what it is really about. I want this text to be about forgiveness. Having taken a quick glance at the passage in the gospel book on Sunday morning, I misremembered that it was about forgiveness, and I spent some time yesterday dreaming what sort of forgiveness sermon I might preach. But it doesn’t seem to be about forgiveness. It seems to be about judgment. I want Jesus to be soft on the Gentiles and tax collectors, but I don’t buy into the he-isn’t-really-saying-what-he-is-saying approach to the bible. Almost always, the text says what it’s supposed to say. So what do we do with this?

Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Hmmm. Maybe the integrity of the church really does depend on resolving those differences or casting out the unrepentant. Maybe the three chances that the sinner is given to come to his or her senses is actually a sign of gracious leniency. Maybe Jesus wants me to spend time during the announcements each week naming those who have refused to seek forgiveness so that we can disown them. I don’t think so. I hope not. I’ve got the rest of the week to figure it out.