Thursday, April 30, 2015

Journey to Baltimore

Many of us have been watching with sadness, horror, fascination, and concern as the riots in Baltimore have raged and now quieted. Although much is not-yet known, we do know that Freddie Gray died while in police custody—another tragic death of an unarmed black man at the hands of police. The community has struggled to make sense of this inexplicable death, and some have reacted violently. From my couch and computer desk, I have watched these events unfold, comparing them in my mind with those in Ferguson and New York. From all the way in small-city Alabama, I have wondered what it is like to be on those streets, where anger and fear and grief fuel riots. It feels like I am a long, long way from there—both geographically and culturally. Down here, I get to ponder all of these things from a safe distance—far removed from the conflict—but I feel something pulling me back toward them. My heart feels drawn to those streets. I want to feel the emotions that have enveloped that community. I find myself looking for a connection—something that will tie my far-removed life with the lives of those in Baltimore.

One video of Baltimore seems to have captured the attention of people like me. For the last two days, the video of Toya Graham disciplining her hoodie-wearing son for throwing rocks at the police has been near the top of my Facebook feed. People in places like Decatur, Alabama, instinctively identify with a mother who is disciplining her knuckle-headed son…because we know what it’s like to discipline our knuckle-headed children…or what it’s like to have a mother yank us back by the collar because we are acting like a knuckle-head. As we gape with critical horror at the riots in Baltimore, we see that moment of rightness in a sea of wrong and think, “Hooray for something right.” But did we hear what Ms. Graham said about the moment? As NPR reported, when she was asked about the event, she said, “That's my only son, and at the end of the day I don't want him to be a Freddie Gray.”

Do we get that? Do we understand that the anticipated consequences of a black teenager throwing rocks at the police aren’t an arrest or a fine but another senseless death at the hands of the authorities? Do we understand what it means to worry that one’s hoodie-wearing child might be shot for no reason? Do we know what it means to kiss our teenager goodbye in the morning and drop on our knees at night to give thanks to God that he wasn’t shot? Surely all of us—no matter where we live—can agree that there is something broken in our country.

I don’t live with that fear. I live in a small city where kids ride their bikes all day and come home when it gets dark. I live in an almost all-white neighborhood where children are taught to ask the police for help if they need something. I trust that the authorities will take care of me and my family. If something goes wrong, I have faith that the justice system will deal with my situation honestly and openly. But that isn’t good enough. It isn’t good enough that I live without fear. It isn’t good enough that somewhere else, not all that far away from me, people feel that the police and the powers they represent are pitted against them. It isn’t good enough that I live in a bubble of security. That fear is real to others, and so it must be real to me.

Yesterday, the Episcopal churches in our area gathered for a shared Eucharist and pot-luck meal. We chose the propers for peace (including Matthew 5:38-48 as an expanded gospel lesson) to mark the occasion. We heard Jesus say, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” In those words, we heard Jesus articulate a vision of peace that is not passive but active. We heard him call his disciples into a peace that is participatory, and we heard him challenge us to take up the work of peace. We heard Jesus say, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” and we acknowledged that peace isn’t easy. It’s hard, painful, costly work. But it’s our work—all of our work.

It is not good enough that we are removed from the conflict. Peace is not merely the absence of conflict or violence. Peace cannot exist in a bubble. Peace includes all of us—from way down here in a cushy neighborhood up to the streets of Baltimore and all the way to Palestine and Syria and Nigeria and beyond. What are we going to do? How are we going to be in the business of peace?

For starters, we must take the events of Baltimore—the death of Freddie Gray—into our hearts. We must let the bubble pop and allow the grief and anger and fear of far-away places infect our lives and break us. We must allow that tug of connection draw us all the way to places of conflict until we find ourselves fully immersed in them. Only then, only when we feel and know that the pain experienced in those communities is also our own, can we know what to do about it. Peace is our job. Reconciliation is our work. And it starts by feeling the urgent demand for peace. Let your heart be broken. Feel the vulnerability of others. Then ask God what you can do. You don’t have to solve the world’s problems all by yourself. But, if you let their problems become your own, you’ll know where to start.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Pain of Pruning

This time of year is beautiful in my part of the world. Pollen clouds aside, spring is a lovely time in Decatur. Unlike the southern part of our state, the Tennessee Valley genuinely experiences a season with cool nights and warm days, steady rains, and blossoms that linger. One of my favorite spring chores is limbing up the crepe myrtle that guards the front of our house.

It's nothing drastic and only takes a few minutes. I select those lower branches that have become heavy enough to droop into the walkway and cut them back (always to the "V," as D. D. Martin taught me). Also, those branches that have begun to cross their neighbors and will eventually become an impediment to the growth of the tree are discarded. All told, a dozen or so cuts are made, but the end result is pleasant. We still have an unfolded green canopy that stretches to the sky, but it seems a little cleaner and healthier.

Contrast that with the crepe myrtles that I pass by on my way to work every day. Clearly cut by a chainsaw, they begin the season of spring as nothing but bare stumps standing guard along the side of an industrial building. This horticultural disaster is called "crepe murder," and it is widespread. I've seen how beautiful crepe myrtles can be. I've driven down a half-mile-long driveway arched across by grand trees older than my parents. 

Pruning isn't just to make way for new growth. It's supposed to help the plant bear more fruit.

In Sunday's gospel lesson (John 15:1-8), we hear Jesus say, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit." Sometimes pruning is about starting over--clearing a spot for tender new shoots to grow--like a hacked-almost-to-death crepe myrtle. More often, though, it's about helping consolidate a plant's resources so that it can produce more fruit.

I'm not preaching on Sunday, but I'm letting Jesus' words preach to me. There's a lesson here about church growth. In order for churches to bear fruit for God's kingdom, they must be pruned. Certain ministries must be cut away. New opportunities should be encouraged. Less fruitful endeavors should be curtailed. Resources like staff attention and budgeted funds need to be reallocated. That sort of pruning can be painful, but that pain can be eased through targeted pruning.

Church leaders aren't usually called to bring out a chainsaw and hack the church back to stumps. Sure, new growth will spring from that and, given enough time, it's possible for the whole tree to come back--new and fruitful. But old crepe myrtles bear the scars of such radical pruning, and churches do, too. Pruning is artful. Pruning is selective. Pruning is always about enabling fruitfulness.

If the only joy in pruning is found in slicing off a branch, the result isn't going to be good. The pruning is supposed to be painful, but it's a pain that is accepted (and even valued) because the gardeners have their sight set on new fruitfulness. Jesus' words aren't condemnatory. They are life-giving. They might sting a little bit, but they lead to a new kind of fruitfulness. How might we help congregations see the fruitfulness of pruning back of less-fruitful ministries--not as a death but as a means to new life?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Gospel of Love

This post is also the cover article from our parish newsletter, The View. To read the rest of the newsletter and see what's happening at St. John's, Decatur, click here.

For the past several weeks, we have been making our way through 1 John in our Sunday lectionary. In the Easter season, when Jesus’ resurrection appearances take center stage, the epistle lesson often goes unmentioned in the sermon. Nevertheless, it offers an anchor to the congregation who hears it and an inspiration to the preacher who allows it to shape his or her words in implicit ways. Although I have not made much of it in church, this series of readings from 1 John has kept me grounded in the most important theme of the gospel—love.

In his first letter, John uses the word “love” twenty-six times—more than in any other book of the New Testament except the gospel account that bears John’s name. “Whoever loves his brother [or sister] abides in the light” (1 John 2:10). “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1a). “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8). I invite you to take fifteen minutes and read 1 John from start to finish. If you do that, you will discover what the gospel is all about—love.

When I hear the word “gospel,” I usually think of the first four books of the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—but the word “gospel” really means “good news.” To John and those who received his first letter, the “gospel” was not a text to be read and studied; it was “good news” to be shared. There was no distinction between “a gospel” and “the gospel.” Similarly, as we read in 1 John 3:23, we see that there was no distinction between believing in Jesus and loving one another in his name: “And this is [God’s] commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” As John and his audience understood it, followers of Jesus are given a singular commandment with two equal, indivisible parts. To them, there was no separation between right belief and right action.

Hundreds of years passed before Christians formulated the complex doctrines of the church, which we now understand to be the basis for “right belief.” Every week, we stand up and recite the words of the Nicene Creed as an ascription of our faith to the standards of orthodoxy as they were defined in the fourth century. For John and his readers, however, being a Christian simply meant believing in Jesus and loving others the way he did. Those two great pegs of orthodoxy and orthopraxis, upon which all the law and the prophets hang, were genuinely inseparable.

Why, then, do contemporary Christians worry so much more about what we think than what we do? Denominations are defined by disagreements over doctrine. Churches split because people read and interpret scripture differently. Heretics are shunned because they espouse beliefs that are not compatible with those of the church. But how often do we draw a line in the sand based on the extent to which love one another? We catechize converts to the faith by filling their minds with the ins and outs of Christian belief and tradition. But when do we share the good news of Jesus Christ simply by loving them?

The beauty of our faith is the inseparability of believing in Jesus and loving others as he did. To believe in Jesus is to acknowledge the power of unconditional and indiscriminate love. Jesus’ resurrection shows us that God’s love is a love that cannot be contained or restrained. Thus, if you believe in Jesus and claim to live as a recipient of that love, you necessarily love others in the same way—not as a conditional relationship but as a consequential one. The implication of that is terrifying. It means that my identity as a Christian is not based merely on what I claim to believe but also on the extent to which I love. Our profession of faith—our identity as Christians—has as much to do with how we love others as with what we believe about Jesus.
What does it mean to be a Christian? It means believing in Jesus—that the death and resurrection of God’s son demonstrates that God’s love for the world cannot be defeated—AND it means loving others with that same love. No wonder 1 John is the focus of our epistle lessons during Easter. The empty tomb is the inauguration of both our belief that God’s love defeats sin and death and the new life of love that we live in Jesus’ name.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Making a Committment

Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch reminds me that discipleship requires commitment, but it also reminds me that the church has some fairly outdated ways of inviting individuals to make that commitment.

On Sunday, we'll read Acts 8:26-30, and we'll hear again the story of the eunuch's dramatic conversion. Although not ethnically Jewish, the eunuch was clearly interested in the faith of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel. He had made the trip to Jerusalem and was reading the Hebrew scriptures as he made his way toward home. The opportunity for connection existed. The soil had already been tilled, so to speak. Next, what was needed was the planting of a seed.

Philip is told by an angel to head out to this particular road and led by the Spirit to approach the eunuch's chariot. When asked by the eunuch for help interpreting the scriptures, Philip uses them to point to Jesus, and the eunuch is overwhelmed. In that moment, having received the good news and seeing some water along the road, the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" Good question. Nothing, it seems. (Circumcision, which was an at-that-point unresolved controversy over the question of non-Jews being baptized wasn't really an issue for the eunuch.) So they stopped, and Philip baptized the eunuch, at which point Philip disappeared and the eunuch got back in the chariot to head home.

How many preachers have moments like this? Actually, probably more than you or I would suspect. There are occasions when people come to me looking for some help connecting the dots. And sometimes the result is an "a ha" moment. But I've never had the chance to invite someone in that circumstance to be baptized. Yes, I've baptized lots of children and a few adults, but the vast majority of people I meet who are seeking some clarity have already been baptized--usually long ago. Because of infant baptism AND because I live in a community in which the predominant religious self-identification is Christian, there just aren't that many unbaptized people around. Still, though, there are plenty who are having these "a ha" moments, and I'm wondering what we should do with them?

Of course, we don't rebaptize since the work God does in us at baptism is indelible. So what should I invite people to do? We don't tell people to go and "offer the appointed sacrifice" since we're not participants in that sort of temple worship. And it feels inappropriate to tell someone to make a monetary offering in thanksgiving and as a sign of rededication. So what should we do?

Well, there's that rarely used bit of the Confirmation service called "Reaffirmation of Baptismal Vows." That seems to be the place I'm supposed to turn. Someone comes to me, has that "a ha" moment, and wants to solidify that revelation should be told to stand up in front of the congregation when the bishop comes and reaffirm the vows of baptism. That's a reengagement of the baptismal moment--the way we "do" conversions in our church. Right?

But it seems like a strange and archaic way to do that. In my community, most people are baptized before they even understand what religion is, and those who are baptized later in life are still too young to appreciate the nature of that commitment. Still, as adults, people want to make that commitment. People want some way of saying, "I want to give my life to Jesus. I want to be his disciple. I want to take my faith seriously." And what can the church offer?

Seriously, I'm looking for suggestions. Is the answer as old-fashioned as an altar call? Or maybe even as old-fashioned as simply coming to church on a weekly basis? Maybe we need to tighten down on who gets to take Communion so that we have a formal readmission process every year during Lent and Easter. As I think through those options, none of them seems particularly promising.

I'll suggest that preachers like me need to spend more time emphasizing discipleship, and churches like our need more opportunities for structured discipleship. I need to preach more regularly on the importance of taking one's discipleship seriously, and I need lay leaders in our congregation to be ready to mentor new disciples (one on one or in a small group). I haven't figured out how that should work, but, for a church that is hoping to reclaim a vast swath of post-Christian, post-church people, programs for discipleship seem more promising than anything else. What do others think?

Shepherds, Sheep, and Ducks

April 26, 2015 –The 4th Sunday of Easter, Year B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, but, instead of talking to you about sheep, I want to tell you about a duck. The duck’s name is Caroline, or at least a duck is the image that a woman named Caroline Casey used to describe her life during an interview on the TED Radio Hour on NPR. I heard her story last week, and it’s still with me, and I want to share part of it with you this morning.

As a child, Caroline had difficulty playing sports. Generally uncoordinated, she struggled on the playground and couldn’t really catch a ball when it was thrown to her. Wanting his daughter to have a full and normal life, Caroline’s father taught her to do things that would give her the confidence that she lacked on the ball field. He taught her how to sail and how to rock climb. Determined to succeed, she worked at those pursuits until she had as much courage as anyone in her class.

On her seventeenth birthday, Caroline went with her younger sister, who struggled with a visual impairment, to her eye exam because Caroline knew what it meant to be a supportive big sister. She knew that it was her duty to show her younger sibling that there was nothing to fear. So, after sitting through the mock eye exam, Caroline stepped aside for the younger girl to sit in the chair, and, as the doctor examined the real patient, he asked the older sister how she was going to celebrate her birthday. Proudly, she informed the doctor that her parents had given her a race car driving lesson and that she hoped that someday she would race cars for a living. But, instead of congratulations or curiosity, the doctor responded only with silence—the kind of awkward, painful silence that told Caroline that something was wrong. Finally, he broke the silence, saying to Caroline’s mother, “You haven’t told her yet, have you?”

You see, Caroline, as she explained on the TEDx stage, was born legally blind. She was unable to see with any focus anything more than three feet away from her, but her parents, who didn’t want their daughter to suffer the stigma of her disability, had decided not to tell her that she was different. And she had made it seventeen years without realizing that it wasn’t normal to be blind like that. She thought everyone with glasses had the same problem. So, on her seventeenth birthday, when she learned the shocking and devastating truth about herself, when her self-image was shattered with revelation of her parents’ dark secret and her life’s dreams died in an instant, she did what you would probably expect her to do. She hid that truth from the rest of the world.

For the next eleven years, Caroline swore that no one—absolutely no one—would know that she could not see. In her words, she could not stand for anyone to know that she was “weak”—that she was a “failure.” And so she plowed ahead with the same dogged determination that her father had helped instill within her. She bounced from one job to another, making the best of the situation for as long as she could. She worked in archaeology…until she started breaking things. She managed a restaurant…until people started asking why she kept slipping and falling on spills in the kitchen. She worked as an analyst for a global consulting firm, travelling all over the world but hiding her secret from her colleagues…until she just couldn’t do it anymore. Finally, when she was twenty-eight, she reached the breaking point. And she ran away.

When the interviewer asked her what it was like to carry that secret—what it was like to hide her disability from the world—Caroline said, “I call it the duck.” “Have you ever seen a duck?” she asked. On the surface, above the water, the duck remains calm and composed and seems to have everything under control. But, if you were to look beneath the water at what is hidden below its surface, you would likely see that the calm, composed duck is actually paddling its feet like crazy just to keep itself upright and afloat. And that image grabbed me—not because I know a lot about ducks but because I know what it feels like to paddle like crazy below the surface while presenting an image of calm, cool, composure, and I bet you know what that feels like, too. But is that how life is supposed to be? Is the crazy, never-ending rat race really what life is all about?

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” Jesus is the good shepherd, he is leading his flock into green pastures, but what does it mean to follow him?

Being a Christian means following the one who laid down his life for the sheep. But who wants to follow a dead shepherd? I’m usually not one to disagree with Jesus, but what kind of shepherd dies on the job? I’ve never been a shepherd. I did work on a farm once, but dog-sitting for a border collie is as close as I have ever come to keeping sheep. So I don’t know a lot about being a shepherd, but, for the most part, I think it’s a bad farming strategy to hire a shepherd who is likely to die on the job. Actually, I think a good shepherd is probably one who does the best he can to fight off the wolves, but, when it comes to giving up one’s life to save a flock of sheep, I think that the animal husbandry textbooks would all agree that a dead shepherd doesn’t do anyone a lot of good. But Jesus isn’t a good shepherd. He is the good shepherd, and there’s a big difference—just like there’s a big difference between being killed and laying down one’s life.

Jesus said, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” There is power, Jesus said, in laying down his life—a power that is not fully revealed until he takes it up again. But the power of the cross and empty tomb isn’t the same kind of power that the world runs on. It is God’s power—the power of God’s kingdom. We follow a shepherd who died on the cross and was raised again from the dead. That shows us that God’s power is not found in success or strength or victory but in poverty and weakness and even death. God’s power takes the power of the world and turns it on its head. And that’s why following the good shepherd—the one who laid down his life for the sheep—has the power to break the vicious cycle of outward success and inward turmoil that plagues contemporary society.

There are many shepherds in this world, but there’s only one shepherd worth following. Most of the leaders and mentors and gurus out there promise success—or at least the illusion of it. “Come, follow me…read my book…listen to my tapes…buy my program…and you can have true happiness.” Coaches recruit star athletes by promising them a taste of victory. Managers attract new salespeople by promising them bigger commissions. Churches and pastors pull in new worshippers by promising them an hour of joy and peace. But then what? No one ever tells us that true and lasting transformation only comes when we give all of that up. No one ever tells us that we must die along with all of that in order to find our true life—no one except the good shepherd.
Whom are you following? What is your life’s direction? The world tells us that we’d better keep paddling like crazy if we’re going to get anywhere. But the good shepherd leads us into greener pastures not by defeating his enemies nor by gathering an army nor by amassing riches but through his death and resurrection. He shows us that true, life-changing power is found not in our perfection but only in the cross. If we want to experience the freedom of that new life, we must follow the good shepherd through his death and into the resurrection. We must put to death all vain attempts to win for ourselves that true peace which only he can give us. The struggle will get you nowhere. Working as hard as you can pretending that you are perfect will only lead to disappointment. Surrender to God. Surrender to the one who doesn’t expect you to be perfect. Surrender to the one who loves you just the way you are—to the one who laid down his life for you so that you might be made perfect through his love.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Who Does What?

This Sunday, we will read the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm. Although I can sing you a musical setting of Psalm 133, and I can more or less tell you the words of Psalm 121, this psalm--Psalm 23--is the only one that I really know by heart. It's the only one I've taught to my children. It's as familiar to me as any part of the bible, yet I still see new things within its words.

Today, as I sat with someone and offered a few lines from that psalm, I heard something different. As the NRSV puts it,
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
   he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
   for his name’s sake.

Who does? He does. The LORD, my shepherd, does. Not my pastor. Not my counselor. Not my therapist. Not my spouse. Not my mentor. Not even me. Who does? He does.

Although I'm not arguing for a gender-specific understanding of God, it was the repeated pronoun "he" that grabbed my attention. Saying it over and over felt like God was drilling that truth into me. It is not I who find green pastures. It is not I who seeks out still waters. Instead, like a sheep, I am led by the good shepherd to that place of peace and restoration. I cannot find it on my own. Only he can lead me there.

Whom are you following? What are you following? Are you letting God lead you, or are you still fighting for the front of the line?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Following the Leader

Follow the Leader—it’s a great, simple childhood game that can be played anywhere, anytime, with no special equipment. You only need two things—a leader and at least one follower. The leader walks or skips or hops or jumps this way or that, and everyone else follows her or him. Simple enough, right?

But what about the grown-up, post-modern, reality version of the game? What happens when there is no clear leader? What if everyone wants to be in charge? What if everyone thinks he or she is the leader? What if different people want to follow different leaders? How does anyone know the “right” leader to follow?

This Sunday is “Good Shepherd Sunday.” We’ll hear about Jesus, the good shepherd in John 10. We’ll recite Psalm 23 together. We’ll pray the collect, which asks God to help us recognize that “Jesus [is] the good shepherd of [God’s] people” and to “know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads.” That sentiment is echoed by the readings from Acts and 1 John, each of which makes it clear that the “name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,” the one who “laid down his life for us,” is the only name “under heaven…by which we must be saved.”

This Sunday is all about following the good shepherd, and it will be difficult to miss that fact in the midst of all these readings and prayers. But what happens after we leave church?

Whom do we follow? What do we follow? What bearing does our life take? Are we oriented by the ways of the world or by the ways of God’s kingdom? Are we walking our own way through life or being led by Jesus?

The tricky thing about Follow the Leader is that only the person in front gets to decide where to go. If the rest of us are willing to play, we have to give up our choice of destination. That’s true of the Christian life. Yes, Jesus is the good shepherd. Yes, he laid down his life for us. Yes, his is the only name under heaven given for health and salvation. But all of that is only true in our lives when we’re following him. The rewards of discipleship come at a cost.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Charge Your Batteries

Last night at a social function, a parishioner asked our curate and me, "How do you keep your batteries charged? Y'all are like Energizer bunnies." I thanked him for his compliment and said a silent prayer of thanksgiving that the fatigue I'm still feeling from two weeks ago isn't showing. And then I thought more about his question. How do I keep my battery charged?

On Wednesday of last week, I preached a sermon on Peter and John's encounter with a man lame from birth at the Jerusalem temple. On Sunday, we'll read the follow-up to that encounter in Acts 3:12-19. The crowd in the temple was amazed that this lame man was suddenly up and walking and dancing and praising God. Peter's response to their surprise says a lot about the nature of Christian ministry: "When Peter saw the astonishment of those who had seen the lame man healed, he addressed the people, 'You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?'" Who healed the man? It wasn't Peter, and it wasn't John. It was the resurrected Jesus himself who accomplished this miracle. As Peter put it, "...his name itself has made this man strong," clearly directing the focus of the crowd back on the power of Jesus' name.

The same is true for everyone who professes to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Everyone who works in the name of Jesus accomplishes that work through a power that comes not from within but from above. Whether we preach or teach or pastor, whether we help or comfort or pray, whether we heal or lead or labor, we do so through the name that is above every name--the mighty name of Jesus.

How do we keep our batteries charged? In the answer that I gave our parishioner, I described how it is my "job" to take care of myself. "I get paid to pray and spend time in quiet and study the bible and exercise," I explained. "When I take care of myself, I am living out my calling as a disciple of Jesus and as a priest in the Episcopal Church. It's my job to be spiritually nourished and to invite others to do the same."

I can't do this job on my own. As Peter professed, it isn't my power or even my piety that makes it possible for me to run around and do all the things that a clergyperson is called to do. I am filled with the Holy Spirit and given a share in the power of Jesus' name. And so are you--so are all of us. Forgetting that--whether by neglecting our spiritual disciplines or by developing a messianic complex--is a recipe for defeat.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Peace With You

Peace be with you. Peace be with you. Peace be with you. If you haven’t heard that lately, you haven’t been to church.

Last Sunday, as I read the gospel (John 20:19-31), I thought to myself, “Dang, that’s a lot of ‘Peace be with you.’” Jesus said it three times in that one reading—twice in one encounter with the disciples. Of course, we also say it in our liturgy—“The Peace of the Lord be always with you. And also with you.”—and I suppose that’s where it comes from.

This Sunday (Luke 24:36b-48), again, Jesus will greet the disciples with that familiar phrase: Peace be with you. As I wrote about yesterday, the disciples didn’t seem to care; they were still terrified. Still, it seems to be Jesus’ attempt to greet them in a disarming way. Peace be with you.

But it’s more than a greeting; Jesus is offering them his peace. Way back in John 14, Jesus made that explicit, saying to them, “My peace I give to you; my peace I leave with you.” Part of his departing gift is the bestowal of that peace. And, when the risen Jesus shows up again, he reminds them that they have it. Peace be with you.

Grammatically speaking, the statement “Peace be with you” is an interesting way of conveying the Lord’s peace. Jesus didn’t say, “Receive my peace.” Nor did he say, “Peace is yours.” Instead, he says, “Peace be with you.” In fact, he doesn’t even say a verb. It’s merely implied in the Greek. He just says, “Peace…with you.” It’s not an action. It’s not a disposition. It’s a recognition of what is already true.

How does that shape our liturgical exchange of the Lord’s peace? When someone says, “The Peace of the Lord be always with you,” he/she isn’t really giving you anything. You’ve already got it. They’re really saying, “The Peace of the Lord…always with you.” It’s not a granting of peace. It’s an invitation to recognize it.

Jesus says comfortable words to the disciples—Peace be with you—and sometimes he has to say it multiple times. He’s not giving them extra peace. He’s urging them to see the peace that they have been given. It’s the peace he has given to us as well. Let us bid one another recognize it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Still Scared

Luke 24 is an interesting chapter to read from start to finish. Before attempting to preach the gospel lesson appointed for this Sunday (Luke 24:36b-48), it might be a good idea to let the rest of the story soak in a little bit.

On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead, and, when the women discovered that the tomb was empty and were told by two heavenly messengers that Jesus had risen, they were frightened (v. 5). When they reported what they had seen to the disciples, many of them dismissed it as "an idle tale" (v. 11). The disciples who walked down the road to Emmaus explained to the risen Jesus, whom they were kept from recognizing, the reports of the empty tomb, but still they did not understand. So Jesus called them "foolish" and "slow of heart" and explained in detail how the scriptures pointed to the death and resurrection of God's anointed one (vv. 25-26). Still unable to perceive what was being said or who it was that was saying it, the disciples stumbled along until Jesus broke bread and their eyes were finally opened. So they ran back to Jerusalem and told the other disciples what had happened, and the heard that Jesus had indeed appeared to Simon (vv. 33-35).

What happens next? Just as the disciples were discussing all of these things, Jesus shows up again, and the disciples "were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost." Think about that again. After all of that--after the empty tomb, conversations with angels, a scriptural explanation by Jesus himself, a remarkable recognition and disappearing act, and confirmation of another visit from Jesus--the risen Lord shows up, and the disciples still think they are seeing a ghost. To put it plainly, it was easier for them to believe that they were being haunted than to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

What about you? What's easier for you to believe--that ghosts walk the earth or that Jesus rose on the third day?

Part of me is shocked at the thick-headed disciples who still can't believe in the resurrection. And part of me is sympathetic and understanding that the thick-headed disciples still can't believe. Two-thousand years later, what's easier for the world to believe--the likelihood of a zombie apocalypse or the likelihood of the resurrection?

"But don't worry," Jesus said. "Stay here until you are clothed in power from on high." We don't get to that point in Sunday's reading. Liturgically speaking, the Ascension and Pentecost are still a few weeks away. But it's worth noting now that the disciples won't fully appreciate the power of the resurrection until they receive the power of the Holy Spirit. It's ok if it doesn't quite make sense yet. It's ok if it's still easier to believe in ghosts than it is to believe in the empty tomb. God isn't finished with you yet. It might take a little time for the pieces to be put together. Even Jesus himself couldn't explain the scriptures clearly enough for the disciples to believe...that's because it takes more than bible study to put your faith in the empty tomb. It takes an encounter with the risen Lord, and it takes the gift of the Holy Spirit, which leads us into all truth.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Preaching Repentance in Easter

If you come to church this Sunday and pay attention to the lessons, you might think that we’ve gone back in time to the season of Lent:
  • Peter says to the crowd in the temple, “You rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life…” (from Acts 3)
  • John writes, “Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” (from 1 John 3)
  • Jesus says to the disciples, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (From Luke 24)

Some churches omit the confession in Easter, citing a connection with the Council of Nicaea, which in Canon 20 decided that everyone should stand to pray during the Easter Season. (See Steve Pankey’s post from last week about why St. Paul’s, Foley, decided not to do that this year.) But, this week, I’m thinking that we should not only confess our sins but even start on our knees with the Penitential Order, Decalogue, and Exhortation. All of this week’s readings seem to focus on sin.

Of course, all of these are Easter or post-Easter readings. Peter is speaking with the power of the Spirit he and the other disciples received at Pentecost. John is writing to his people about the power that the resurrection has on daily life. Jesus is speaking to his disciples as the resurrected one and sending them out in the power of his risen name. But, even those these are stories about or get their basis from the resurrection and even though this will be the Third Sunday of Easter, we’re invited to contemplate our sin.

Perhaps a clearer focus for these readings is repentance. Peter calls upon those who unknowingly murdered the “Author of Life” to repent “so that [their] sins may be wiped out.” As they wait for Jesus’ return, John urges his readers to “purify themselves, just as [Christ] is pure.” And Jesus’ commission to the disciples is about taking good news to the ends of the earth—the good news that the resurrection proves that repentance leads to forgiveness and thus to new life.

Easter isn’t a season to omit the confession. It’s a season to embrace it. These fifty days aren’t a time to pretend that there is no consequence for our sin. This is a time to declare that the consequences of our sin—the cross upon which Jesus died—isn’t the end of the story. We can’t proclaim the good news of the resurrection without also proclaiming the reality of our need for it—the reality of our sin.

So don’t fret if your preacher sounds a little Lenten this week. Don’t worry if the sermon starts out with a heavy dose of sin. By the end, it will be a story of resurrection. It’s still Easter after all.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Idolatry of Fundamentalism

There's a conversation I had several years ago with some clergy colleagues with whom I trained for ministry that sticks with me and comes back into my mind every year at this time. I've written about it before, but I think it's worth repeating. (If I'm still struggling with it, I bet others are, too.) At the crux of that discussion was a disagreement between us over the extent to which the hypothetical discovery of the not-resurrected, not-ascended body of Jesus of Nazareth would threaten our faith.

"If archaeologists were to discover the body of Jesus and were able to prove without a doubt that it was the actual body of Jesus of Nazareth, would you still be a Christian?" All of my friends said no, and I was astonished. For starters, let me say that I am a firm and resolute believer in the physical resurrection. I am convinced in my heart and my mind that the tomb was empty and is empty, and I believe in the physical resurrection of the dead at the last day when Jesus returns. (Call me old-fashioned, but that's what I believe.) At issue in our conversation wasn't whether Jesus was raised from the dead--we all agreed on that. What we were discussing was whether one needed to believe in the physical resurrection in order to be a Christian.

This gets to the heart of the issue that I believe is the most important, most substantial, and most controversial issue that contemporary Christianity is struggling with: how do we read the bible? Which parts are literal history and which parts are metaphorical truth? In which passages is the author allowed to exaggerate without defying the inerrancy of scripture (e.g. how many Israelites were freed from Egypt in the Exodus)? In which passages is the author allowed to estimate and not be wrong (e.g. the censuses in Numbers or the feeding of the 5,000)? Which stories were written to be stories, and which ones are we supposed to believe happened exactly as they are told to us? If we dismiss literality of the story of Job as an ancient teaching tool, what do we say about the flood? What about the walking on the water? The raising of Lazarus? The resurrection of Jesus? Where do we draw the line? How do we know what matters? And, most important of all, what happens to our faith if we let go of our literal beliefs?

What happens to Christianity without the physical resurrection? Can Christianity survive? Paul says no (1 Cor. 15:19). Lots of contemporary preachers and theologians say no. My friends, I think, would say no. Me? I'd like to say no, but I'm not sure if I should.

Thomas says, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." Jesus, of course, calls him out, not even giving him the chance to voice that objection, saying, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." That is enough for Thomas, who without touching the risen Jesus proclaims, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus' parting words are an encouragement to us--to those who live in a world that is governed by proof: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

When reaching out to the un-churched or the post-churched, setting up a belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus as a sine qua non for Christianity is counterproductive. "Hi, my name is Johnny Preacher. Have you heard about Jesus?" the misguided evangelist might say. "He's the one who came back from the dead on the third day. Doesn't that sound like something worth believing?"

Likewise, I think we set ourselves up for disappointment, disillusionment, and cultural irrelevance when we internalize the physical resurrection of Jesus as our own sine qua non. If we refuse to consider a Christianity without the empty tomb--if we push that thought out of our heads as an impossibility--then we face the inevitability of the moment when all the proof that is available to us will be insufficient. Sure, we should believe in the physical resurrection. I remain convinced. But to believe that everything would unravel without it is mistaken.

Jesus says, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Exactly. We can't see. And we can't ask people to see until after they believe. Beholding the physical resurrection of Jesus is a product of faith--not a precondition of it. We need to stop worrying about a Christianity that is losing its grasp on the literality of empty tomb. If the church is boldly proclaiming the power of resurrection, the world will see that the tomb indeed is empty.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

No Silver or Gold

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

The Acts of the Apostles are just that—the acts that they did in the name of Jesus Christ as the gospel spread across the known world—and today’s lesson is the first of those. In Acts 2, we read about Pentecost—the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Peter and the other apostles. Immediately, they began to speak in other languages, and all of the residents and visitors in Jerusalem heard them speak in their own native tongues. Peter interrupts the disbelieving crowd to explain to them what this means—the first speech/sermon of Acts. And then, as soon as you turn the page, you get the story of the lame man (Acts 3:1-10).

Hear how the author (Luke) describes this individual. “A man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple.” His identity was inability. His life revolved around the generosity of others. I would guess that someone who had that kind of support—people who would carry him here or there every day—probably made a decent living begging for alms. But where was that living headed? What sort of career goals does a career beggar have? What kind of fulfillment comes from that?

As Peter and John walked by, the man asked them for alms. He kept his eyes down, humbly staring at the ground where they walked. He knew not to look them in the face because people don’t want to give money to someone who has too much pride. Pride doesn’t evoke pity. But Peter wouldn’t have it. “Look at us,” he commanded, and the beggar “fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something.” But Peter surprised the man, not offering “silver or gold” but granting him healing “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” Peter reached out his hand and pulled the man up, “and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.” The man jumped up, stood on his own, and began to walk around, jumping and dancing and leaping about, praising God as he went. Had the man simply walked away, the miraculous healing would have been remarkable, but Luke wants us to see that the apostles had given him something more important than physical healing. They had used the name of Jesus to give this person fulfillment—a state of being Luke indicates when someone praises God (see also the healing of the bent-over woman in Luke 13).

I walk around in a clerical collar. I drive around town in a clerical collar. It’s pretty easy to see me and tell that I am in the church business. Although I prefer to wear a bowtie to work, I wear that collar as a testament to the one I serve—our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. The collar gives me access to a lot of places—the ICU even when it isn’t visiting hours, the staff discount at local hospitals, the heart-warming exchange of eye contact and smiles with a total stranger, spontaneous questions about God and church and religion. But there’s one area of my life that I feel incredibly uncomfortable wearing a collar: meeting a beggar.

The other day, I was driving down Fourth Ave. and saw for the second time a woman sitting on a street corner holding a sign that read, “Homeless/ Out of Work Artist/Will Work for Food.” I’m fascinated with her sign—with what it means to advertise one’s self as an artist. Who stops and picks her up to do a portrait? When I’m wearing my collar and pass by someone, I feel the need to look them in the eye. No, I’m not going to give them any money or food, but I could offer a little bit of respect. I looked her way, but she stared down at the ground. She knows the routine. She knows what works.

What should I do? Stop and give her some money? Stop and engage her in conversation—let her tell her story? Offer her a job? Reach out my hand and say, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and be employed?” I’m a follower of Jesus Christ. I believe that the Holy Spirit gives his followers the ability to transform the lives of others. But how can I do that for her? How can I do that for any beggar?

I don’t know. This sermon doesn’t have a happy ending because I don’t know. You’ve heard me say that I’m tired of writing checks to put Band-Aids on people’s deeper financial problems. I certainly don’t make a habit of tossing change to someone—in fact I have a policy against it. I want to be in the transformation business. I think that’s my job. I think it’s your job, too. That’s what we are called to do. I think our life is supposed to have just as dramatic an effect on the lives of others as Peter’s miraculous healing had on the man lame from birth. We are supposed to help people find their fulfillment in God—a life-giving, life-changing fulfillment that comes through Jesus Christ. But what does that mean? What am I supposed to do? What are we supposed to do? Pray about it with me. Pray that God will help us see what we can do to bring transformation to those in need. Listen with me for the Spirit’s answer, and seek the courage to do it.

Tomb or Table?

This post originally appeared as an article in yesterday's parish newsletter, The View. To read the rest of the newsletter and to learn about St. John's, Decatur, click here.

Do you wish that you could have been there on the Day of Resurrection to peer into the empty tomb? Would you have wanted to stand there with the women as they heard the young man in white announce that Jesus had been raised? Have you dreamt of running alongside Peter and the beloved disciple to see for yourself that the only thing left in the tomb were the discarded grave cloths? Would you like to have that proof for yourself—to behold with your own eyes the miracle of Easter?

The historicity of the empty tomb has become a fashionable test for delineating between Christians who accept the supernatural claims of scripture as fact and those believe that such stories are merely ways of communicating the deeper truths to which they point. In short, if you can believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus then likely you can also believe in the other miracles of the bible. Some are quick to dismiss skeptics as thoroughly un-Christian while others are just as quick to disregard the claims of traditionalists as “primitive” or “naïve.” For what it’s worth, I think that it’s possible to do both—to hold fast to beliefs as ancient as the actually empty tomb and to emphasize the thoroughly modern metaphors that such historical claims represent. Either way, however, I don’t think the empty tomb is the right place for us to start.

Instead of peering into the tomb to see whether it is empty, I believe we need to look around the table to see whether Jesus is there.

The gospel lesson appointed for Wednesday in Easter Week is the story of the walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). On the afternoon of the same day that the empty tomb had been discovered, Jesus joined two disciples as they walked the seven miles between Jerusalem and the town of Emmaus. We are told, however, that the disciples “were kept from recognizing him.” Even when this stranger used the Hebrew scriptures to explain why Jesus needed to die before being raised on the third day, they still did not understand who he was or that he had risen. Then, as it was getting late, the disciples unknowingly urged their Lord to remain with them that evening, and, while sitting at table together, Jesus “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” In that moment, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” But, as soon as they saw that it was Jesus, he vanished from their sight.

Every year, during the great fifty days of Easter, I read with amazement as the truth of the resurrection sinks into the hearts and minds of the disciples not at the empty tomb but later on—when Jesus meets them elsewhere. The Emmaus-bound disciples reported the news of the empty tomb to Jesus as they walked down the road, but they did so out of confusion rather than belief. Only when Jesus blessed and broke the bread and gave it to them could they see that he had indeed been raised. Likewise, in John’s account, Peter and the beloved disciple believed that Jesus’ body was not there, but “they [also] did not understand” what it was that had happened. Famously, as we will read this Sunday, Thomas refused to believe until he had the chance to touch the risen Jesus and feel the nail-marks for himself, yet, when Jesus gave that invitation to Thomas, it was enough to change his heart.

In all four gospel accounts, individuals who see the empty tomb require an additional encounter with the risen Lord before they understand what the resurrection means. No one comprehends the miracle of Easter simply by staring into the place where Jesus’ lifeless body once lay. Instead, they must meet the living, breathing, walking, talking, teaching, loving Lord whom they had known before his death. Why would it be any different for us? I do not know what I would have seen had I peered into the tomb on that Easter so long ago, but I do trust that even seeing it would not have been enough for me to believe. Like Peter, Thomas, Mary Magdalene, Cleopas, and the other disciples, if I want to know the resurrection, I must search for Jesus himself.
Jesus gathers us together at his table. Bread is taken, blessed, and distributed to us—to his disciples. Jesus himself commanded that we eat that symbolic meal in memory of his death, but he also joins us in Communion as the resurrected one. When you kneel and extend your hands to receive the morsel of bread, can you see that the tomb is empty? When you gather together with the other disciples, can you tell that he is there?

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Does Money Get in the Way?

Sunday's first lesson is pretty short (Acts 4:32-35). I'll copy the whole thing here so that you can read it:
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
It's a lesson about the early church and how all Christians held everything in common. No one owned anything--or at least "no one claimed private ownership of any possessions." You know what that sounds like? Communism. And, as long as the human condition stays away, things will indeed go smoothly: "there was not a needy person among them." Of course, 20th-century experiments with communism didn't turn out so well. Perhaps that's because they were/are a godless variety--a version that denied the inevitability of greed.

But my favorite part about the lesson is that sentence right in the middle: "With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all." Does that sound out of place to you? Is that a non sequitur? Did Luke suddenly drift off onto a different subject all together? Or is it on purpose? And, if it is, what could sharing everything in common have to do with the great power and great grace that permeated that community?

No, it's not out of place. Yes, Luke did see a connection, and the connection is everything! They were of one heart and soul. Imagine that--all being so closely tied together that they could describe themselves as having one heart and soul! And how does that kind of connection happen? I think it is partly the product (i.e. not the cause) of sharing all things in common.

Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." Money gets in the way. Go read James. Go read 1 and 2 Corinthians. It was a problem for the church, and it's still a problem for the church. If we want to be of one mind like that--if we want to give powerful testimony to the world about the good news of Jesus Christ and his resurrection--maybe we should start by letting go of our possessions.

No, I don't mean that we should sell everything and live on a commune--though some of us should. That's a particular call for those drawn to a religious life. But I do think that our financial life should be so closely tied to one another that our collective hopes and dreams are able to quash our individual fears and anxieties. What does that look like? I don't know.

It probably starts by taking stewardship more seriously--giving not just the first ten percent to God's work in the world but maybe thirty percent, maybe forty percent, maybe more. That's scary. That's risky. That's vulnerability. And if we can be that vulnerable to one another maybe we can learn to take care of each other. Maybe we can learn to trust that God will provide for us through the people we call our brothers and sisters in the church. The bottom line is that we have to begin sharing with each other at the level that is required for us to trust one another with all we've got. If the bottom falls out, we know where to turn. If things go great, we know with whom we will share it.

Common purse leads to common life leads to common hopes leads to common hearts leads to God's Spirit doing amazing things in and through the church.

Who's willing to pony up?

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Let Easter Take Your Breath Away

April 5, 2015 – The Sunday of the Resurrection, Year B
Acts 10:34-43; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16:1-8
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Have you ever felt that moment when you get news that’s so good that the whole world just stops? An acceptance letter arrives in the mail. The pregnancy test shows two pink lines. The doctor says it’s a miracle. And then time slows down until it stops, and the whole world feels like it is hanging in that moment with you, and you are too scared to say a word—too scared even to breathe—because it seems too good to be true, and you don’t want it to go away. Have you felt a moment like that—a moment so amazing that it almost seems like it will crumble into dust if you even blink?
As a child, I dreamt of that moment, and I knew in my heart that someday it would come, which is why I dutifully filled out and returned every single Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes entry form. I knew that someday the Prize Patrol would pull up to my parents’ front door and ring the doorbell and announce that one of them had won $10,000,000. (I always put their names on the form since I knew that a child would never win.) They haven’t showed up yet, but I haven’t lost hope either.
I was feeling nostalgic the other day, so I searched the Web for videos of people who had experienced that childhood dream, and I watched with amazement as, time after time, ordinary people were shocked into dumb silence, often falling down on the ground in tears, when the men and women wearing blue blazers and holding balloons and flowers presented the oversized check to the latest winner. And, as silly as it sounds, their tears filled my eyes with tears as I celebrated with them this most unexpected, most incredible, most amazing miracle. I wept to watch that moment of total surprise and total joy unfold and to see it transform these people from a life of humdrum simplicity to one of brand new possibility. And all of that for a bunch of money. You’d think that a preacher man like me could find a better miracle to cry about.
“Very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, [three women] went to the tomb.” They were on their way to anoint Jesus’ lifeless body, carrying the spices that they had bought for the task. And, as they went, they said to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us?”—a reminder that they were thinking only of the steps that they would need to take in order to complete their mortuary ritual. But, then, in a moment of unbelievable surprise, all of that changed. They looked up and saw that the stone had been rolled away. They entered the tomb and discovered, instead of Jesus’ body, a man dressed in white, sitting there as if he were waiting on them. Then he opened his mouth and spoke to them of their teacher’s resurrection: “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” And, in that moment of complete transformation, their hearts were overwhelmed with that strange mixture of joy and confusion and delight and bewilderment. Faced with a miracle greater than they could understand, the women were struck dumb with fear.
They were alarmed. Terror and amazement seized them. They went out and fled from the tomb. And, despite having received instructions to the contrary, they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid. Is it possible that God would do something so amazing in their lives that the only response these women could muster was silent fear? Is it possible that the news of Jesus’ resurrection was so amazing, so incredible, and so unexpected that it left them breathless—afraid even to utter a word in case a word might break that joyous spell?
Could it be that, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God is doing something so powerful in our lives that we aren’t even sure that it’s really happening? Could this news be so big and so good and so surprising that you and I have a hard time believing that it’s true? Is it possible that this moment is so wonderful and so unexpected that we are afraid of it—afraid to believe that it might be true just in case it isn’t? Absolutely.
Every single one of us is living a life that is headed in the same direction. Mortality is an unavoidable truth that sinks in a little more fully every day. Each day we get a little bit older. Each breath is one breath closer to our last. Each step is one step closer to the moment when our life’s work—our lifetime of effort—reaches its end. Time’s up. Put your pencils down. Power down your electronic devices. Shut off your cell phone. Turn off the lights. Wrap it all up. Say goodnight. It’s all over.
But what if it isn’t over? What if that isn’t the end? What if God is breaking into our lives in order to turn everything around—in order to reverse the course of humanity and change our direction from death to life? What if that very thing you know to be most certain about this life—that one day it will end—isn’t true anymore? What if today is the day when the deepest hopes and biggest dreams of your soul come true in an instant? Could that happen? Is it possible? Do we dare to believe it?
Don’t confuse “so good that it scares you” with “too good to be true.” To think that God could rescue us from the power of sin and death and set us free from every fear, every bond, and every doubt is terrifying. That God loves us that much is so amazing that it takes our breath away. It is so dazzling that we aren’t even sure that it’s happening. But just because God is doing something more amazing than you can understand or imagine doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. Easter is God’s way of proving to the world that his love makes the impossible possible. The empty tomb is God’s way of telling you that in Jesus Christ he has saved you even from death itself. Just as those women were shocked to discover the truth of the resurrection, so, too, should you let the shock of new life take your breath away.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Friday, April 3, 2015

When We're Not Looking

Here at St. John's, we don't have an all-night vigil after the Maundy Thursday service. In some congregations, a constant watch is kept--usually in the place where the sacrament is reserved. Since we don't have a practice of a daily Eucharist here, we don't reserve the sacrament in order to distribute it on Good Friday, so it seems a little superfluous to ask individuals to sit in the chapel for an hour or two all through the night.

As I drove home last night following the service, however, I began to wonder when it all would take place. I began to worry that, despite my heightened attention and deep desire to accompany Jesus on his journey, I would miss it. Last night, we heard the story of the washing of the disciples' feet. We shared the Communion meal that our Lord instituted "on the night before he died for us." Then, in silence, we stripped the altar and draped the crosses with black shrouds in anticipation of Good Friday. But when did it all happen? When did Jesus go into the garden to pray? When did the crowd come with swords and clubs to arrest him? When did they try him before the mock court? When did they lead him to the governor's palace?

I came to church this morning for the Stations of the Cross, which we walked at 7:00 a.m., and already I was too late. At noon today, we will hear the passion story read. We will hear of the time in the garden, the betrayal, and the arrest, but we weren't there to watch it happen. It happened in the middle of the night. I was at home--eating a late supper, tucking my kids into bed, and eventually climbing into bed myself. Why wasn't I awake? Could I not keep awake one hour?

This morning, my daughter asked me what time Jesus dies. "Traditionally," I told her, "we think of Jesus dying at 3:00 in the afternoon, but we'll be in church at noon to hear the story." I might have missed last night, but I don't have to miss today. Right now, the story is still unfolding. The passion is taking place at this very minute. It's not too late to listen to those words. It's not too late to make the journey with Christ. It's never too late--whether it's 10am, 12pm, 3pm or 6am on Tuesday. Pick up wherever you are. Take up your cross and follow him.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

We Must Let Him Love Us

April 2, 2015 – Maundy Thursday
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Have you seen the movie The Break Up, which stars Jennifer Anniston and Vince Vaughn? Neither have I. But I remember seeing the trailer back in 2006, when the movie came out. It’s become a strategy of film studios to show most of the funny lines from their mediocre productions in the commercials just to get you into the cinema, and, even though I haven’t seen it, there’s a line from that movie that I often repeat in my marriage. There’s a turning point in the film when the characters have a falling out after a dinner party. The girlfriend wants some help cleaning up, but the guy just wants to lounge around and play video games. Finally, after she lays on the guilt-trip, he relents and heads into the kitchen, complaining as he goes. At that point, she says, “You know what? That’s not what I want.” Confused, he says, “You just said that you want me to help you do the dishes,” to which Anniston replies, “I want you to want to do the dishes,” which, of course, that begs the question, “Why would I want to do dishes?”
I want you to want to do the dishes. But why would I want to do the dishes? Why would anyone want to do the dishes? Exactly. It’s an exchange husbands and wives have been having for centuries.
And it’s a subject at the heart of the exchange between Peter and Jesus in tonight’s gospel lesson. During supper, Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, tied a towel around his waist, and began to wash the disciples’ feet. As he made his way around the table, each disciple looked down in confused discomfort as his master poured water over his feet and dried them off gently and lovingly. Finally, when Jesus came to Peter, the brash disciple could stand it no longer. This role reversal would stop here and now. “Are you going to wash my feet?” he asked Jesus. And Jesus replied, “You don’t know what I am doing now, but later you will understand.” But that wasn’t good enough for Peter, who resolutely declared, “Lord, you will never wash my feet.” So Jesus put the pitcher down and looked at Peter and said, “Unless I wash you, you cannot be a part of me.” And Peter, still unable to understand what Jesus meant, said, “Then wash my whole body—feet, hands, and head!”
But that wasn’t the point. Jesus wasn’t interested in making them clean. He explained that they were clean already. This washing of the feet wasn’t about getting the dirt off—inside or out. And it wasn’t about giving one’s friends a loving gesture as a farewell gift. Jesus washed the disciples’ feet in order to initiate them into a way of life that is defined by selfless love. That selfless love is the heart of the gospel. It is the core of Jesus’ message and identity. It is the motive that propelled him to the cross. And it is the raison d’être for the Christian life. And, if we do not let Jesus, our Lord and savior, wash our feet, then we can have no share with him either.
That’s because being loved always precedes loving others just like being served always precedes serving others. As Christians, we are called not simply to do nice things for other people. We are called to love them and serve them as Christ loved and served us.
But who would want to wash someone else’s feet? Who would want to do the dishes? Who would want to do the laundry? Who would want to change a dirty diaper? Who would want to spoon-feed applesauce to an invalid, wiping her chin when she makes a mess? Who would want to spend all day gently caressing the hand of someone who is suffering from the end stages of Alzheimer’s? Who would want to give up one’s whole life in order to take care of someone else? Who would want to do all of that? Someone who knows the unbreakable bonds of selfless love.
When it’s a child or a parent or a spouse—when it’s someone we love—the question isn’t whether we want to; it’s whether we have the capacity—whether we are able to give as much as we want to give. But what about someone you don’t love? What about someone else? What about a stranger or someone you don’t really like all that much? Could you do that for them? Could you want to do that for them? Could you want to give up everything for the sake of another?
Jesus loves us like that. He loves us enough to wash our feet, and he loves us enough to die for us. And that means that our relationship with him is not based upon some distant admiration as if he were merely some great figure in history worth following and emulating out of respect. No, he died specifically for you and for me. He loved us enough to give up everything he had for our sake. He reaches out through two thousand years of history and touches us with that love. His selfless love penetrates us as if it were our feet that he washed, as if we were the ones he gazed lovingly upon as he hung upon the cross. His love—his sacrifice—is the basis for our relationship with him, and only then, once we have known his love, can that become the basis of our relationship with one another. In other words, if we are going to answer his call to love and serve others the way Christ did, we must begin by letting him love and serve us.
This night, Jesus says to you, “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet.” Love is the only thing that makes love possible. And Jesus’ love for us is the only thing that makes it possible for us to love one another with that same kind of love. Our faith is not built upon doing nice things for other people. Our church is not built upon the Golden Rule. Any institution that claims the goodness of human nature as its foundation is destined to fail. We are founded upon the selfless love that God has for us—a love that was demonstrated in his son, Jesus Christ. He is our Lord and Savior. It is his love that animates us. If we are going to love each other, we must first surrender to him and let him love us.

Don't Be Scared of Sin

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

It isn’t fun being the bearer of bad news. I’ve never had to tell someone that a loved-one has died. I’ve never had to tell someone that she has cancer or that he has six weeks to live. The kind of “bad news” that I have to deliver seems far less substantial than that, but it still isn’t easy to say. “I think you have a drinking problem.” “Your life is a mess.” “She isn’t the problem; you are.” “Your overprotective love is suffocating your children.”
I’m learning how to tell people that something isn’t right. I’ve been ordained for nine years, and I’m still learning how to be a prophet. And that’s probably a good thing for everyone.
As we see in today’s reading (Jeremiah 20:7-11), Jeremiah was wildly unpopular. After proclaiming the harsh, sharp, disastrous word of God—that the temple would be destroyed, that the holy city of Jerusalem would be overthrown, that God’s people would be carted off to Babylon in exile—Jeremiah was arrested and beaten by the authorities. He was locked up in the stocks. Finally, upon his release, Jeremiah faced a choice: learn to keep quiet or risk further persecution. He chose the latter.
“If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”
A true prophet knows reticence, but a true prophet knows the incontainability of God’s word. When God has given you something to say and you hold it in, it is like a burning fire within your bones. But, when you let it out, sometimes it hurts…because we want people to like us, and people usually like those who say affirming rather than critical things.
Why are we so scared of being prophets? Why am I still uncomfortable looking at someone and telling him that his choices are ruining his life and the lives of those he loves? I think it’s because we’re all still afraid of sin.
Do we believe that God loves us? Do we believe that in Jesus Christ God has forgiven us of all our sins? Yes, of course we do. Then why are we still scared of sin? Why do we get defensive when we hear someone tell us that we’re making a mess of our lives? And why do we cringe when it’s our job to say that to someone else? No matter what we proclaim as Christians, I think there’s a part of us that doubts God’s limitless love and forgiveness. I think there’s a part of us that wonders whether God will be mad at us because of our sin. That’s human nature. But Christ has set us free from our sin—not just all the things we do to screw up our lives but also the very natural human instinct to doubt God’s forgiving love. And, even though we are already forgiven, our hearts and minds cannot be set free from the burden of our sin unless we confront it, confess it, and claim God’s forgiveness for ourselves.
This is a time to confront our sins—not because God is angry at us and not because we should wallow in our shame but because we need God’s forgiveness to be real to us. And it cannot be real to us unless we take our sin seriously. Don’t be afraid of your sin. Don’t hide it. You are forgiven. But don’t take that for granted by ignoring your sin.