Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Three Days

This post is also the cover article from our parish newsletter. To read the rest or learn more about St. John's, Decatur, click here.

My son’s first t-ball game of the season is scheduled for Thursday night. He will not be there.

I do not expect the rest of the world to grind to a halt during Holy Week, but, for me and my family, the whole year revolves around these next few days. In our modern world, life moves too fast to set aside three days for anything, especially seventy-two hours of church. I recognize that fact. I am a minister in the twenty-first century, and I have children of my own. Trust me: I know what it means for church to come near the bottom of a long list of important, worthwhile pursuits. But, for more than a decade, I have walked the through the liturgies of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Day each year, and I am convinced that there is no spiritual journey as powerful or transformative as this annual pilgrimage. How can I convey the incomparable value of this three-day holy endeavor to a busy, overcommitted, post-ecclesial world?

Last week I read a blog post by the Rev. Scott Gunn, Executive Director of Forward Movement, which publishes the popular devotional Forward Day-by-Day. In that post, Gunn reissued a promise that he made every year he was a parish priest: “Come to the entire Triduum Sacrum. I promise you, these liturgies—the very heart of our faith—will change your life.”[1] That “Triduum Sacrum” is literally the “Sacred Three Days,” which begin this Thursday evening with the washing of the feet and the stripping of the altar and continue through the Easter evening service on Sunday. I agree with Scott Gunn at the deepest level of my soul, and I offer his promise to you as my own: if you come to the entire Paschal Triduum, I promise that you will experience a holy transformation.

The adventure that we take during these three days includes the most emotional, most suspenseful, most painful, and most glorious moments of our faith: the washing of the disciples’ feet, the institution of Holy Communion, the agony in the garden, Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial, Jesus’ arrest and torture, the horror of the cross, the coldness of the tomb, the first light of new life, and the realization of the good news. Although you can experience one or two of these in isolation, nothing can compare with a full immersion in this sacred journey. Each step in the sequence builds upon the last and prepares us for the next. Together, they have the power to change us, to shape us, and to mold us into the children of God our hearts dream of becoming. I beg you not to skip even a moment of it.

Come on Maundy Thursday. Suffer with Christ on Good Friday. Sit motionless at the tomb on Saturday morning. Keep watch with the faithful on Saturday night. Welcome the light of Easter Day. And return to the table on Sunday night. Come and be transformed.

[1] Gunn, Scott. (2015, March 26). Seven Whole Days. [Holy Week with the Book of Common Prayer]. Retrieved from http://www.sevenwholedays.org/2015/03/26/holy-week-with-the-book-of-common-prayer/

Fool for Jesus

When available, audio of this sermon can be accessed here.

What does it mean to follow Jesus? What does it mean to journey with him to the cross?
There’s a short, little song on the album One Man Dog by James Taylor called “Fool for You.” In it, Taylor sings about a woman for whom he has fallen madly in love. “I’m a fool for you,” he sings. The song makes it clear that he doesn’t always like his lover. She complains about his behavior. She nags him about the way he carries on. She “takes unfair advantage” of him by using her body as a lure. He even sings, “I can’t stand it no more.” But, despite all of that dissatisfaction, the song makes it clear that the singer loves her and remains devoted to her because he is a fool for her and her love. It doesn’t make sense, but matters of the heart rarely do.
In today's gospel lesson (John 12:20-36), we read that, among those who went to Jerusalem for the Passover festival were some Greeks—some Gentiles. And a few of them came up to Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples, and said, “We wish to see Jesus.” But Philip didn’t really know what to make of that request. So he went to his buddy Andrew and asked him for advice. And the two of them put their heads together and still couldn’t figure it out, so they went and asked Jesus what they should do.
If that sounds strange, remember that in those days Jews and Gentiles lived very separate lives. The fact that these Greeks had gone to Jerusalem for Passover indicates that they were worshipers of Israel’s God, but there was still enough cultural and religious difference between them that approaching Jesus wasn’t as easy as we would think. Imagine, for example, what would happen if a congregation of Spanish-speaking, charismatic Christians came and asked me if they could take part in our worship on Easter Day. What’s the first thing I would ask? “What exactly do you mean by ‘take part in our worship?’” In the spirit of Christian fellowship, we would all want the answer to be “yes,” but the reality is that sometimes there are enough differences between us that it doesn’t work to merge us together—at least not without some careful planning.
Philip’s heart probably knew what the right answer was, but his mind wasn’t sure how to make it happen. And Andrew wasn’t sure either. But, when they went to ask Jesus for advice, he gave them a very strange answer: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Jesus already knew that his death had the power to bring all peoples to God—that the real fruit of his life and ministry could not be obtained until he died. Jesus knew that everything that separates us from God would die along with him, and, if Jesus died to reconcile the whole world to God, what could stand in the way of these Greeks finding that which they seek? If we are all reconciled to God as one people, what could possibly keep us apart?
Well, a lot, really. I don’t speak much Spanish, and, although I do appreciate charismatic worship, I believe that there is a time and a place for speaking in tongues, and it isn’t at St. John’s at 11:00am on Easter Day. In Christ there may be neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but there’s a lot of difference between them in the world I live in. You think race relations are all hunky-dory? Have you been to Ferguson lately? You think there are no gender barriers? Then why are we still talking about equal pay for equal work? And have you noticed that, despite worshiping the same God, Jews, Muslims, and Christians seem to have a hard time agreeing with one another? Jesus died so that the whole world might come to God as one people, but we’re doing a lot to stand in the way of that happening.
We, too, must die. We must hate our life in this world if we are going to discover our true life, which lies in Christ. We must yield. We must surrender. We must abandon everything we hold dear. The fruit of our lives, which is the fruit of Christ’s death, can only be manifest in us when we, too, have died with Christ. If you want to live your true life, you must die to yourself. That's why Paul writes, “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18-31). If we are going to be disciples of Christ, we must become fools for Jesus, whose love reveals the foolishness of God. How does that make sense? It doesn’t. But matters of the soul, like matters of the heart, rarely do.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Spiritual Profiling

It’s Monday in Holy Week, and I’m already getting my first dose of gospel-account-inconsistency. Today’s gospel lesson (John 12:1-11) is the beautiful story of Jesus coming to his friends’ home in Bethany. John identifies Lazarus as the one “whom he had raised from the dead.” The dinner, therefore, takes on an intimate, celebratory, appreciative quality. That’s the motive behind Mary’s lavish gift of costly perfume, which she uses to anoint Jesus’ feet as she wipes them with her hair. The entire gesture is normally a huge social taboo—unmarried woman rubbing another man’s feet—but the relationship that existed between this woman and this man seems to transcend. No one faults the thankfulness of the woman whose brother had been delivered from death—no one except Judas.

Judas asks, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” It was a reasonable question. Three hundred denarii (almost a year’s wages for a skilled laborer) was a lot of money—enough to make a big difference in the life of a poor person or family. But John, as he recalls this gospel story, shapes (distorts?) the event to leave us hating Judas for his treachery instead of wondering along with him why such an expensive gesture was appropriate.

Before he even tells us of Judas’ question, John inserts an editorial comment that sets the stage for our rejection of it: “Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said…” And now how are we supposed to hear what comes out of his mouth? That’s profiling of a spiritual kind if you ask me. Then, after Judas asks his question, just in case we misinterpret it, John lets us know the motive of Judas: “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.” But how does he know? Can’t a bad guy ask a good question every now and then?

Perhaps your theology is that nothing good can come from the one who betrays Jesus, but that’s not how I see it. He was still one of the twelve, and I don’t believe he was chosen merely for his betrayal. He had something to contribute to Jesus’ ministry, and this is the kind of question disciples are supposed to ask of their master—why? Why wasn’t the perfume sold? Why wasn’t the money given to the poor? Why should we prioritize the thankfulness of Mary and the anointing of Jesus over the hunger and homelessness of others?

In case you’re on John’s side—ready to throw Judas and his question under the bus—consider how Mark tells this same story. Some of us read Mark’s passion story, which, according to the RCL includes all of Mark 14 & 15. (Yes, the BCP still needs to be changed at an upcoming General Convention in order to match the lectionary with the text within the Holy Week services, and, yes, I like Scott Gunn’s argument here, but, no, I didn’t notice until it was too late and the service leaflet inserts were already finished, so, yes, Title IV police, come and get me.) In Mark 14, when he was at Simon’s house in Bethany (contradiction #1), a nameless woman (contradiction #2) anointed Jesus’ feet with her hair, and “some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way?’” (contradiction #3). There is no mention of Judas at all. In fact, in the dramatic reading of the Passion, those “some” are described as “disciples.” I heard the Passion reading three times yesterday (long day), and I kept waiting for Judas to complain about the ointment, but he never did. As far as Mark was concerned, that objection belonged to everyone—not just a traitor.

As I make my way into Holy Week, I am wondering about my own treachery. As I asked in the sermon yesterday, “Which side am I on?” Of course I’m willing to cheer on the Jesus who rides into town to a great celebration, but where am I when he is arrested, tried, and crucified? Two thousand years of hindsight have made it easy to point fingers at the traitors or the deniers or the run-and-scared-friends. But where would I be? What does it mean to be faithful even to the one who was crucified?

Late addition: it occurs to me that one is always permitted to lengthen readings, so I should be immune from a Title IV violation.

Choosing the Side of the Crucified One

March 29, 2015 – The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Alfred Hitchcock earned the nickname “The Master of Suspense.” He was a pioneer of modern cinematography, and his skill behind the camera remains unparalleled. He also knew what was required in front of the lens in order to keep his audiences on the edge of their seats. For example, in his most well-known film, Psycho, Hitchcock shot the infamous shower scene dozens and dozens of times, using different actors as the knife-wielding perpetrator. He wanted to be sure that the audience couldn’t guess the identity of the killer from the actor’s height or build, so Janet Leigh stood in the shower for hours as a host of different killers pretended to plunge a knife into her chest. In fact, Hitchcock’s insistence that the scene be repeated so many times left its mark on Leigh, who, for the rest of her life, never again took a shower, always insisting when she travelled that her hotel room have a bathtub.
We want to know how the story ends. Whether it’s watching a mystery or cheering for a team or electing a candidate or calling a rector or choosing a spouse, we all want to pick the right one. We want to know ahead of time how things will turn out. When all is said and done, we want to be able to look back and say, “Yep, I could tell what was going to happen; all along I knew that I made the right choice.” But sometimes you don’t know. Sometimes there is no way to know. Sometimes the director fools us. Sometimes the coach or the politician lets everyone down. Sometimes the minister doesn’t fit as well as you thought he would be. Sometimes the man or woman you loved with all your heart turns out to be someone you never really knew at all. And maybe, just maybe, the man who rode into Jerusalem on a colt isn’t the sort of savior you thought he would be.
When it comes to picking the right side, today is the day when our shortsightedness smacks us most sharply in the face. As the service begins, we acclaim Jesus as the king who has come in the name of the Lord—the one who will reclaim the throne of our ancestor David. Our shouts of “Hosanna!” are signs that we recognize Jesus to be the one who has come to establish God’s kingdom here on earth—the one who will overthrow tyranny and lead us to victory. But only minutes later, when confronted with his disruptive and seditious ways, our shouts change to “Crucify him!” as we call upon Pilate to put this rebellious pretender to death.
Which side are we on? Surely we must choose one or the other, but, as history repeats itself yet again, we are reminded that our answer is always “both.” We want the Son of God to come and win our victory for us. We want to share in his triumph. We want to bask in his glory. But, as soon as things get hard, we give up. We lose heart. We run away. We even turn against the one we thought would save us. Even Jesus’ disciples—his closest and strongest supporters—denounced him in his moment of need. Only the women were left to take care of his body, and their work was done not with hope in their hearts but only clinging to the certainty of defeat, which Jesus’ lifeless body made clear. Is that the Jesus we claim to be our king?
In a children’s sermon, when the preacher asks a question, the right answer is usually “Jesus.” And, when I ask you whose side you are on, the answer should be just as obvious. We all want to be on the winning side. We all want to stand shoulder to shoulder with Jesus. But, if we are going to call ourselves Christians, if we are going to be true followers of Jesus, we must learn to embrace the way of the cross as more than just the road that leads to Easter. It is no accident that the Son of God was nailed to a cross. The passion and death of Jesus are integral to our understanding of who God is and what God wants for the world.
God’s kingdom has come and is coming, but it isn’t the sort of kingdom that is hailed in a victory parade or overseen by a king who sits upon a throne. God’s kingdom is centered on the cross. God’s kingdom is built upon the one who hung there as a sign of God’s sacrificial love for the world. If you’re waiting for the tickertape or the pomp of a royal procession, you’re looking for the wrong kingdom. Those who choose God’s side embrace the one who suffered, the one who died, the one whose death is the victory. You cannot be on the same side as the crucified one and also seek your own agenda, your own success, or your own happiness. God’s side is about giving everything up for the sake of the other. Whose side are you on?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Kill Him or Not?

On Sunday, like many congregations, we will celebrate the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem by waving palm branches and shouting, "Hosanna in the highest!" (Well, we probably won't shout, but we'll say it as firmly yet politely as Episcopalians can.) Then, we'll hear the entire passion narrative according to Mark, which means the anointing of Jesus' feet plus the preparation of the upper room plus the Last Supper plus the prayer in the garden plus the betrayal plus the trial plus the denial plus the torture and finally the execution. Yeah, it's not just Palm Sunday anymore. It's the full-on, we-don't-trust-people-to-come-to-church-on-Good-Friday story. (Steve Pankey has written about this before, and his words are still with me). All of that means that preachers are already trying to figure out what to say--whether anything at all needs to be said or even can be said--with so much else already going on.

So, today, I want to write about something completely different. Well, sort of different but still a little bit related.

Today's Old Testament reading from the Daily Office (Jeremiah 26:1-16) ends with a beautiful realization worth remembering as we approach Palm Sunday. In this lesson, the prophet decries the disobedience of God's people and calls them to repent. Essentially, he prophesies that the entire nation will be destroyed if they don't get their act together. Naturally, the people are upset about this, and they decide to kill Jeremiah, saying to him, "You shall die! Why have you prophesied in the name of the LORD, saying, 'This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city shall be desolate, without inhabitant'?" And, just before they kill him, Jeremiah says, "It is the LORD who sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the words you have heard...But as for me, here I am in your hands. Do with me as seems good and right to you. Only know for certain that if you put me to death, you will be bringing innocent blood upon yourselves and upon this city and its inhabitants, for in truth the LORD sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears."

Damn. I love that line. I love Jeremiah's boldness. I love that he knows so certainly that he is God's prophet that he looks his would-be murderers in the eyes and says, "Do it...I dare you!"

And sure enough, the people flinch. They look at each other and say, "This man does not deserve the sentence of death, for he has spoken to us in the name of the LORD our God." In other words, they say, "Well...maybe we shouldn't kill him after all. Maybe he is a prophet. Maybe he is speaking the truth."

On Sunday (and again on Friday), we face that moment ourselves. With the dramatic reading, we will put on the lips of the congregation the infamous line, "Crucify him!" as we all urge Pilate to have Jesus put to death. Jesus, of course, had come to speak God's word to God's people--prophecies that God's people didn't really want to hear. And, then, in the moment, when he looks us in the eye, what do we do? We carry through with our intent. We call upon the officials to kill the renegade prophet. We'd rather his blood be upon us and our children (you have to wait until Friday for that particular line, but you get the point).

When will we come to our senses? When will we flinch? When will we consider the consequences of our murderous intentions? Maybe that's a sermon for Easter Day.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

St. Joseph and Clergy Families

All day long I've been thinking about Joseph. Funny enough, he's come up in conversation several times. First, with my spiritual director this morning. She wanted to read part of the Litany of St. Joseph to begin our time together. Later, I spoke about him to a parishioner who was facing a difficult situation. Then, at TonTap, I asked a question about Joseph and the nature of God's call in our lives. Finally, at a banquet for local ministers and their spouses, I mentioned that St. Joseph reminds me of my family.

All day long I've been thinking about Joseph, and every time I've thought of my wife and my children. You see, God didn't bother to ask Joseph before he announced the "good news" of Jesus' birth to Joseph's betrothed. Mary, on the other had, was approached by the Angel Gabriel, who told her what God's plan was. Mary agreed: "Let it me unto me according to thy word." She said yes. But someone forgot to ask Joseph.

After the deed was done, the angel found Joseph and told him in a dream what was going to happen. Joseph had already learned that his fiancée was pregnant, and he intended to divorce her quietly--honorably. But the angel let Joseph know after the fact what God's plan was: "Um, Joseph, about that pregnancy thing..." And we remember Joseph for his faithfulness, his obedience, his courage, and his prudence.

Often I think of Mary and the call God placed upon her. We celebrate the fact that she said yes, and, through her agreement, she became the Mother of God. She is an active participant. Her brave participation in the incarnation is remembered throughout all generations. But Joseph is remembered primarily for what he didn't do--for not divorcing her, for not looking for another wife, for not giving up on the woman whose womb was filled with the child of another.

But there's more to Joseph than that. He had a call, too. God could not have done with Mary what he accomplished if Joseph had not said yes, too. Had Joseph been anyone else--had he abandoned his wife in her moment of need--Mary could not have been Jesus' mother. Even though we don't think of Joseph's call, he had a call, too. His call was a holy call--a commission from God that accompanied his spouse's ministry.

How many ministers like me have spouses who make their ministry possible yet aren't thought of as having a call? Being a clergy spouse is a calling. Even if you didn't go before the Commission on Ministry or go to seminary or hear God say, "You're supposed to be a clergy spouse," being married to a clergyperson is a calling. No matter how busy one becomes with church work--no matter if she or he never even darkens the door--there is a sacrifice made for the sake of the ministry of the ordained. And that sacrifice is made by the children as well. Just ask my kids what we do on a "long weekend" when they are out of school on a Monday. Long weekend? Not for us. That, my friends, is a sacrifice.

Today, as we remember Joseph, I remember all of those who are responding to God's call even if God didn't stop to ask them whether they were willing to sign on. Sometimes ministry is foisted upon people--especially the family members of clergy people. Today, as we remember Joseph, let's remember those who live with ministers and give of themselves in their own way. It's their calling, too.

Hating One's Life

I wonder whether Jesus' parents forbade him from saying the word "hate" when he was a child. Like "stupid" and "shut-up," the word "hate" is a perfectly acceptable word that we have forbidden our children from saying because they haven't learned how to use it. When a five-year-old bandies words like that around, his three-year-old brother gets his feelings hurt. And their father gets in trouble for describing something that is genuinely stupid as just that--stupid.

The point is that I wonder whether Jesus was being as provocative in John 12 as he sounds in the twenty-first century: "Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life." What does it mean to hate one's life? What Is Jesus really asking us to do? Is he trying to prove a point, or is he really asking us to loathe the life we're given?

For starters, let's remember that human life is a good thing--otherwise God would not have taken it on in the incarnation in order to redeem it. The incarnation proves that Christianity is not an escapist religion. We are not called to shed our human nature so that we might become some sort of semi-divine being. God redeems our human nature by becoming human. So life itself is valuable. This is not some suicide cult.

So what, then, does it mean to hate one's life? I do believe that Jesus was being provocative, but I don't think he was speaking hyperbolically. He means hate our life. Remember, the one who is speaking is on his way to the cross, where he will give up this life in a dramatic, painful, terrifying way. And he is calling his disciples to follow him--even to death.

No, God is not calling us to be petulant teenagers--the kind who say, "Oh, Mom, I hate my life!" in that super-melodramatic way. Instead, God is asking us to give it up and not just let it go. No, we don't throw our life away, but we happily, readily, eagerly turn it over the way a kid tosses his broccoli in the trash when his parents aren't looking. Maybe I'm skating a fine line, but I think Jesus was, too. We need to take his words seriously or else the call to sacrifice is only an image. The death Jesus died is more than metaphor, and the sacrifice we are called to make is, too.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

God the Potter; We the Clay

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

What does it mean for God to change God’s mind? We read about that several times in the bible. It happens when Moses pleads with God, and God “relents of the disaster that he intended to bring upon the people” (Exodus 32:14). And it happens again in today’s reading from Jeremiah, when God says to the prophet, “If that [evil] nation…turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it” (18:1-11). But what does that really mean? For us—not for God—what does it mean for God to change God’s mind?

God asks the prophet to accompany him to the potter’s house, and, while standing there looking at the potter throwing a pot on his wheel, the Lord says, “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?” In some ways, it is a beautiful image—to think of God’s people as the clay that God uses to make a piece of art or something useful in the kitchen. Not long ago, my parents bought a bowl from a potter in North Carolina, and it has quickly become a cherished possession. If you look carefully, you can see how the artist shaped the clay before firing it and glazing it. The concentric circular marks all along the vessel remind us of the time and skill and care that the potter used to make the bowl. So, too, do we enjoy thinking of our relationship with God like that—that he molds us into something worth beholding.

But there is one powerful and consequential limit to that image: the potter shapes the clay with zero regard for what the clay wants to become. That might seem obvious to us. In fact, the prophet Isaiah explores that very aspect of the potter/clay relationship in Isaiah 29:16: “You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, ‘He did not make me’; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, ‘He has no understanding’? If we are going to be the Lord’s handiwork, we need to accept that he is the potter—not us.

Sometimes things don’t work out the way they should. The underdog fumbles on the goal line and barely misses beating its rival. The Cinderella team makes it to the Sweet 16 but doesn’t have what it takes to make it further in the tournament. Relationships that have lasted for decades sometimes fall apart. Cancers come back even after a long remission. Even when we are certain that we know what the right thing is—what God’s will is—sometimes it doesn’t happen that way.

Does God change his mind? Well, it depend on whom you ask. Other places in the bible (like Malachi 3:6) make it clear that God does not change. To me, it seems like there are times when the only way we can explain an about-face—a gap between our understanding and God’s understanding—is to say that God has changed his mind…even if that doesn’t really make sense. And the good news is that God can handle our incorrect approximations.

Through it all, however, we are taught that God is God and we are not. It’s the first lesson in life: we are not in control. Learning that—accepting that—makes it possible for God to do wonderful, beautiful, remarkable things with us…even if they aren’t the things we were expecting.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Home Stretch

This post originally appeared as the cover article in our parish newsletter, The View. To read the rest of the newsletter and to learn about what's happening at St. John's, Decatur, please click here.
In the Episcopal Church, we like to think of ourselves as friendly and welcoming, but we regularly ask newcomers to juggle a prayer book and a hymnal, often jumping from one place to another without warning. Some of us are put off by that feeling of lostness, but I have always found it strangely appealing. Even when I was new to the Episcopal Church, I loved being asked to keep up with so many moving parts. Everyone around me seemed to know what she was doing—all bowing, kneeling, and crossing themselves in unison—and I knew that if I was to get the most I could out of worship I had to give it my full attention. Sometimes, though, I am keenly aware that, despite everyone’s best efforts, I have lost a considerable portion of the congregation.

Once a month, one of the clergy from our parish offers a Communion service at a local assisted-living facility. We started that back when there were six or seven members of our congregation living there, but several of them have moved or died, leaving only a few Episcopalians in the group. The success of that gathering, however, was never measured in the number of parishioners around the table. From the very beginning, most of our worshippers were from a different tradition. As you might expect, we use the Book of Common Prayer for the liturgy, and we distribute service leaflets that have most of the words of the service printed in them, but there are always a few gaps that trip people up. In particular, there is one point in the service at which the presider says the proper preface for the season or the day, and invariably several worshippers begin flipping back and forth, looking for words that are not in their leaflets.

Even if we don’t realize it or can’t find it in our prayer books, the proper preface is a part of the Eucharistic prayer that we hear every Sunday—the part immediately before the Sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy…”). It changes with the liturgical season, and its words reflect the focus of our worship. Most seasons (e.g. Easter, Advent, and Christmas) have only one preface associated with them, but Lent has two (plus a third preface just for Holy Week). For the first six weeks of Lent, therefore, whoever is presiding at the table has a choice, and, when it is my turn to pick, I always try to choose the preface that ties in more closely with the gospel lesson and/or the sermon.

Although there are exceptions (most notably Ash Wednesday), the first four weeks of Lent usually remind me of the first preface, which recalls Jesus’ victory over temptation—a victory in which we share. Once we pass the fourth Sunday in Lent, however, things change. The readings begin to focus more clearly on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and the death that awaited him there. Accordingly, the preface to which I feel drawn during these last few weeks reminds us that God “[bids his] faithful people cleanse their hearts, and prepare with joy for the Paschal feast.” In that way, we recognize that our Lenten journey is nearing its end—its consummation—and that there are steps we need to take to get ready for it.
This past Sunday our church was particularly full. Perhaps you have felt a gentle tug on your heart these past few weeks. Perhaps the warm weather and the lengthening days have stirred up in you a desire to return to church. Whatever the reason, I cannot think of a better time to worship with us. Easter is right around the corner. Lent is almost over. Whether you gave something up or took something on doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you find a way to prepare your heart to celebrate the joy that is coming. We are nearly there, but it isn’t too late. As the preface bids us, now is the time for “fervent prayer and…works of mercy.” Now is the time for renewal through God’s Word and Sacraments. God has prepared an immeasurable grace for us. Now we must prepare to receive it again.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Logic of Salvation History

Geography seems important in Sunday’s gospel lesson (John 12:20-33). The story takes place in Jerusalem, where the festival of the Passover is taking place. The narrator lets us know that there were some Greeks there observing the festival. Some of these non-Jewish but God-fearing people come to Philip and ask to see Jesus. Philip, the narrator tells us, is from Bethsaida in Galilee. John doesn’t make a big deal about it, but it’s as if he wants us to have these geographical identities in the backs of our minds as we read the rest of the passage—Jerusalem, Greeks, Galilee.

When Philip is approached by the Greeks, he goes and finds Andrew. Then, Andrew and Philip go to Jesus and tell him that he is being sought by some Greeks. But Jesus’ reply seems to be off the subject—almost as if he didn’t hear them: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit…” What’s he talking about? Is he changing the subject? Or is this some kind of metaphorical response to the Greek’s inquiry?

There is a logic to salvation history. God’s work of salvation begins with Abraham, continues through his descendants, and finally, through them, spreads to the rest of the world. The remarkable thing about the Jesus movement is that it begins as an almost exclusively Jewish sect but is quickly (within a generation or two) taken over by non-Jews. Without Jesus, how many Gentiles would know the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? How many would teach their children about Moses, Deborah, and Ruth?

Yes, in Jesus’ day there were many non-Jews who knew and worshiped the God of Israel. They were like these nameless Greeks—those who had adopted the faith of Israel. But in Jesus’ death and resurrection, something different happens. Gentiles discover instead what it means to be adopted by Israel’s God. A grain of wheat remains a single grain unless it falls into the ground and dies.

Look and Live

March 15, 2015 – 4th Sunday in Lent, Year B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
The other day a friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook. Perhaps you saw it. It was a photograph of a digital scale, and she included a celebratory description, indicating that this was the first time in a long while that she had been on the “good side” of this particular milestone weight. I must confess to you, my brothers and sisters, that my first thought wasn’t congratulatory. Instead. I wondered aloud to myself, “What is she thinking? I wouldn’t share a picture of my weight on Facebook even if I lost a hundred pounds!”

You see, for me, weight has always been an issue. I was chosen last for the kickball team. My cousins made fun of the shape of my body. I cried because they didn’t make Guess jeans in husky sizes. For almost my whole life, my weight has been one of those personal failures that I do not share with anyone. In fact, I barely even share it with myself.

But I love standardized tests. I delight in performance evaluations. I look forward to high school reunions. I even enjoy the machine in the pharmacy where I can hold really still and breathe really slowly and get my pulse and my blood pressure down to a level that astonishes most people. I love those things because I am good at them—because they are ways that I can demonstrate to the rest of the world that I am a success. But my scale is another story.

When I am in a good pattern of running three or four times a week, I will hop on the scale—as long as no one else is around—and look down at the number to see how I am doing. But, when things get busy and I am not able to exercise the way I know I should, I won’t go anywhere near the scale. I know it’s bad, but I don’t want to see that number staring up at me. I’d rather pretend that things are worse than they really are than know the ugly truth. I’m like the guy—and it’s almost always a guy—who has had some terrifying symptoms for years but refuses to go to the doctor because it’s not really real until someone in a white coat with letters after her name gives it a diagnosis.

No one likes confronting his physical or professional or relational failures. Even though we know that they exist, we don’t want to encounter them. So what, then, does that say about sin? What is it like to confront your spiritual shortcomings? What is it like to come face to face with the ways that you have let God down?

You’ve heard the story about the Episcopalian or Presbyterian not wanting to wait in a long line at the liquor store. As soon as he walks in the door, he boldly declares, “Oh, Brother Billy! What are you doing here—looking for sinners?” sending all the Baptists running for cover. That reminds me of how much fun it is to go to Publix right after church and catch…I mean, see…some of the parishioners who didn’t quite make it to church on Sunday morning. All joking aside, it isn’t fun to confront our sin or to have someone else confront it for us. Whether we’re kneeling down in a confessional booth or making a “searching and fearless moral inventory” and admitting “to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs,” no one looks forward to sharing his deepest failures with anyone else.[1] You may not worry that the federal marshals will come and bang on your door in the middle of the night, but there are truths about yourself that you don’t want to share with another living soul. You have your own metaphorical mugshots that you don’t want to show up on the internet. If Nathaniel Hawthorne taught us anything it’s that all of us have at least one scarlet letter hiding under our shirts.

And that brings me to the bizarre story of the bronze serpent from Numbers 21. By this time in their journey from Egypt to the Promise Land, the people of Israel had been walking for a long, long time. Finally, they had arrived on the border of their destination, but the King of Edom refused to give them safe passage through his land. So Israel had to make a long detour out of the way. Understandably frustrated, the people began to grumble against God and against Moses. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt?” they cried—not for the first time. “We are hungry and thirsty, and we have nothing to eat except this worthless manna.”

At that point, as the author of the story tells us, the Lord seemed to lose his temper, and he sent poisonous snakes to bite the people, many of whom died. In a panic, the people ran to Moses and said, “Moses, help us! We have sinned against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord that he might take these serpents from us.” So Moses prayed, and God offered him a solution: “Make a poisonous serpent out of bronze and set it on a pole, and those who are bitten shall look upon that serpent and live.” And that is exactly what Moses did, and, sure enough, whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would gaze upon the bronze snake and live.

There are many strange stories in the bible, but this story belongs somewhere near the very top of that list. God gets angry at his faithless people and sends poisonous snakes to punish them. The people have a change of heart and beg Moses to save them. And, after Moses prays to God, God tells him to make a serpent out of bronze—an idol, if you will—and to affix it to the top of a pole. And somehow looking at that bronze statue of a snake was enough to heal these snake-bit people. How in the world did this happen, and, more importantly, how in the world did the people who put the Hebrew scriptures together allow this story of salvation through pseudo-idol-worship to stay in the bible?

Like all passages in scripture, this story isn’t just a tale from history. It’s written in order to teach us something. And I don’t think it’s an accident that the faithless people who were saved found salvation by staring the exact consequences of their sin right in the face. Healing began when the people gazed upon the same serpent that had bit them. And where do you think that healing came from? That bronze serpent didn’t have any power to save the Israelites. Idols are empty images of metal, wood, or stone, fashioned by human hands. Only God has the power to save his people, and salvation comes through faith, and faith requires repentance, and repentance means taking a long, hard look at our sin so that we might leave it behind forever.

None of us enjoys encountering the totality of his or her failures. We’d rather hide from them or pretend that they don’t exist or stick them in a closet where they will collect dust. But the truth is that we are all snake-bit, and the only way we will ever get better is by looking in the mirror and admitting our wrongs. Confronting our sin is the first step. God asks us to believe in his promise of forgiveness—to trust that no sin, no misdeed, no failure is big enough to separate us from his love. If we are hiding our sin from ourselves and from God and from one another, we aren’t trusting in the power of his forgiveness.
There’s a reason that Jesus told Nicodemus that the Son of Man must be lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. Salvation begins when we feel the freedom that comes from acknowledging our sin to a God who has pledged to love us regardless of it. Gaze not upon a fiery serpent but upon the crucified Son of God. Behold not only the magnitude of his sacrifice but also the magnitude of your sin—our sin which held him there. Look upon the manifestation of your own misdeeds as they are nailed to the cross and be saved by the one whose love will always triumph over even your biggest failures.

[1] From Alcoholics Anonymous. http://www.recovery.org/topics/alcoholics-anonymous-12-step/.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Weaponizing of John 3:16

Quick Quiz #1

Which of the following best describes your opinion of John 3:16?

A) It's my favorite verse! I have it tattooed on my buttock!
B) Meh. I can take or leave.
C) Excuse me for a moment: I just vomited a little in my mouth.

There is no right answer, of course. Believe it or not--no matter what your friends tell you--you are allowed to dislike John 3:16 and still be a Christian. Like Thin Mints, this verse of scripture is the favorite of 55% of Americans. (I just made that up.) But what about the rest of us? No, I'm not saying I'm fully in the "C" camp of involuntary puking, but the level of John 3:16 idolization in contemporary Christianity turns me off.

Maybe a more elucidative question is this: how do you hear John 3:16? Do you hear it as a statement of God's incredible and limitless love, or does it sound more like a prescription for salvation? In other words, where is the emphasis in your interpretation of the verse? Do you stress the gift of love God made in Jesus Christ, or do you emphasize the importance of belief in obtaining everlasting life?

Of course, it isn't that simple. All of us embrace both parts of the verse. But I hear a lot of people describe John 3:16 as "the gospel in miniature." I take that to mean that this one verse contains most (if not all) of what you need to know about the good news of Jesus Christ. That version of the gospel goes a little like this:

God loved the world.
God sent his son.
Those who believe in him get everlasting life.
Those who don't...well, they don't.

But, if that really is the whole gospel, why does Jesus keep talking? His explanation to Nicodemus isn't finished yet. As if to make sure that 21st-century Christians don't misinterpret 3:16, Jesus sticks the next verse right there in a place where it surely won't be ignored: "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." How might John 3:17 shift the way we hear the preceding verse?

Yes, there is condemnation. It comes in the rest of Sunday's gospel lesson (John 3:14-21). Jesus makes it clear that "those who do not believe are condemned already." But Jesus isn't in the condemning business. We are. It is we who condemn ourselves. But, if Jesus isn't one to condemn, then why do so many Christians use John 3:16 to condemn others?

Jesus said, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." He did not say, "...so that everyone who believes what you believe may not perish..." What does it mean to believe in Jesus? I've got my answers to that question, and I hope you have yours. But we don't necessarily need to agree on exactly what that means. I can trust that the gracious, loving gift of Jesus--the one who came not to condemn but to save--is bigger and broader than I can imagine.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

You Don't Deserve It

Golf has its own language. I don’t mean eagles and birdies and bogies. I’m talking about the unofficial lingo that players use to tease each other, to highlight their own accomplishments, and to keep a running commentary on the game going. If there’s a tree in between you and the green, someone might say, “That tree is 90% air…just like a screen door.” If you hit a bad shot but get a good kick and it ends up better than it should, you say, “That’s an O. J.; I got away with it.” A hard pull to the left off the tee is a “Thurman Munson,” which means “a dead Yank.” Each regular group has its own vocabulary, and these shorthand expressions keep things jovial on the course.

Over and over, when something remarkable goes a player’s way—like a chip-in from 70 feet or a deflection off a sprinkler head that sends the ball careening in the right direction—the player will often say “I just can’t catch a break,” or “I must be living right.” On the surface, the player is trying to politely apologize to the other players for a fluke. “Guys, I’m sorry about that. Pretty amazing shot, but we all know I couldn’t do it again if I tried.” But, beneath the surface, the comment reflects a sentiment that there are forces at work beyond the player’s control and, more to the point, that those forces are benevolent when the player deserves it.

No one really thinks that a 70-foot chip in or a helpful deflection off a sprinkler head is the result of righteous living. No one really thinks that there are golfing gods looking down from above, blessing those who “live right” and cursing those who hate puppies and rainbows. But we all get what the golfer is saying because that same attitude sneaks into the rest of our lives. We’d like to deny it, but at some level we can’t help but believe that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people.

That’s a belief that Paul is fighting against in Romans 5:1-11. He writes to a community that had experienced substantial hardship. Christians in Rome had been through hell. These were a people who looked around and how bad things were and thought, “We must be doing something wrong; God must be angry at us.” But Paul takes that logic and turns it on its head: “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts.” For Paul, persecution is not a sign of bad living or wrong belief. God threw that way of thinking out the window with the gift of his son: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.” In other words, if God sent his son to redeem us before we deserved it, how much more certain we should be that he will save us now that we are redeemed.
I write about karma pretty often—about how attractive yet totally hopeless and anti-Christian it is. Christ is the anti-karma, and karma is the anti-Christ. Human nature looks for explanations, and we will posit them upon a circumstance even when the connections don’t make any sense. When things have been going badly enough for long enough, we start to believe that something must be the cause of this, and we invent a disease to match our symptoms. That’s karma. That’s “I must be living right,” or “I’m sure I deserve this.” In Jesus Christ, God declares an end to that. Suffering does not come to those who are unrighteous. In Christ, salvation comes to the unrighteous. Likewise, blessings don’t always come to God’s elect. Sometimes the righteous suffer for no reason at all. But Paul reminds us that because of Christ our suffering is not empty. Even in our trouble, we find hope—a hope that depends not upon how we live our lives but upon a God who loves us regardless.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Don't Forget About Being Born Again

Whenever the lectionary picks up in the middle of a paragraph, there's a good chance something will be taken out of context. I think that's exactly what happens in this Sunday's gospel lesson (John 3:14-21). You might think that it starts at a logical place since verse 14 has Jesus saying to Nicodemus, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." Given that the reading from Numbers is the actual story about lifting up the bronze serpent in the wilderness so that those who had been bitten by snakes as punishment for their impatient faithlessness could be healed, you might think this is the right place to start. I disagree.

If we begin with verse 14, we miss everything Jesus has to say to Nicodemus about being born again. Remember the story? Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, wondering how to make sense of Jesus' miraculous signs and seemingly conflicting radical message (e.g. turning over of tables in the temple). Jesus' response to Nicodemus? "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." They go back and forth about what this means--Nicodemus still struggling to make sense of Jesus' teaching--until finally Jesus says, "If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?"

There is a gap, it seems, between what Jesus is saying and what Nicodemus is understanding. This gap cannot be bridged by human thinking. Only one who is born of water and the spirit--only one who is born again--can see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus wants to know whether he is supposed to crawl back into his mother's womb, and Jesus (insert face-palm here) can't believe that this leader and teacher of Israel can be so obtuse. The implication for me is that I won't be able to make sense of what God is doing in my life and in the world around me until I am born again--until I start all over and claim a birth that is given to me through Christ's death and resurrection.

That is the background to the statement about the bronze serpent being lifted up. That is the prerequisite to understanding what Jesus says about the Son of Man being raised. And, as this week's lesson continues with verse 17, it's also essential to understanding that Jesus came into the world not to condemn the world but that, through him, the world might be saved.

This week, Jesus himself does some exegesis on behalf of the preacher. He takes the story from Numbers and interprets it for us as a story about life and hope and promise. He takes it out of the context of punishment, death, and despair and shows us what it is really about--about being born again. When my instincts run counter to that, I'm failing to see the story through born-again eyes. In other words, I'm stuck in the earthly realm and have failed to see the kingdom of God at work.

As Steve Pankey said in his post today, "There comes a time when you realize that snakes have been biting you for quite some time and you are in desperate need of relief." We are all snake-bit. If we want to be healed, we need to look at the one who was raised in the wilderness. We need to be born again.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Graven Image or Source of Healing?

Does anyone else find Sunday’s Old Testament lesson (Numbers 21:4-9) to be completely strange? In this passage the Lord gets angry at Israel’s grumbling, so he sends poisonous snakes to bite and kill them. Moses prays for the people, and the Lord commands him to make a poisonous serpent out of bronze and set it on a pole. If someone was bit and then looked upon the serpent, she or he was healed.

This story is bizarre, of course, because of the method of the healing. What does it mean to look upon the image of a serpent and be healed? But, at a deeper level, this story is beyond weird because of the strong prohibition of making graven images or idols that was central to Israelite culture. In this story, God essentially asks Moses to make an idol that will have power to save the people. Well, sort of, but, of course, that’s not the whole story.

For starters, let’s jump ahead and see what happens to this bronze serpent. Centuries later, when Hezekiah the great reformer king of Judah came to the throne, “he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (2 Kings 18:4). Indeed, the strange source of healing—like all graven images—became an object of worship. The message is that if you give human beings long enough we will worship whatever we see. So this temporary answer ended up being a problem for God’s people. Maybe I’ll post later this week on how the cross has become a graven image for some Christians. (Oooh, controversy!)

But my real focus on the Numbers passage is the nature of the image that was made for the people’s healing. God did not command that a butterfly be made. God did not command that Moses make a beautiful flower or a moon or a star or a lion or a calf or anything else…except a serpent. God asked Moses to make an image of the very thing that had been the source of Israel’s punishment. Those who looked upon it—those who stared the consequences of their sin straight in the face—were saved. Presumably, those who turned away and refused to confront their mistakes were not.

There’s a message of repentance here. Those who look upon the consequences of their sin find salvation. Those who turn away and pretend their sin does not exist or does not have consequences in their lives cannot find salvation. If we are going to be saved, we must look at our sin, behold it, and let the act of confronting it become our real healing.

As I work toward Sunday, I’m looking for a way to convey this message of repentance in the context of John 3 and Jesus’ words to Nicodemus.

We Are Helpless

March 8, 2015 – 3rd Sunday in Lent, Year B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner

 Audio of this sermon is available here.

Today we proclaim one of the most difficult to grasp truths of the Christian faith. And, at the same time, we also proclaim one of its most liberating aspects. This doctrine is not only difficult to grasp; it’s actually impossible. Yet all our hope depends upon our ability to accept it. It is a belief that runs contrary to every instinct in our being, but, if we want to be the people God created us to be, we must embrace it. And it is simply this: we are helpless.

I don’t know how carefully you listen to the Collect of the Day, but it is written to collect and focus all of our prayers for the day into one clear expression. It reflects where we are in the seasons of the church year, and it often articulates a thread that holds all of the readings together. Our hymns are chosen to tie in with the scripture lessons, so the words of the collect are often echoed in the words we sing. The Collect of the Day is a brief moment in our service, and it’s over before you know it, but, if you let that prayer sink into your heart each week, I believe that you will be drawn deeper into our worship. And, this week, our collect says a most amazing thing: “Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.”

We are helpless. We are powerless. We are impotent. We are beyond weak. We are utterly unable by ourselves to do anything that would benefit us. We are drowning in a sea of our own trouble and unable to save ourselves from sinking. What wonderful news! But it sounds terrible, doesn’t it? No one likes hearing that he is helpless. No one wants to be told that she is powerless. We live in a world where anything is possible—where, with enough hard work and determination, you can do anything, become anything, accomplish anything. We don’t tell our children that they can’t. We pump them up with entitled potential and tell them that they can be anything they want to be. It’s easier to let them figure out for themselves (and sometimes with the help of a therapist) that they won’t become a professional athlete, that they can’t choose to be a Wall Street genius, that they can’t make themselves happy.

I’m not saying that hard work and determination don’t pay off. There are plenty of stories of little kids who worked harder than anyone else and made it to the NFL, and ESPN knows that we’ll sit down and watch those stories. Human beings have remarkable abilities, and exceptional human beings can do the kinds of things that fill the rest of us with awe. But then what? How far will that get you? How many former athletes are now bankrupt? How many billionaires are still searching for happiness? How many couples with perfect jobs and perfect houses and perfect children are hiding their discontent? Sooner or later—whether it’s in this life or standing in front of our maker—we will encounter our own limitations. We will confront the fact that we cannot give ourselves true joy. We will take a long, hard look at ourselves in the mirror and realize that, in the truest sense of the word, we are powerless. And I believe that the sooner we do the sooner we discover true peace.

Jesus revealed that truth in dramatic fashion when he charged into the temple and chased out those who were selling animals or changing money and overturned their tables. In that prophetic act, Jesus confronted the religion of his day, declaring that this temple commerce had made his Father’s house a marketplace. Some commentators and preachers like to explain this disruptive display as an attack on those who would charge exorbitant prices and exchange rates to those who had come to the temple for worship. Indeed, these animals were necessary for those who had come to offer a sacrifice, and it was more than inconvenient to bring a sheep or a goat or a pigeon on a journey that could last for days. Plus, in the temple, monetary offerings could only be made in the Jewish or Tyrian currency. Greek or Roman coins, which were used everywhere else, were not acceptable, but who carried around shekels? These merchants and money changers were essential. And, in all of the historical accounts of what went on at the temple, there is no record of exorbitant prices or exchange rates being charged. By all accounts, they were a much-needed, much-respected part of worship in Jerusalem. Like it or not, therefore, it seems that Jesus’ ire was not directed at an abusive system that preyed on the poor. Jesus was criticizing the system as a whole.

An act like that—a defiant stand that challenged the very nature of religion in that day—required proof. The temple authorities went to Jesus and said, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” And Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Of course, they thought he was talking about the structure which had taken forty-six years to build, but Jesus’ challenge wasn’t levied against the stones and mortar of Judaism. He was criticizing the assumptions that had grown to accompany the religious practice of the day. He wanted them to see that the relationship between God and humanity had never depended upon a transaction between us and God but that it had always been built purely upon God’s gift of grace. In order to make that truth resonate in the hearts and minds of God’s people, God had shifted the temple where he meets humanity away from a place where people instinctively brought their best to God and relocated it onto the person of Jesus Christ. And that had changed everything. The life and death and resurrection of Jesus made it clear that we have nothing to offer in exchange for salvation.

It is hard to believe that we are helpless. It is hard to accept that we are powerless. It is impossible, even, to understand that God sees that we have absolutely nothing to offer him yet gives us salvation anyway. And that is truly good news. God isn’t asking for anything in exchange for his love because he knows that we have nothing to offer him. We are faithless. We are selfish. We are sinful. And God declares that he loves us anyway. That is what Jesus is all about. One cannot stand in the shadow of the cross and think that one has anything to give in exchange for God’s love. How could you pay for that? How could you earn that? How could you merit that?

But our world revolves around exchange. Transactions are as old as humanity itself. We are more comfortable with quid pro quo than no strings attached. When someone gives us a present, we like to have something that we can give them in return. We make sense of things by putting a price on them, including our relationship with God. It is human nature to think that God will bless us if we are good and curse us if we are not. And, even here and now, we invent ways to quantify the economy of salvation. We have simply replaced temple sacrifice with new forms of exchange. Ask yourself why you come to church, why you put money in the plate, and why you volunteer your time. Is it out of pure gratitude for all that God has given you, or are you still trying to give something back in exchange for God’s grace?

Is our faith built upon the principle that we have nothing to offer God, or are we still working as if God’s love depends upon what we bring him? If Jesus walked through that door, what tables would he overturn? What practices would he chase out of our church? How much of our religion is still modeled on exchange? In Christ, there is no back and forth. In grace, there is no transaction. If we believe that God loves us unconditionally, we must also believe that we can do nothing to receive that love. We must proclaim the good news that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. We must rejoice in our helplessness because only then can God’s love free us from the crushing weight of unmet expectations.

Hear the good news that God expects nothing from you. Hear the good news that you have nothing to offer in exchange for God’s love. In Christ, we are set free from the belief that God’s love depends on us. Don’t return to the shackles of exchange. Accept that God’s love is a free gift and that you are helpless without it.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Damning Collect

What is Lent supposed to teach us? What is repentance all about? Why do we spend this season in a spiritual wilderness? What would happen to us if we journeyed out into the desert all alone for forty days?

We do these things to learn that we are helpless, that we are mortal, that we cannot make it on our own.

This Sunday we will pray words as damning as any we encounter all year long: "Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves." The collect for the Third Sunday in Lent is powerful. It begins with the fullness of our failure. It announces boldly and plainly to God that we are destined to screw it all up. There is no where to hide after those words are said. There is no way to start a prayer with those words and end up anywhere other than begging for help. We cannot simultaneously acknowledge our powerlessness and then claim we have any power. We know, after hearing those words, that the conclusion of that prayer will be a supplication for God's help.

Something powerful happens when we admit that we are powerless. It's the first of the twelve steps. We have no power in ourselves. That's where recovery starts: "We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable." That's where deliverance begins. That's where salvation starts.

I live in a world that hides from weakness. I live in a culture that celebrates strength. I live in a community that doesn't know how to handle failure. When confronted by a terminal illness or a monumental grief or a raging addiction or a debilitating depression, we pat people on the back and say, "Hang in there. Things will get better." We do that because it is threatening to acknowledge our own powerlessness over the circumstance. The truth is, however, that there's nothing we can do about any of it. We are all totally, absolutely, utterly powerless.

And once we say those words--to ourselves, to one another, and to God--we can finish the prayer: "Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul." We are helped. We are loved. We are saved. But all of that comes from a power greater than ourselves. And we can't get there until we admit our powerlessness.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Life Is Full of Excuses

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
My life is full of excuses—some of them mine, most of them belonging to others. My children always have a reason why they haven’t cleaned up the play room, why they aren’t ready on time, or why their sibling is crying. And that reason is never, “It’s my fault. I didn’t do what you told me to do. I’m sorry.” Other people share their excuses with me, too. “I know we haven’t been to church in weeks, but we’ve been busy. Janet had a gymnastics meet over the weekend. John had a stressful week at work and needed some time to relax. We’ve had something on the calendar every single weekend, and this was the first time we could stay home as a family.” No one ever says, “I guess church isn’t really a priority in my life. I always seems to find a reason not to go. I suppose I should just get myself there next Sunday.”

I have my own excuses, too. Sometimes I share them with other people, but more often I use them to soothe my own disappointment. “That sermon would have been better if I hadn’t been so busy last week. I should have been nicer to that person, but I wasn’t really feeling well. I know there’s a lot of work I need to finish, but I also need to give more time to my family.” I say those things to myself as a way of burying my failures—hiding them underneath a rational, logical veneer that allows me to keep my head up…for a while.

But the problem with excuses is that they hide the truth. They mask our real failures. They persuade us that there isn’t something wrong or that we can’t do anything about it. They chain us to our current circumstances, locking us in that place of failure, convincing us that things could be no other way.

How do you feel when you hear others’ excuses? Do you even notice when you make excuses for yourself?

In John 5:1-18, Jesus comes upon a man who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. For thirty-eight years, this man had been more or less lying in the same place. Day in and day out, he was stuck there. And Jesus walks up and says to the man, “Do you want to be made well?” Finally, salvation had come to this man. At last, after four decades of helplessness, the one thing this man had dreamed of was right in front of his face. And what did the man say? Jesus asked, “Do you want to be made well?” and the man said, “I don’t have anyone to put me down into the pool when the water is stirred up.”

Don’t you just want to slap the man and take him by the shoulders and shake some sort of sense into him, yelling, “Don’t you see what Jesus is offering you? He’s asking if you want to be made well! Don’t make excuses. Just say, ‘Yes, please!’”

Of course, Jesus doesn’t wait for the man to get it. He heals him anyway. Perhaps that’s because Jesus sees something that I have a hard time seeing. He sees a man who has been stuck in his circumstance so long that he has forgotten how to recognize a way out of it even when it walks up to him and offers him the very thing he seeks. The truth is that sometimes we have been stuck in our helplessness for so long that we can’t even ask for help. The excuses have become our reality. And what then?

God comes and helps us even when we’ve forgotten how to ask for it. I hear a lot of Christians talk about salvation as if it were this thing God is holding out to us, waiting on us to take it. Those who ask for it receive it. Those who don’t don’t. We use words like “repentance” and “belief” to describe the process of “being saved.” “If you want to go to heaven,” we might say to our children or to someone who asks us about the Christian faith, “you must tell God that you’re sorry for your sins and ask him to forgive you and then believe that Jesus Christ died and rose again to save you from your sins.” And all of that is good and right and godly. But what happens when we’re stuck in a place for so long that we can’t even find the strength to ask for help? What happens when we’ve been making excuses for so long that our life has become one big excuse?
Well, God’s love is bigger than our excuses. God’s love is bigger than our inability to see salvation. God isn’t waiting on us to ask for his love before he will love us. Jesus died for us while we were yet sinners. That means he died for us while we were still stuck in our sin—even unable to ask for help. God’s love is where everything begins. God’s mercy meets us right where we are—even if we are unable to see it or ask for it. Thanks be to God that he sees through our excuses—not to demand that we leave them behind before he will redeem us but that he sees just how helpless we are and loves us anyway.