Thursday, October 30, 2014

Sainthood Comes from God

I’ve written about it before, but it’s a conversation I come back to over and over in my own faith development. It’s my long and protracted though definitely friendly argument with my across-the-hall neighbor from my first year of seminary, Tim Ferguson. After a few weeks of Morning Prayer from the BCP (remember, the 1662 version in England), we found ourselves at loggerheads over the primary identity of a Christian. I like to think of us as sinners, and he likes to think of us as saints.

Back and forth, back and forth—we argued. I love the line in the old confession “miserable offenders” and “there is no health in us.” He didn’t like that at all. “God made us good—very good,” he would counter, but I would cling to my Augustinian understanding of human nature and respond, “But after the fall of Adam the taint of original sin has been passed down to us.” We both knew it was silly but fun. We both enjoyed taking a hyperbolic position just to get a rise out of the other.

Still, though, it illuminated something in my own theological bias. I came to know the love of God as one who recognized his own depravity. That love reached down and yanked me out of my sin. I suppose that others might have discovered the saving, forgiving, redeeming love of God in a place of blessing. Maybe that’s the difference—I don’t  know. But I do know that my understanding of holiness—of sainthood—comes not from a place of internal goodness but from an imputed righteousness that is given by God through our faith.

As I prepare to preach on All Saints’ Sunday, I’m thinking a lot about sainthood. No, I don’t mean the saints whose names often adorn church buildings or whose legends we still tell our children. I mean the sainthood—the holy identity—that is given to all God’s beloved. Those are the “saints” or the “holy ones” to whom Paul addresses his letters. We are saints. By virtue of our redemption, we are all saints.

But we’re sinners, too. And that’s the real beauty of it. Sainthood is not unattainable. (Well, actually it is if we’re talking about the do-it-on-your-own sense of individual attainment.) Sainthood is given to those of us miserable sinners who know what it means to be called to holiness. It’s probably a good thing that parishioners hear their clergyperson reminding them of their sinfulness on a regular basis. There aren’t many other cultural institutions that will tackle human brokenness head-on like that. But it’s imperative that our preachers also remind us that, despite our sinfulness, God has made us his holy people—his saints.

On Sunday, we’re going to sing a hymn that it has taken me a few years to grow to love: “I sing a song of the saints of God…” It’s as folksy as we get in the Episcopal Church. At the end of each line, the singer ponders her or his own potential sainthood: “…there’s not any reason, no not the least, why I couldn’t be one, too.” Exactly. But that’s not because we expect to be slain by a fierce wild beast. It’s because we expect to go shopping and have tea. Our sainthood comes not from within us. It is given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ. It is he that makes us holy—saintly. Our faith in him—our ability to trust in God’s promise of redemption—is what clothes us in sainthood from on high.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Updating Sheep and Wolves

Today is the feast of James Hannington and his companions, the first of many of the “Martyrs of Uganda.” They were killed on this day in 1885—one hundred twenty-nine years ago. I read that Hannington signed up with the Christian Missionary Society after learning that two Christian missionaries had been murdered near Lake Victoria. He went to Africa but became very sick with fever and dysentery, so he had to return home to England to recover. Then, willing to return, Hannington was consecrated Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa and sent back. He was thirty-seven years old.

He decided that what was needed was a safer, shorter route from Kenya, where he arrived, to Uganda—specifically Buganda, which is a subnational kingdom that lies in the center of Uganda. Wikipedia suggests that the well-trafficked southern route was controlled by Arab slave traders, and Hannington hoped to establish a better way for Christians to travel. At this time, there were many Christians in Uganda. Hannington wasn’t journeying to bring the gospel to “deepest, darkest Africa,” where no preacher had gone before. Instead, he was simply trying to make Christian inroads—literally—into a part of the country that was undeveloped.

But, as his martyrdom implies, things did not go well. Hannington was unaware that cutting a road through Buganda would not be well received by the authorities. At the same time, German imperial forces were spreading elsewhere on the African continent, and the king of Buganda, Mwanga II, was suspicious that Hannington had his own conquering agenda. So he had the bishop and his Christian companions arrested. After eight days, Hannington and the porters with him were executed. Hannington was speared on both sides, and as he bled to death, he is reported to have said, “Go tell your master (Mwanga) that I have purchased the road to Uganda with my blood.”

The gospel lesson appointed for today is Matthew 10:16-22. Jesus warns his disciples that he is sending them out as sheep in the midst of wolves—not a very happy image, huh? I wonder if Hannington had that gospel lesson in mind as he hacked his way through the highlands of eastern Africa. Sheep in the midst of wolves—what a scary prospect! All around us are those who are out to get us. We’d better be on our guard. We’d better arm ourselves. I wonder what sort of attitude Hannington had during his interrogation. I wonder whether he tried to build a friendship with his captors or whether he embraced death boldly and nobly.

There’s a danger in adopting a confrontational mindset when travelling to a foreign land. And there’s a futility in adopting an adversarial approach to evangelism. Surely it’s more productive to look for ways to build connection. Instead of being on guard and expecting those around us to tear us apart as wolves might set upon a flock of sheep, perhaps we should use a different image for the work of the church in modern times. What about the image of a new kid in class? Or maybe strangers trapped on an elevator? Yes, of course, there were (and still are) times and places where Christians were killed simply for being Christians. And I’m sure that the image of sheep and wolves made a lot of sense in the first few centuries of the Church’s history. But what about today? Are we sheep in the midst of wolves?

Our missionary identity has changed since the late nineteenth century. We aren’t cutting in roads from Kenya to Uganda, seeking a safer, quicker route for Christians. For the most part, we aren’t taking the gospel to unreached heathen. Instead, mission and evangelism are about building relationships. Sometimes those encounters begin in conflict, but the work of the gospel isn’t to dig in our heels and butt heads with our “opponents” for Jesus’ sake. That isn’t really what sheep do in the midst of wolves. Have you ever seen a sheep in the midst of wolves? Unless they’re being eaten, they’ve already run away. They hide. Sheep don’t fight back. They know that the wolves are in control.

We are sent out not to impose our will on those we encounter. We are sent out not because we know what’s best for those we meet. We are sent out to share good news and love with the whole world. Is the world eager to hear that message? Sometimes not. And will the world tear us apart? Sometimes it will. But we go out to share God’s love with the whole world. And love, of course, is about relationships.

Two Views of Humanity: Sts. Simon & Jude

By all accounts, Jesus was a strange fellow. He was known as a strict religious teacher, but he spent his time eating and cavorting with sinners. He knew the Jewish scriptures and Mosaic law as well as anyone, yet he regularly broke the sabbath restrictions. He preached a message about the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom, but he allowed himself to be tried, convicted, and executed by the Roman occupiers of the Holy Land. He was a countercultural revolutionary who used nonviolence and love to win over his enemies, and his teachings still stretch the minds of religious and political elites.

It’s easy, as a student of the gospel, to hear the good news of Jesus Christ in a Jesus-vs-the-World kind of way. That’s especially true in John’s gospel account. In numbingly repetitive language from John 15 through the high priestly prayer of John 17, Jesus says time and again that he is not of the world but is in the world and that his followers were of the world but have been called out of the world. “The world is going to hate you,” Jesus warns his disciples, “because it hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). Hate is a pretty strong word, but Jesus means it here. Elizabeth and I try to teach our children not to use the word hate, but how do you explain to a four-year-old that Jesus is allowed to use it because he means it in a way we usually don’t? The point is that Jesus and his message and ministry seem to run in conflict with the ways of the world.

But you don’t even have to read any part of the New Testament to get that sense about Jesus. How many people in the name of Jesus let the rest of the world know that the world is wrong? How many t-shirts and bracelets and hats and bumper stickers have you seen that basically say, “I’m on Jesus’ team, and, if you’re not, you’re wrong?” When was the last time that someone made money selling a shirt that says, “Jesus proves that God loves you even if you hate him?” But isn’t that the real message of the gospel?

Today is the feast of Saints Simon and Jude. (I wrote yesterday about All Saints’, and I’m still thinking pretty carefully about what it means to be a saint, but I’m taking a break to focus on these two for today. There’s a chance they’ll be folded back into tomorrow’s post.) Do you know anything about Simon or Jude? I don’t—at least not much.

Simon is mentioned in all three synoptic gospel accounts as Simon the Zealot. What a great name—Zealot! That title distinguishes him from the other, better known Simon Peter. But what does it mean to be a zealot? He had zeal for the law and the traditions of Israel. He would have identified with those who worked to overthrow the Roman occupation of Palestine. He would have insisted that God’s ways and God’s kingdom come first—that the kingdoms of this world mean nothing in comparison—that every ounce of energy should be spent doing whatever is necessary to help establish God’s eschatological, theocratic state here on earth. In other words, he was the disciple who stood in the corner, twirling his knife in his hand, talking about how good it would feel to personally dispatch one of these pigheaded Roman centurions.

Jude, on the other hand, comes from the other end of the spectrum—at least according to extracanonical, almost-certainly-made-up tradition. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. Why? I’m told that it’s because Jude’s real name is Judas. There were two Judas disciples. This one is the one Luke calls “Judas, son of James” (6:16). John speaks of him as “Judas (not Iscariot)” (14:22). Matthew likes to call him Thaddeus, which may or may not be the same person, but the point is that there was another disciple named Judas. But those who appeal to the saints and ask them to pray for them did not want to call upon the wrong Judas. Surely God wouldn’t want his faithful to appeal to the name of the Betrayer. So do you know when you finally call on Jude—the other Judas? When you’ve already called on everyone else. He’s the last resort. Jude represents those of us in our most difficult moments—when trouble is closing in all around us. Where Simon the Zealot represents the other-worldliness of God’s kingdom, Jude embraces the brokenness of this life and the world in which we live.

And Jesus, of course, is both. His life and witness was other worldly, yet he came as one of us. The Incarnation is God becoming man—the human and divine natures united together without separation and without mixture in the one person of Jesus. The Son of God is God, which means that Jesus is fully divine—totally of God’s kingdom, not of this world, perfect. But the Word became flesh, which means that God took on the full brokenness of humanity. He became the hunger, poverty, sickness, heartbreak, and addiction that plagues the human race. As Paul writes in 2 Cor 5:21, even though he did not know sin, he became sin itself. And why? So that we might be healed.

It’s easy in the Christian faith to think that the point of following Jesus is to depart this world. And, in a sense, it is. We are called to be citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom. But that is not an escape-pod theology that holds as its goal the departure from this broken life. Instead, we believe that God, because of the incarnation, has shown us his ability to transform this life from brokenness into wholeness. Although he calls us out of this world, he does not beckon us to leave it. Yes, the world might hate us, but we do not hate the world. We look for the worlds re-creation until it is fully God’s kingdom—right here.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Citizens of an Upside-Down Kingdom

This Sunday we will observe the Feast of All Saints instead of the usual Sunday propers. That All Saints' can be transferred to a Sunday makes it unique among liturgical observances. Usually, days are transferred from a Sunday to later in the week because Sunday takes precedence over most observances. And those big festivals that overrule a Sunday-observance are usually observed on the appointed day (Christmas, Epiphany, etc.). But All Saints' is different.

Sometimes I think it would be nice to live in a world where people stop what they are doing to go to church on November 1 regardless of what day of the week it is, but, rather than lament the secularization of our culture, I'll choose to celebrate the fact that the church makes it possible for us to bring that celebration back to a day when people are more likely to come to church. All Saints' Sunday. It gives us a chance to remember all the saints. But what does that mean?

In many Episcopal Churches, including ours, the list of the faithful departed will be read as part of the All Saints' liturgy. Of course, some will quickly point out that the proper day for that practice is November 2, a day which, in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, is entitled "Commemoration of the Faithful Departed." The good news is that this year's All Saints' Sunday falls on November 2, so maybe one could make an argument that both belong together. (I'm not really interested in the argument. We're just doing what we're doing regardless.)

Saints are those whose reward lies in God's heavenly kingdom rather than here on earth. Saints are those who through their lives or writings or deaths point us toward our place in God's kingdom. In their various and saintly ways, they invite us to focus not on our earthly affliction but on our heavenly reward. You can't be a saint and be stuck forever here in this life. If you're a saint, you belong somewhere else.

The really issue, of course, is our church's poorly developed theology of sainthood. Who are all the saints? Yes, they are people like apostles, prophets, and martyrs from long ago. Yes, they are people who have shown the light of the gospel through their lives in more recent times. But they are also, as the hymn goes, just folk like me. I'm a saint, and you're a saint. Your grandmother was a saint, and my great uncle was, too. But how do you celebrate a theology of sainthood that includes all of us while still remembering people like Julian, John, James, and Jerome?

The gospel lesson for All Saints' Day in Year A is Matthew 5:1-12: "Blessed are the poor in spirit..." The Beatitudes are those short, counter-intuitive statements of blessedness that Jesus prescribes in the Sermon on the Mount (or Sermon on the Plain, in Luke's version). And I think this is a great place to start when thinking of saints. Saints are the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, the reviled. God's message to them turns their condition on its head: "Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

All Saints' Sunday is a good occasion for stories. Maybe they will be the stories of famous saints like Mark or Martin or Mary or Michael. Or maybe they will be the stories of lesser-known saints like Uncle John or Cousin Louise or my sweet elderly neighbor or that kid from down the street. Whatever the story--whoever the saint--let us focus our gaze toward heaven and to that upside-down kingdom to which we truly belong.

Sunday Sermon: Proper 25A

October 26, 2014 – The 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25A

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

I grew up in a neighborhood full of boys. If there were any girls who lived there, I was too young to notice. Paul lived across the yard. Ric lived across the street. James lived at the end of our block until he moved away, but then Travis moved into his house. Zach lived around the corner. And all of us played together every day. Football, baseball, wall ball, hide-and-seek—we spent all our time in and out of each other’s yards, playing until Mr. Garrick’s shrill whistle interrupted our fun, reminding all of us that it was time for dinner. And, the whole time, we were trying to avoid our younger siblings.

I have two younger brothers. One is more than eight years younger than I am, so, although a threat to tattle on us when we were doing something we shouldn’t, he never really got in our way. But my other brother is only two and a half years younger than I, which meant that he always wanted to hang out with us, and that meant that we never wanted him to. I did everything to keep him away from us. I snuck out the side door when he wasn’t looking. I got him in trouble so he wouldn’t be allowed outside. But the best ploy I used to keep us apart was the series of “admission tests” I contrived to keep him out of our secret club for older boys.

When I was in the first grade, the test had addition and subtraction problems on it—questions a kid in preschool could never answer. When I was in the second grade, the questions grew in complexity to ensure he wouldn’t catch up. By the time I was in the third grade, I used multiplication and division to keep him out of our club. Actually, come to think of it, we never really had a club. I just enjoyed making up tests to remind him that he couldn’t hang out with us. I didn’t care what answers he gave. It wasn’t supposed to be a test he could pass.

I kind of feel that way about today’s gospel lesson—that both the Pharisees and Jesus are administering tests that no one is supposed to pass. First, the Pharisees ask Jesus a question about the Law. “Teacher,” one of them asks him, “which commandment is the greatest?” That’s a little like asking a parent which child is her favorite: there is no such thing as a good answer. There are 613 commandments in the Jewish Law, and they range from “worship God alone” (Exod. 20:3) to “remember to season your offerings with salt” (Lev. 2:13). Some of them are hugely important, and plenty of them are esoteric, but all of them are necessary. Collectively they give structure to the relationship between God and his people. The 613 mitzvot are the foundation of Jewish life. To pick out just one as the greatest is an impossible feat, which I suppose is why Jesus gives us two instead.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On those two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Together they pretty much say it all. Love God and love each other. Do that, and you’ll be ok. There is a lot to be said for living in peace with one’s maker and with one’s fellow man. That’s not a bad way to live, and, if Jesus stops there, it might be enough. But he doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t want the Pharisees to walk away thinking that it is as simple as that, so he gives them a test of his own.

“Whose son is the messiah?” he asks them in return. That’s an easy enough question. “David’s son, of course,” they reply. The trap is set. “Then how is it that David by the Spirit calls him Lord?” Jesus asks, going on to quoting Psalm 110: “The Lord said to my Lord…” Now, don’t worry too much about making sense of what Jesus is asking. It’s a silly question based on a very limited reading of the Psalms. But Jesus knows that, and so do the Pharisees. Jesus doesn’t want an answer. He wants them to see how pointless these questions really are. He wants to show them and us that faith in God is about relationship and that relationships cannot be built on a test.

How many times have you heard a preacher say that God loves you no matter what? How many times have you heard a preacher say that there is nothing you can do to earn God’s love? How many times have you heard a preacher say that good works won’t get you into heaven—that the only thing that can save you is God’s grace and your faith in his promises? Then why do I keep hearing you say that what God wants is for you to be a good person—to love him and to live by the Golden Rule?

Why? Because we all love a good test. They used to come in magazines, and then we found them on websites, but now they’re all over Facebook. What’s your love type? Which apostle are you? What’s your super hero? What’s your bible name? What foreign country should you live in? How smart are you? How kind are you? What should your career be? We love them. We can’t get enough of them. Judging by their popularity, I think the productivity of our nation has taken a nosedive in the last six months. There is something about human nature that says, “If you can put it in a test, I’ll take it.” But there is no test for a real relationship. There is no test for real faith.

We fall into the same trap that the Pharisees fell into 2,000 years ago. “Come on, Jesus,” we say, “just tell us what we’re supposed to do, and we’ll do it. Love God? Love each other? That sounds easy enough.” But, as his exchange with the Pharisees shows, there is no lasting satisfaction in trying to do the right things. We think that being a Christian is about passing a test—that God wants us to show up for church and be nice to people. But you know what? Coming to church every Sunday and treating other people with respect won’t get you into heaven. God doesn’t care where you spend your Sunday mornings, and he doesn’t care whether you give $5 to the homeless guy in the parking lot. If that’s what you think really matters, you should go sponsor a canned food drive at Starbucks. The coffee’s better, and the seats are more comfortable.

Faith isn’t built on doing the right things. It’s built on love. Think about the relationships in your life that really matter—your spouse, your parents, your kids, your siblings, your closest friends. How many of those relationships depend on you doing the right things—on you passing some test that proves you’re worthy of their love? I know that if my marriage hinged on me not screwing up it would have fallen apart a long time ago. And yours would have, too.

Jesus came to show the world that God loves us no matter what. He came and lived and died and rose again to prove that there is nothing we can do to change the way God loves us. God doesn’t ask us to do anything in exchange for that love. All he asks us to do is to trust that his love is real. Think about your relationship with God. What does it look like? What is it built on? If you’re still trying to figure out what God wants you to do, stop. That’s not faith. And if you’re still looking for all the right answers, stop. That’s not faith either. Faith is believing that God really does love you—no matter who you are or what you do or what you think. That’s where a real relationship starts. It doesn’t start with passing a test. It starts with knowing that you’re loved. Amen.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

James the Who?

In the Episcopal Church, today is the feast of "James of Jerusalem, Brother of our Lord Jesus Christ, and Martyr, c. 62." That's a long title. I've spent all day trying to get strangers on the street to hold still long enough for me to wish them, "Happy feast of Saint James of Jerusalem, Brother..." They usually start walking away by the time I get to "James." But the long name is itself a subject of contention.

Let's start with "Jerusalem." He was, it seems, the Bishop of Jerusalem. In fact, that's the only part we seem to be able to agree on. According to Wikipedia, a " third century letter pseudographically ascribed[2] to the second century Clement of Rome" called James of Jerusalem the "bishop of bishops who rules Jerusalem."

As soon as we get to "Brother," everything comes off the rails. What does it mean to call someone Jesus' brother? What does that say about Mary? The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Mary was a perpetual virgin--to the point that, through the intervention of God, her physical virginity remained intact both during the conception AND the birth of Jesus. According to the doctrine, she had no other children. That would mean that any "brothers" could be half-brothers (Joseph's children by a previous, presumably desceased, wife). Or they could be "brothers" in the metaphorical sense used elsewhere in the New Testament to denote something like "brethren." Others argue that, because there is no Aramaic word for "cousin," the gap between the spoken language of Jesus and the Greek of the gospel accounts leaves enough doubt that perhaps James is really a cousin.

Another approach to this conundrum entirely confuses "James the Bishop of Jerusalem" with "James the Less." The latter is known as one of the twelve disciples. "James the Greater" refers to James, son of Zebedee, brother of John. "James the Less" means James, son of Alphaeus. Jerome took this approach because it helped him preserve the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity, but, again, it seems like an unnecessary escape hatch. In the Episcopal Church, we have a separate feast for that James, which falls on May 1 (Saint Philip and Saint James).

Before you make any conclusion, go read the gospel lesson for this feast (Matt. 13:54-58). The Greek word is brothers. There is another Greek word for cousins, but it isn't used. In my mind, Mary's relationship with God--her availability as God's handmaiden--does not depend on her perpetual virginity. Yes, let's celebrate her lifelong faithfulness--the before, during, and after holiness--but let's do it without theologically stitching back together her hymen.

James is Jesus' brother. There's a whole wonderful, beautiful, complex theology of being Jesus' brother. What did it mean to grow up with him? What did it mean to have some of the same genetic material that he had? What does it mean to be a faithful follower and leader in the church despite living a life perpetually defined by what one is not?

I'm the oldest of three boys. I don't know what it's like to go to school and have a teacher call me someone's brother. I don't know what it's like to follow in the footsteps of someone more successful than I. But James did. And that's a holy life and a holy example.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Paul the Nursing Mother

There's a little line in this Sunday's Epistle lesson (1 Thessalonians 2:1-8) that takes me right back to my first-year seminary paper that attempted (poorly) to answer the question, "Was Paul a misogynist?" Paul-lovers and Paul-haters have kicked around different passages from his letters to bolster their case either that Paul's anti-women attitude continues to infect the church or that Paul's egalitarian approach to gender has a place in the feminist theology of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Unfortunately, as I scoured the New Testament for verses that might support my fledgling argument that Paul, indeed, does not hate women, I missed 1 Thessalonians 2:7, where Paul writes, "But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children."

In physically evocative language, Paul takes on the role of a nursing mother. Filled with Christian love for the people in Thessalonica, Paul envisions himself taking them to his breast and nourishing them. Of course, in the literal sense, Paul couldn't do that. But I think he wanted to.

As I often reminded my wife when one of our infants filled the house with hungry screams at 2am, I cannot breastfeed them. But, really, secretly, I was jealous of the intimacy that she had with our kids in those moments. I could hold them and love them and snuggle with them and play with them and change their diapers and even feed them a bottle, but, when it was time for a meal, I could not make them stop screaming. They knew where the real source of their sustenance was.

What does it mean for Paul to care for the Thessalonians so much that he longs to nurse them? What does it mean for us to care so much for each other that we would seek opportunities to sustain them in physical, emotional, spiritual, and relational ways? This is a powerful image--too powerful to let it stay in the realm of metaphor. Love isn't just a feeling or an emotion or a longing. Love is real, tangible, and concrete. No, we might not be nursing mothers, but our support for one another can show up in ways just as vivid, physical, and intimate. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Stop Asking Questions

I'm not a big fan of people who ask questions without an interest in hearing the answer. And I write this as someone who asks lots of questions. In my school days, I was accused more than once of asking questions just to hear myself ask the question or to show off in front of the teacher and class. Actually, I've since grasped that I am an aural learner. I need to hear it to learn it. That's why I say my sermons out loud as I write them--so I'll remember them when I climb into the pulpit. All of that to say that even though I love questions--asking them, hearin them, reading them, and answering them--I don't like it when someone asks a question without caring enough to listen for an answer. 

But isn't that what Jeus does in Sunday's gospel lesson (Matt. 22:33-46)? The Pharisees, having learned that the Saducees had struck out in their quest to stump the brillian rabbi, approach Jesus with yet another question: which is the greatest commandment? Jesus gives a wonderful answer--one we still quote every week in a Rite I Eucharist--that takes the Law and distills it into two basic principles: love God and love neighbor. But then Jesus gives them one of his own. 

"Whose son is the Messiah?" Jesus asks. "David's, of course," they reply. "Then why does David in the Psalms call him Lord? When does a father (implied greater) show such deference to his son?" They couldn't answer him, so they departed, and no one dared to ask him any more questions. But what sort of question did Jesus ask?

It's a dumb question. Jesus is quoting from the Psalms as if David were making a logical statement about the relationship between himself and his future descendant--the one-day annointed one. But that's a very, very short-sighted reading of scripture--especially the Psalms, which are poetic prayers that aren't often subjected to the sort of grammatical scrutiny that Jesus seems to be applying here. No, I don't think Jesus cared about the answer. I think Jesus knew it was a stupid question. I think he asked it to prove a point: that such scrutinizing questions as those the Saducees and Pharisees had asked were misfounded and pointless. 

One great thing about our God is that he invites our questions. Read the "dialogue" between Yahewh and Abraham in Genesis 18. Read the story of Jonah and ask yourself why a book of the bible portrays a prophet wrestling with God's call to go to Nineveh. Read the Book of Job and let his agonizing questions of God's will become your own. The point is that God allows, invites, even encourages our questions. But that doesn't mean that our faith depends on the answers. 

Our God defies our desire to enclose him within a set of doctrinal statements. God's nature and will cannot be subjected to cross-examination. Yes, we are beckoned to ask the questions, but we can't expect the answers. The Pharisees seem to think that faith in God depends on getting the answers to puzzling questions about law and messiah and scripture. But Jesus shows us that those questions don't come with easy answer. 

So, yes, keep asking those nagging, unanswerable questions, but don't give up when the answer doesn't come. That's faith. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Summary of the Law or Grace?

Like many Episcopal Churches, the church where I serve has an early service that uses Rite I and a later service that uses Rite II. Those things never vary. I’ve been in other churches where the later service is sometimes Rite I and sometimes Rite II (my personal preference), but I’ve never been in a church where the early service alternates. It’s always the beautiful and anachronistic language of our Anglican heritage: “…we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness…”

Some people cannot stand the traditional, often more penitential language of our Rite I worship. Others adore it (and by “adore” I mean “cross the line from liking something to worshiping something”). Whatever your persuasion, I hope you can hear the wonderful beauty and simplicity of the “Summary of the Law” that is delivered right after the Collect for Purity and right before the Kyrie/Gloria/Trisagion/Hymn-of-Praise: “Here what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart…” It’s a two-fold approach to all that God has asked of his people that still resonates today.

This Sunday, our gospel lesson (Matt. 22:34-46) is that beautiful thing that our Lord Jesus Christ saith, but this week we get it in context, and, because it’s the gospel reading, we get it at all three services—Rite I and Rite II and the EOW service at 5pm. What will the preacher say?

I could say that it’s a wonderful summary of the two “tablets” of the Decalogue—the Ten Commandments. #1-4 are all about our relationship with God (No other gods, no graven image, name in vain, sabbath) and #5-10 are about our relationship with each other (father and mother, no killing, no adultery, etc.). Surely Jesus wasn’t the first rabbi to make this connection. The Ten Commandments themselves were a summary of the law—the distillation of generations of societal boundaries discovered and wrought in a theocratic context. But looking back doesn’t really excite me. Sure, it’s interesting to someone who went to seminary where these laws and Jesus’ summary of them came from, but what will that give those of us who come to worship this Sunday?

I want to look forward, and, for me, that feels like an exploration of why we still speak Jesus’ summary of the law each and every week. Even if we’ve omitted it from the Rite II service, it is at least preserved in the Rite I service, but why? Although it’s a beautiful summary, I think it actually gets in the way of a message of grace. Jesus’ summary is itself a looking back. The Pharisees come to him and test him by asking which commandment is greatest, and he offers this summary in reply. This is about the law—the Law of Moses, not the grace of the cross and empty tomb.

I have a parishioner who is as committed to the gospel as any man I have ever met. He doesn’t volunteer for everything, nor does he live out his faith in some constant quest for affirmation. He’s a mostly quiet fellow who, as I perceive him, wakes up every morning wrestling with what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. His questions, his comments, his insights are all powerful, but one subject that he confesses continues to trip him up is grace. Often, when we talk about what grace really is, he will point to this summary of the law. “Jesus tells us to love God and love our neighbor, and that’s what it means to be a Christian. That’s what we’re supposed to do.” But is it?

Maybe it’s appropriate that, in the Rite I service, the Summary of the Law is immediately followed by the Kyrie or the Gloria. Jesus delivers to us the distillation of God’s expectations, and then, in light of our complete and utter inability to meet those expectations, we cry out, “Lord have mercy upon us” or, in the Easter season, proclaim “Glory be to God on high…” for that is our only hope.

This week, I’m looking for a sermon on the Summary of the Law that doesn’t put boundaries on my faith—what I should and shouldn’t do. I’m looking for a sermon that proclaims the gracious response to God in light of my failure even to love him or my neighbor. What could be more basic that loving God and loving each other? Well, the fact that I can’t do that on my own. Jesus is God’s response to the greatest commandment. Maybe all the law hangs on those two sentences, but it also hangs on the cross. That’s where I’m headed this week. What about you?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Making God Smile: Teresa of Avila

Do you remember back with WWJD was popular? It was on t-shirts and bracelets and bumper-stickers. It was everywhere. Well, right at the height of its popularity, right when it seemed as if all the real Christians were defined by WWJD and all the pretend Christians were looking at the real Christians’ t-shirts and feeling guilty about it, I heard a preacher decry the whole WWJD movement as anti-Christian. “It’s law, not grace,” he declared in the pulpit one Sunday. I was in college at the time, and it took me a few years of thinking and living to figure out what he meant, but I’ve since found that he was exactly right. Asking, “What would Jesus do?” is to pretend that we’re the messiah and that anything less would be rejected by God. In fact, God loves us even though most of the time we pretty much do the opposite of what Jesus would do. So to try to define the Christian life by would the Christ would do in whatever situation we find ourselves in is only a recipe for guilt-ridden disaster.

There have been lots of other bracelets and t-shirts since then. FROG stands for “fully rely on God.” PUSH reminds us to “pray until something happens.” But I’m looking to start a new movement, and I’m having 1000 t-shirts and bracelets printed that say “WWMJS?,” which stands for “what would make Jesus smile?”

That’s something I can live my life by. What would make Jesus smile? That doesn’t mean, “You’d better get it right or else Jesus will be mad at you,” because I think Jesus smiles a lot when we get things wrong—the way a loving mother might smile even when her son screws us pretty badly. What would make Jesus smile? In my mind, Jesus is the kind of person who liked to smile a lot, who was always looking for a good joke, and who could warm your heart just with a quick radiant smile.

Pretty often, people come to talk with me about the direction in which their life is headed. Usually, in those moments, things are unsettled, and they are looking for a new job or grieving the loss of a loved one or making their way through a divorce. It often seems as if they want some sort of new focus to help them define their lives by something other than the crisis at hand, and, when they ask me what they should do—what God would want them to do—I just shrug my shoulders and say, “What do you want to do?” Is it to take up golf? Is it to run a marathon? Is it to start a new business? Is it to go and spend a week on a silent retreat in the middle of nowhere? Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter to God. All he cares about is you.

The other day, in the middle of one such conversation, I thought of today’s gospel lesson (Matthew 5:13-16). Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” What does it mean to be a light? What does it mean to let your light shine? That isn’t merely a message for apostles and evangelists. Jesus didn’t only mean that you should tell other people about the saving love of God. He also meant that you should play more golf if it makes you happy…that you should go run a marathon if it gives you fulfillment…that you should trek off into the woods if that’s really where you want to be. You have a light to shine. And letting it shine means taking whatever gifts and talents God has given you and using them in a way that brings you joy. The world wants to see you living like that, and Jesus does, too. I think that’s what makes him smile.

A long time ago, in the sixteenth century, a twenty-year-old woman named Teresa entered the Carmelite convent in Avila. During her first few years there, she became very ill and was even partially paralyzed for several years. While sick, her prayers were intense and focused, but she noticed that, once she regained her health, her relationship with God lost its intensity. Her sister nuns, although obedient to their vows, also seemed to have lost their focus. So Teresa set out to reform the order. Under her leadership, the nuns were no longer allowed to leave the convent and socialize with the community. They spent most of their waking hours praying and studying scripture. Teresa even had the nuns go barefoot—a spiritual discipline of humility and poverty that still defines the “Discalced” or “Barefoot Carmelites.” And with this newfound focus, Teresa discovered a deep relationship with God that brought her to new insights, which she wrote down and which have become favorites among many Christians: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours…”

Jesus smiles when we discover the purpose within us. Jesus smiles when we find the joy that is letting our light shine. Living the Christian life—whether as a cloistered nun or as a parish priest or as an interior decorator or as an amateur golfer—means getting in touch with the person God has made us to be and then giving our hearts to become that person more fully. In Christ, God has set us free from the pressure of guilt and disappointment. In Christ, God has declared that we are his beloved children. We are called by Christ to be the people we were made to be, and that is what makes him smile. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Black and White and Gray of Faith

I have a confession to make: I like the Pharisees. I’ve probably written about this before, but I know in my heart that if I had been a Jew in Jesus’ day I would have been a Pharisee. I’m a Type-A, Follow-the-Rules, Make-No-Exceptions kind of guy. I wake up every morning thinking to myself, “I wonder what the objectively correct path of my day will be.” Yes, at times I think it would be more fun to wake up and “go with the flow,” but that’s not who I am.

In Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 22:15-22), we are told that “the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said.” Although it’s clear their motives were impure, let’s at least applaud the care with which they approached their task. They took the time to meet and discuss their options, choosing the best plan. Once they had decided on their trap du jour, they approached Jesus and did their best.

“Teacher, we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with truth and show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality…” I’m sure Jesus wasn’t at all fooled by their mock-flattery, but it has a nice ring to it. The Pharisees are operating in the world of rhetoric, and they are building a foundation for their trap. It’s not so much an attempt to bring Jesus’ guard down as it was a way of helping any witnesses understand what sort of assault would follow.

And then they spring their trap: “Tell us, then, what you think: is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” Really, it was a beautiful ploy. We lose sight of that because Jesus so handily dismisses them with his own rhetorical skill, but stop for a moment and consider the nature of the question.

First of all, everyone had to pay taxes. Palestine was under Roman control, and it wasn’t held by the Empire because it was a popular vacation spot. It was supposed to generate money for the government—taxes. And that was a part of life that every resident of Palestine had to deal with.

Second, the Romans were not popular among the Jews. No one was thrilled to be governed by the heathen Empire. Yes, the Jews had certain political, economic, and religious freedoms, but they knew that they were not free. During this period, several armed Jewish revolts against the Empire sprung up, and there were people in Jesus’ companionship who likely would have supported such anti-Roman activities (e.g., Simon the Zealot).

Third, the commandment against making a graven image included putting someone’s likeness on a coin. The very fact that official imperial transactions were carried out with coinage that had the face of the emperor inscribed upon them was itself a violation of the second commandment.

So the Pharisees asking Jesus about paying taxes is like going to an AARP rally and asking a candidate whether Medicare spending is out of control. There really is no good answer. If he says, “No, of course not!” the crowd would have loved it, but Jesus would be risking arrest by the Roman authorities for leading an insurrection. And if he says, “Yes, we must,” the crowd would lose interest in this counter-cultural religious authority. Really, there’s no way out of the trap. It’s artfully designed.

But then Jesus dismisses their plot with rhetoric more crafty than the Pharisees. After asking them to identify whose head it was on a coin, Jesus declared, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God’s” How do you argue with that?

Well, actually, he didn’t really answer the question. He’s saying yes and no. He seems to be supporting paying the required taxes but also shifts the focus back to God. Everyone leaves amazed at his wisdom. But think about it for a minute. In what way does the coin on which the emperor’s face is inscribed not belong to God? Jesus’ answer is the kind of straddling the fence that would have driven the Pharisees crazy. They want answers—clear, definite, unequivocal answers. That’s the way religion is supposed to work, right? Is it right or wrong? Is it God’s will or not? Should we do this or do that?

As much as this Pharisee would love for religion to be that simple and straightforward, it’s not. It’s all shades of gray. I’m going to spend the rest of this week pondering this parable—not looking for the answer but searching for a direction. How can I learn to accept the conflicting overlaps of faith? What is Jesus really inviting us to do? There isn’t always an objectively correct path to life. In fact, there rarely is. Maybe that’s the truly powerful teaching here.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

What Did You Wear to Church Today?

October 12, 2014 – The 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23A

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here.

I see that you’ve come to church today. Well done. This is a holiday weekend, so lots of people are either out of town or just lying around their house doing nothing because they figure we’ll assume that they are out of town. But since you’re here, give yourself a pat on the back.

But, before you congratulate yourself too robustly, take a look at what you are wearing. Are you in a suit and tie? A nice dress? A jacket and open collar? Pants and a polo shirt? Jeans? Sweatpants? Pajamas? I wore my favorite white, um, robe and green scarf. What about you? When you got dressed this morning, what were you thinking about? Will it look nice? Will it fit? Will I look cute? Did I wear that last week? How many of us, when we picked out our outfit, thought to ourselves, “I’m going to have dinner with Jesus; I want to look my best?”

As Episcopalians, part of the challenge we face is helping newcomers feel welcome. Things here can be a little bit stuffy. Nothing about our worship space says, “Be comfortable and relax.” We have an air of formality about us, and we’re proud of that. But, at the same time, we want new families to feel like they can come to church just as they are. We believe that God welcomes all people—good and bad, rich and poor, elegant and shabby—and we should to. And, if he walked through that door, I hope that every single one of us would slide over and make room for a ragged, stinky homeless guy in dirty jeans and a sweat-stained shirt.

So why, then, does Jesus tell a parable about the kingdom in which the king throws an underdressed attendant out “into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth?”

For the most part, the first three quarters of the parable make sense. The kingdom of God is like a king who threw a wedding banquet for his son. But, for a myriad of reasons, the invited guests refused to come. It did not matter that the feast was lavish or that the king pleaded with the guests to attend. Those who had been invited responded hostilely to the king’s invitation, so the king, in his rage, destroyed those murderers and gave the banquet to others. He sent his slaves into the streets to bring in all whom they could find—both good and bad—and the banquet hall was filled with new faces.

That part we understand. When he told this parable, Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees—the religious elites of his day, the insiders who thought they had a straight path into God’s kingdom. But Jesus came to challenge that sense of entitlement. He spent his time having dinner with tax collectors and sinners—the kind of street-people who in the parable ended up filling the king’s banquet hall. We know that the story of the cross and empty tomb is a testament of God’s saving love for the lost. Those of us whom society would shut out of the messianic banquet are enthusiastically welcomed by the king of kings. God’s table is set for sinners like you and me, and he beckons us to come to the great wedding feast. But it seems that we’d better remember the dress code.

When the king came into the feast to greet his guests, he noticed that one of them was not wearing a wedding robe. “Friend,” he asked, “how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” But the guest was speechless. So the king said to his servants, “Bind this man hand and foot and throw him out into the outer darkness.” Remember, this was a man whom the king’s slaves had found in the street and invited in. Unlike the original invitees, this is someone who actually showed up. And what is Jesus’ explanation for this surprisingly harsh behavior? “Many are called, but few are chosen.” How unsatisfying!

So what did you wear to church today? Even though it’s a holiday weekend, did you dress for the messianic banquet? Did you remember to wear your wedding robe? Or will we need to ask the ushers to bind you hand and foot and throw you out into the outer not-so-darkness?

Of course, the wedding robe is just an image. It’s a metaphor for something more important than clothing. Jesus doesn’t care what we wear to church. He cares about our commitment to the kingdom. The troubling part about this parable—and the shocking truth about God’s kingdom—is that, even though the invitation is cast far and wide, the requirements for participation in the kingdom are limitless. As one commentator put it, “The unlimited grace of the kingdom always brings with it unlimited demand.”[1] God invites us into his kingdom with no regard for who we are—good or bad, rich or poor, elegant or shabby—but, once we answer that invitation, he expects us to give him everything we’ve got. And anyone who comes into the kingdom thinking that he or she can rely on the gracious nature of the invitation to skip over any need to give of him or herself, Jesus has a word for you: “Bind that person hand and foot to be thrown into the outer darkness.”

Usually, here at St. John’s, when I make the announcements, I invite all followers of Jesus to come to Communion. That is supposed to sound like a gracious and far-reaching invitation because that is the same way that God invites us to his table. The small print in the bulletin, however, will remind you that in our church only baptized Christians may take Communion. Now, it doesn’t matter where you were baptized or what denomination you belong to. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been since you’ve been to church, and it certainly doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. But baptism remains the prerequisite because baptism is the way that we understand how an individual seeks transformation in Jesus.

In the waters of baptism, we are washed clean from our sin and reborn to new life in Christ. In the twenty-first century, there might be ways for an individual to undergo that kind of transformation besides sprinkling water on one’s head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the point is that you may not come to that table unless you are looking to be reborn. This is not a casual gathering for anyone who wants a little snack. This is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. The invitation might be open, but the expectation is total commitment. You cannot participate in God’s kingdom unless you are willing to give him your all, and the same is true every time we receive Holy Communion.

Jesus says to each one of us, “Come into my kingdom,” but, then, in response to that invitation, we must live a kingdom life. We are sinners in need of redemption. We are street-people in need of inclusion. How amazing it is that God would invite you and me to dine at his table! But we must never take his grace for granted. Every day we must remember that we are not worthy because of who we are. We are made worthy only because God loves us. Before you come to the table, ask yourself whether you will seek to live a kingdom life. Look at what you’re wearing—on the inside—and ask whether you’re ready to give God everything you’ve got. Amen.

[1] 2008. Snodgrass, Klyne R. Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. Eerdmans.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Hope in the Shadow of Death

There’s just something about the 23rd Psalm. Comfort, confidence, and hope fill those familiar words. Other than the Lord’s Prayer, it is the only passage of scripture I have encouraged my children to memorize. Whenever I take a funeral, I recommend that the family use the 23rd Psalm as one of the prayers at the graveside because it’s likely the only one we can recite without our prayer books.

Although its words of assurance are perfect for a funeral, it also speaks to many other circumstances in life. Illness, imprisonment, grief, disappointment—the trials of life seem buoyed by the shepherd’s psalm. Why is that? Why are these words still a go-to for people of faith and for people of nominal religious affiliation? I think it’s because Psalm 23 speaks both hope and distress at the same time.

Earlier this week, our Tuesday-morning men’s breakfast and bible study continued its focus on the Psalms by reviewing “prayers of distress” or “individual laments.” Called “the basic material of the psalter” by Herman Gunkel, these are the most numerous and most evocative of the psalms. They are spoken from a place of deep need—illness, attack, imprisonment, etc.—and are petitions to God for help. Psalm 23 is related to this category, but it has been refined into a different perspective, called by Gunkel a “psalm of confidence.” Although its origins are in that place of distress, the prayer has taken on a new focus—of hope instead of turmoil.

Notice in the language of Psalm 23 when and where the calamity is occurring: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” and “…in the presence of those who trouble me.” It’s not happening in the past; the trouble is still unfolding around the psalmist. Yet the language of confidence and faith fill the text. In beautiful language that transcends cultures, the poet says, “Even though death itself is lingering over me, I will not be afraid because of you, O Lord.”

I meet a lot of people who are in that place of trouble. Pats on the back and the “there, theres” of well-meaning friends just don’t cut it. In our moment of distress, we need more than a platitude or an empty hope. We need something that embraces the darkness that surrounds us and still overcomes it. The faith of Psalm 23 is not rainbows and daisies. It’s confidence in the place of trouble. It’s “the walls are caving in, but still I trust that God will save me.” That’s the kind of hope that we cling to. That’s the kind of hope worth sharing for thousands of years.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Wearing Your Best Dress to a Tailgate

This morning, when I read this Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 22:1-14), there were two phrases that jumped off the page at me: “those invited were not worthy” and “both good and bad.” Put them together, and we get a powerful parable of God’s grace in action and a gut-wrenching challenge to our understanding of how the kingdom works.

First, we should notice how the king evaluates those who received and then declined his invitation to the wedding banquet. Initially, he sends his slaves to invite them, but they would not come. So he sends other slaves to plead with them, reminding them of the great banquet that awaited them—“Tell those who have been invited: ‘Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready’”—but again they refuse to attend. So he sends his troops to destroy those murderers and burn their city. Finally, when he prepares to send his slaves out to find new guests, he tells them, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.”

They were not worthy. But surely the king invited those he thought were worthy. Initially, before refusing, we would have considered them worthy, too—at least by worldly standards. But they refuse to come when invited, and it is their refusal that reveals their unworthiness. That gets to the heart of this parable. The worthiness of the invited depends on their response. Even if they seemed like the right guests when the first invitations went out, their refusal to show up evidences their true unworthiness.

So who does the king bring into his banquet? Anyone whom his slaves could find. At the king’s command, they went out into the streets and gathered all they found, and Jesus lets us know that the banquet hall was filled with everyone—both good and bad. Again, the worthiness of the participants is not based on the invitation itself but on the response to the invitation. Those who are able to partake in the kingdom’s banquet are those who show up. In other words, simply getting an invitation isn’t what gives you a share in the kingdom. It’s participating in the kingdom when the banquet arrives.

But then there’s that one stray partier who forgot to wear his wedding robe. Forgot? Or did he refuse? Or was he just neglectful? Apparently, secondary sources suggest that a wedding robe really just means clean clothes. This isn’t a special tuxedo or celebratory tunic. It’s just dressing appropriately for the occasion. So here’s a guy who didn’t bother to dress up for the party. And what does the king do? He throws him back out into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Does that sound like Jesus—the host of a great messianic banquet who throws out any who are underdressed?

Actually, yes, it does. That’s exactly who Jesus is. We like to think of Jesus as the one who welcomes strangers and eats with tax collectors and sinners, and that is who he is. But dining with Jesus comes with a cost. You don’t get to sit at his table and leave the same as you were when you got there. You must bring your whole self to the banquet and come ready to be transformed. Even though the invitation goes out to good and bad alike, you must invest in the movement and expect to leave changed.

Grace is free, but discipleship is costly. The church has spent so much time preaching God’s limitless invitation (which is good and right) that we’ve forgotten that the invitation requires participation. In a metaphorical sense, we’ve got to get dressed up before we can come to the messianic banquet. This is a big deal—even though a bunch of hooligans all get invitations. It’s still a big deal. You’ve got to get ready. You can’t take it lightly. Just because the invitation is free and widely given doesn’t mean you can take it for granted.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

This Again?

If you didn't go to church last week, you're in for a treat: almost the exact same gospel lesson all over again. Jesus tells a parable about the kingdom of God, which he likens to a wedding banquet that a king gave for his son. First, he sent his slaves out to bring in the invited guests, but they refused. A second time, he sent his slaves to bring in the invited guests, but this time they made excuses and even beat and killed the slaves. Finally, he sent his troops to go and destroy them, instead inviting others to the feast. Sound familiar? Maybe your preacher will preach the exact same sermon just to see whether you were listening.

Of course, they aren't the same. The're very similar, but there are important differences. Most notably, the parable takes an even more surprising turn at the end. Here's what happens. After bringing in all these unexpected guests--"both good and bad," Jesus tells us--the king walks in to find that one of his guests has come in without wearing a wedding robe. "How did you get in here without a wedding robe?" the king asks. Then, he orders the un-robed guest to be thrown out into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. What's the explanation for this peculiar behavior--maybe even a complete change of heart by the banquet-hosting king? "Many are called, but few are chosen."

Say what, Jesus?

Today, as I ponder which of the other lessons I might preach on this Sunday, I feel like this last bit is a clarification of last week's gospel, in which Jesus asserted to the Pharisees that "the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom." Well, same story this week--unexpected guests are invited to the feast--but just because everyone is invited doesn't mean that you can take the invitation for granted. Likewise, just because the kingdom has been taken away from others and given to you doesn't mean you're any better than they are.

In staff meeting today, we wrestled with this text for a long time. The invitation is given broadly ("Many are called"), but we still need to respond to the invitation by participating in the kingdom ("but few are chosen"). That's a problem for the church. We preach a gospel of "God loves you no matter what," but the danger is mishearing that as "do whatever you want since God loves you anyway." No, we are called to be citizens of the kingdom. We are called to participate in the banquet. We can't take that invitation for granted even though it is given out freely. Instead, we must prepare ourselves for kingdom life--the life of the few who are chosen among the many who are called.

Unexpected Blessings

This piece was the cover article in this week's View newsletter from St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, AL. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.

Last week, I flew up to our nation’s capital for a short but important meeting. Although the focus of the trip was a much-hyped discussion on potential changes to the structure and governance of the Episcopal Church, I knew that other aspects of the journey would bear fruit as well. I chose a connecting flight that would enable me to sit next to a friend and colleague who was travelling to Washington for the same meeting. I made arrangements to stay at the seminary where I finished my studies because I knew I would get to see a friend who has just begun his time there and because I expected to cross paths with some of the professors who had helped shape me for ordained ministry. Also, the seminary campus abuts a boarding school, where a member of our youth group has recently started high school, and I thought a quick breakfast or at least a cup of coffee together might be possible.

Soon, however, those hopes began to evaporate. Mechanical problems on two different airplanes prevented my friend from making the trip, so I ended up sandwiched between two strangers instead. When I saw the agenda for the church-wide meeting, I discovered that it was scheduled to run later than I expected, and I was not sure whether my friend would be able to stay up long enough for us to visit. When I saw one of my favorite seminary professors and approached him with a big grin on my face, he returned my offer of a handshake, but I could tell that he could not recall who I was. Then, my ride back to the airport fell through, which meant I would need to call a cab, which meant that I might not have enough time to have breakfast with our parishioner at the boarding school.

Faced with mounting disappointment and the reality that I was standing in a familiar place but had no one to share it with, I went for a walk. Although it had been a long time, I retraced my steps from the seminary back to the apartment where Elizabeth and I lived when we were first married. The first few minutes of the walk were very familiar, and I recalled with joy how many times I had made that trip in the past. Then, I found myself walking down a street that I knew had to be the right one even though I could not remember any of houses on it. Finally, I turned a corner and saw our apartment complex, which prompted me to pull my cell phone out of my pocket and call Elizabeth to share that moment with her.

Without asking whether she was interested, I narrated my walk for her as I proceeded down the street to the last row of apartments. Then, as I turned down the dead-end sidewalk that led to our apartment, a flood of memories came back. “Do you remember making a tiny snowman in the grass during that fall’s first snow?” I asked. “Oh!” I exclaimed aloud, “I wonder if the hydrangea are still in front of our patio.” Finally, as the place we called home came into view, I said, “Do you remember our neighbor? What was his name—Mr. Burke? I wonder what happened to him.” Then, suddenly, through the bushes, I saw something—someone sitting on our neighbor’s patio. “May I call you right back?” I asked. “I see someone.”

Nine years ago, when we lived in northern Virginia, Mr. Burke (I think that was his name) was already an ancient man. He lived next door to us, and he was the kind of neighbor young couples dream of. Always friendly, always courteous, Mr. Burke loved to smile and wave as he passed by our front door, pushing his shopping cart toward the grocery store. He shared dramatic stories of his military service and reminisced about his wife who had died years before. When I moved away from that apartment, I cried a little bit because I knew that I would never see that lovely man again. But, when I walked down that sidewalk last week, there he was—still sitting on his front patio, even more ancient than before, but just as friendly as ever.

That day, I sat with him for a while, reminding him who I was and thanking him for being such a wonderful neighbor. I told him that I think about him often and give thanks to God for what he meant to us back then. He asked me to keep him in my prayers, and I assured him that I would. As I walked away, I called Elizabeth to tell her the good news, tears streaming down my cheeks. I never expected to see Mr. Burke again, and this trip all the way to Washington had given me another chance to appreciate him and, through that unexpected encounter, how full of God’s blessings those short nine months had been.

God does not wait for us to look for his blessings before he bestows them upon us. In fact, God showers them upon us even if we are completely oblivious to the fact that he has given them to us in the first place. As Jesus said, “God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). The difference between the two, however, is what they do in response to those heaven-sent gifts. Jesus’ words are a reminder that it is up to us to count our blessings and give credit to God for giving them to us.

Sometimes blessings come when and where we expect them to be—an answered prayer, a scheduled encounter, or a much-anticipated gift. More often, however, blessings sneak into our lives without us even noticing—a cancelled meeting, an interrupted vacation, an unexpected reunion. What does God ask for us in return? Only that we notice how full of blessing our lives really are. What will it take for us to embrace our blessedness? What will it take for us to count those otherwise unnoticed blessings? Find time each day to name before God the many, many ways that you are blessed so that, by giving thanks, your life might be more fully shaped by the blessings you have been given.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Bearing Fruits in a Borrowed Vineyard

October 5, 2014 – The 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22A

© 2014 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Have you ever borrowed something for so long that you think it’s become yours? Even today, I “own” some sweaters and jackets and ties that really belong to my father. Back when I was in high school, I would raid his closet when I needed to dress up for something, and, over time, those things ended up in my closet. Then, I went off to college and then to seminary and then to Montgomery and now to Decatur, and, each step of the way, I’ve packed them up and brought them with me. It’s been so long—twenty years, perhaps—that I can’t even be sure which ones are his and which ones are mine. And the good news is that, for the most part, he can’t remember either. I wouldn’t say that I can wear them with impunity—I can see him sitting across the room eyeing my outfit, trying to remember whether that jacket or that tie once belonged to him—but, after two decades, who cares?

Well, when it comes to the landowner’s vineyard, apparently he does. And why not? He planted the vineyard, built a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and even erected a watchtower over it. After all of that, he leased the vineyard to some tenants and went away to another country. Then, the real work began. On hot days, the tenant farmers went out into the vineyard to dress the vines. On fiercely windy days, they tucked their heads down as they pulled weeds from around the plants. When the rains came late in the year, they braved gully-washers in order to keep the tender plants from being wiped out. And, all that time, they took pride in their work. It takes at least three years for a newly planted vineyard to bear fruit, which means that these tenants spent every day for three years looking after the vineyard that they had leased. When some of the plants withered and died, they felt the loss of digging them up and throwing them away. Finally, when the first fruits showed up, they gathered around the tiny grapes and smiled. These vines became their babies, and they thought of them as their own.

But, of course, they weren’t. Although the leasing agreement would have entitled the tenants to a share of the produce, the vast majority of it belonged to the owner—the one who had invested the capital to get the vineyard going, the one who had taken the risk in planting the vines, the one to whom the whole operation belonged. But, when the landowner’s servants came to get their master’s share, the tenants said no.

Now, at first this parable makes a lot of sense. Jesus lets us know up front that the tenants are wicked, so it doesn’t surprise us that they refuse to give up the owner’s share and beat and kill all those whom the owner sends. And the consequences don’t surprise us either. The owner gathers together a militia, which goes and seizes the tenants and puts them to a miserable death so that the owner can lease the vineyard to others. In fact, the end of the story is so logical that the Pharisees, to whom Jesus is speaking, are the ones who tell us what happened. But, then, we take a deeper look at the text, and a story that seemed simple enough at first becomes a real head-scratcher.

After beating and killing the first two groups of slaves that the owner sent, the tenants, Jesus tells us, saw the owner’s son and said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” But in what sort of crazy world does that make sense? Sure, they operated under the delusion that by show of force they could maintain their control of the vineyard, but what sort of foolishness led them to believe that if they killed the owner’s son they would somehow be able to keep the vineyard permanently? And what about the landowner? After sending one group of slaves, who were summarily rejected, he sent another group, which met the same fate. So what did the owner do? He said to himself, “I think it’s a good idea to send my own son into harm’s way because surely those violent, lawless tenants will respect him.” We have a word for someone who does the same thing over and over and expects different results, and it’s a word we don’t often use to describe God, but this story about the kingdom is a tale of competing insanity—the tenants’ crazy self-delusion and the owner’s crazy self-sacrifice.

So here’s the real question: how is this upside-down parable of the vineyard a depiction of the kingdom of God? If you think it’s because a long time ago God took the kingdom away from some people who thought it belonged to them and gave it to us, you’re wrong. Anyone who thinks the kingdom belongs to him has convinced himself of the same delusion as those wicked tenants. It’s not our kingdom. It’s God’s kingdom. We might have been working the vineyard for as long as we can remember, and the fruits of our hard work might be pretty impressive, but the kingdom doesn’t belong to us. We’re just tenant farmers, working the land that belongs to God.

The reason this parable is a story about the kingdom is because God’s loves us so much that, not only has he given us everything that we have, but he has also given us his son in order to be sure that we realize just how huge that love is.

The problem is that we’ve been telling ourselves that everything belongs to us for our whole lives. It feels that way. It looks that way. From the time we were old enough to do our chores, we’ve been proud of what we’ve accomplished. We work hard to get what we’ve got, and we like to take credit for our successes. When I’ve been borrowing something so long that I’m convinced it belongs to me, it’s hard for me to hear someone say, “Hey, that jacket isn’t yours. It’s mine!” In fact, I’m so sure that it’s mine that I’ll even fight you for it: “No it’s not. I’ve had this thing for years. I got this when I was in high school.”

But life is a gift. Everything we have and everything we are comes from God, and life in God’s kingdom is built upon the recognition of that fact. But that’s a hard thing to remember when we don’t encounter the one who gave it all to us very often. What will break the cycle of our self-delusion? What will help us remember that it all belongs to God? Only God’s unfathomable love can shake us from our own crazy selfishness.

We are selfish, but God is loving. We refuse to listen, so God sends his son. We crucify the one he sent, and God says, “When will you stop and see how much I love you—how much I have given you?” God asks us to produce fruits for his kingdom. That means to stop living for ourselves, and to start acknowledging all that he has given us. It starts with his son, but then it spreads to everything else in our lives. If you haven’t seen how much God loves you, stop and consider the foolishness of the love that is the gift of his son. And, if you’ve forgotten that that same love is found in everything you have—your family, your job, your success, your life—stop and remember the foolishness of the love that is the gift of God’s son. The only way that you can bear fruit for the kingdom is by knowing that everything you have is a gift. Amen.

TREC: Reflections after the Meeting

On October 3, the Taskforce for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) convened a church-wide meeting held at the Washington National Cathedral and through a live webcast. I attended in person, but several others from our diocese attended via the webcast. These are my reflections on what was said, what wasn’t said, and what will (or at least should) be said next.

First of all, let me commend TREC for their work. This is a group of dedicated, hopeful, realistic leaders in our church. They have gone to great lengths to listen to many voices from all over our church and to share their ideas openly and widely for all to see. At times, they have considered bold strategies for reimagining our church. They have asked us to take a long, hard look in the mirror. In short, they have done a good job preparing the whole church for considering what steps must be taken to ensure its future vitality as a missionary body.

Considering TREC’s (unrealistic and out-of-touch) request that every diocese send one lay deputy, one clerical deputy, one bishop, and one person under 35, attendance at the Cathedral was sparse. I estimate that there were no more than 125 people there, but I feel sure that many more were “attending” via webcast. I hope TREC will provide those numbers soon. I am glad I was there in person, and it helped me to share my reflections with others in attendance and hear their thoughts on what happened.

After words of welcome and a prayer, Bishop Curry opened the meeting with his reflections on the work of TREC. If there is any part of the whole meeting worth watching or listening to, it was this. In short, he reminded us that Jesus came to start a movement. Grounding his remarks on Mark 1 and the calling of Andrew and Simon, Bishop Curry pointed to Jesus’ call: follow me. Jesus didn’t come to start a bureaucracy but a movement—a following—but even movements need structure to keep going. The work of TREC is to make sure that the structure of the church enables the movement to keep going. Those felt like wise words that put all of this in perspective, and I hope we can remember them as we consider whatever proposals come from TREC.

The other presentations were interesting, relevant, thoughtful, but largely repetitive. Dwight Zschiele did a good job of locating this movement within the missionary history of the Episcopal Church, but the best parts of his presentation were things that had already been published by TREC in their first paper (e.g., what makes our church distinctive and the four “Cs” of Catalyst, Connector, Capacity Builder, Convener that govern TREC’s approach). Using an extended analogy of a crew team rowing a boat, Katy George gave an impassioned presentation on the organizational issues facing the Episcopal Church. There were some good insights there, but, on the whole, it was a restatement of the problem with little more than overbroad and vague suggestions on what to do about it. Miguelina Howell did a great job of pointing out how the structure we already have is, in large part, a good thing, and the best thing she offered was a reminder that TREC’s work was only a tiny piece of the puzzle. Indeed, the future of our church depends on a lot more than a series of resolutions to restructure its bureaucracy.

Each presentation was followed by a question and answer period, and I liked the format. From the start, the questions suggested that the wider church was unhappy with this most recent publication from TREC (Letter to the Church: September 2014). One person prophetically suggested that reform in the church requires individuals to give up power but the most recent communication from TREC seems to focus on consolidating power. TREC did helpfully clarify that the Letter wasn’t a final proposal but a suggestion of the direction in which they were headed. If that’s the case, it seems the participants in the meeting hope TREC will do an about-face on a few of those directions.

On the whole, presentations were better than the question and answer sessions. Or, to be more precise, the presentations were better than the answers that TREC gave to the questions that were asked by the in-person and online audiences. The questions were fantastic, but TREC didn’t seem able to answer them. It felt like a student who had studied hard for a final exam but didn’t get the question she was expecting and so decided just to write everything she knew and loosely tie it to the question that was asked. The result was unsatisfying. TREC did more pontificating than answering. Maybe that’s because they’ve spent so much time together, talking the same language, answering their own questions, that what happened at the meeting was less direct exchange and more prepared rhetoric. Whatever the cause, this was an opportunity for real dialogue, but the back-and-forth was lacking.

One key example of this closeted thinking kept showing up in the meeting. Over and over, I heard members of TREC talk about the importance of redefining jobs and the organization structure of the staff who work for the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS), which is basically the name of the business side of the Episcopal Church. When questions were asked about the radical changes needed at the top, the response seemed to focus on making sure that employees of DFMS knew for whom they were working. When concerns about the size and ineffectiveness of the Executive Council were raised, the response had to do with the importance of redefining who was in charge of whom. To me, it sounded like TREC had taken most of their direction from people who work for or closely with DFMS (the Presiding Bishop, the President of the House of Deputies, members of staff, those who work with them, etc.) and not from the rest of us (parishioners, parish clergy, diocesan bishops). My exasperation grew exponentially with each reiteration of this issue that, at one point, I tweeted, “Oh my god! Really? Work of TREC would be good enough if it straightens out job roles for church staff? Worst use of 3 years ever.” I hope and pray that something other than a new organizational flow chart comes out of this TREC work. And I think it will, but we might have to fight for it.

So here’s what I think is next. There will be a series of proposals that are presented to General Convention 2015. Some of them will be widely welcomed and only combatted by a few (e.g., changes to the legislative process, changes to the budgeting process, a shortening of General Convention, the elimination of most CCABs). Others will be dead-on-arrival (e.g., changes to the role of the Presiding Bishop, changes to the makeup of Executive Council, changes to the way diocesan apportionments are made). Some of what gets passed will be deeply effective, but much of what gets passed will only have a minimum impact on the future of the church. A lot of the resolutions that don’t make it through are the kinds of things that would have been effective were it not for the political process that killed those proposals. But I don’t think this will be the end of the process. This is only the first cycle in the current iteration of reimagining. It will take us another decade or so, but I think this movement will continue until real, substantive change comes to the church.