Thursday, July 30, 2015

Funny Kind of Work

Earlier this week, when I read Sunday's gospel lesson (John 6:24-35), I felt drawn to the tension between Jesus and the crowd over the nature of the feeding of the 5,000. Is it merely a miraculous provision (as the crowd seems to think), or is it a demonstration of something bigger (as Jesus strives to make clear)? I'm preaching a funeral sermon on John 6 this morning, and that element came up there, too. But, yesterday, as I read the gospel and wondered what it might be saying to a preacher this week, I was drawn to the line, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." I come from the Protestant, Reformed part of the Episcopal Church (yes, it still exists...somewhere), so this sentence about work and belief touches on a central part of my theology of justification--how it is that we are made right with God.

Yesterday, Steve Pankey wrote about "Works vs. Work," emphasizing that the crowd wants to know what works (note the plural) need to be done in order to do God's will, but Jesus' reply is simply singular--the work of believing in the one whom God has sent. I hope you'll go read his excellent piece first because, as I so often do, I'm using his work as a jumping off point. (Isn't collaborative ministry fun?)

Steve's piece gets right to the heart of the law vs. grace dichotomy of the Christian faith. To put it simply, are we reconciled to God through what we do or through what God does for us? I'll suggest to you that it must be one or the other. There is no mixture of the two. As soon as the slightest bit of "what I bring to the table" is included in the justification equation, we've given up on grace completely. It's got to be up to me or up to God. It can't be both ways. Human nature, of course, leads us to ask what we need to do about it. "What must I do?" the rich young ruler asked Jesus. "What must we do?" the crowd asked Jesus. The answer in the cross of Christ is simply nothing. But, as Steve puts it so well,
The work of God is impossibly simple. Believing in the one whom God has sent seems to easy, and can be so hard to maintain.  So we look instead for works, for things to keep us busy, to keep us preoccupied over and against or worries whether or not this Jesus can be trusted.  It happened even as he walked the earth, and heaven knows it happens now.
Exactly right, of course. Even after we've accepted that there's no work for us to do other than to believe, there's more we need to hear. As Steve points out, partly that's because we can never fully accept the magnitude of God's grace, and so we must be reminded of the gospel message each and every day--even every second of every day! But there are also two additional distinct problems that grow out of this grace-alone theology of justification--neither of which is inherent in the theology itself but only as it is misunderstood, and that's what I want to focus on today.

The first error is to undervalue the significance of believing. It is not easy to believe that a God who is perfect could love us--we who are nothing close to perfect--despite our gross, repeated, and intentional imperfections, which we call sin. We must stand at the threshold where life becomes death and cling to nothing but God's promise. We must, as Kathy Grieb put it in her commentary on Romans, have faith like that of Abraham. Justification by faith, which Jesus points us to in this critical passage from John 6, is not easy. Faith like that is believing in the preposterous. Just as Abraham believed that God could make him the father of many nations despite being a childless 90-year-old, so, too, must we believe that God can make new these tired, old, broken, sinful bones. (God help our unbelief!) Don't underestimate, therefore, the challenge of faith. Faith like that cannot come from within. It must be a gift. And therein lies the second error.

The second error is to make a work out of faith, and that's where I get a little nervous reading Steve's post--not because he suggests that faith is a work (quite the contrary) but because I myself struggle with the idolization of perfect faith. "What must we do?" we all ask Jesus, and he replies, "The work of God is this: believe." In my experience, the only way that can truly be a liberating statement is if Jesus isn't setting up faith as an attainable yet unattainable goal for humanity but if he is with a heavy dose of irony flipping the question of the crowd on its head and saying, "Work? No sir! Faith alone!"

The crowd expects works, and Jesus replies faith. He uses the singular "work" to surprise them and us--to tease out of the circumstance the peculiarly non-work that is believing. Belief is the gospel's radical answer to our work-focused expectations. And the requirement--faith like Abraham--doesn't come from within. Faith in itself is a gift from God. There's the true power of grace. If it were up to me to work my way into heaven, I'd fail--that's easy to accept. The harder but truly liberating truth of John 6 is that even my faith is not up to me. "I am the Bread of Life," Jesus says, "whoever comes to me will never be hungry." That's a gift--all gift.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Truly I Say Unto You, Stop Whining!

It took me years to figure out that Mrs. Comer had lied to her third-grade class. An experienced teacher who probably loved teaching but seemed not to like children, Mrs. Comer found ways to keep us under control. How did she do it? She treated us like adults. Instead of asking whether we could go to the bathroom, we just excused ourselves, flipping over the wooden block from green to red to signify that someone in the class was already down the hall. A year later, my fourth-grade teacher would reject such liberty, and I felt like I was back in kindergarten again. Mrs. Comer did not give us a pencil if we did not have one. If we left it at home, we had to figure it out on our own. It did not matter that her desk drawer was full of nicely sharpened #2s. Those were for her, not us. But, looking back, my favorite Mrs. Comer technique, which I did not understand for years, was the tattle box. If someone did something to you—hit you, called you a name, took your lunch—you were not to go and tell Mrs. Comer. She had zero interest in hearing from you. “Go write it down and put it in the tattle box,” she would say to the distraught student. “I’ll read it later.”

Well, that was just plain old bullshit. She never read those notes. We nine-year-olds poured our wounded hearts out on those scraps of paper, and I’m 100% sure that all she ever did was dump that box into the trash when it was full. What a genius! Imagine finding a way to eliminate completely the yah-yahs of third grade! No whining about other students. No complaining. “Go put it in the tattle box” was all she needed to say. I don’t know whether Mrs. Comer was a Christian—probably, since we’re talking about 1980s small-town Alabama—but she was clearly a disciple of Jesus’ how-to-handle-a-complaining-sister technique.

“JEEESUS,” Martha whined, “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work? Tell her to help me. This is hard. I’m tired.” It’s the kind of plea that is usually made by third-graders, but, when it comes to siblings, it’s the kind of whining and complaining that lasts well into adulthood. Brothers and sisters are the first relationship of comparison. We don’t like it when they get something we don’t receive. We want everything to be “Even Stephen,” and parents go to great lengths to make sure that they treat their kids equally. (This usually backfires, of course, because the grass is always greener on my sibling’s side.) Ultimately, Martha comes to Jesus wanting him to make everything right. “You tell her to help me,” she says to the teacher, the master, the male authority figure in the house. And Jesus pretty much says “no.”

Actually, he says more than that, doesn’t he? He doesn’t just refuse to get involved, but, at the same time that he steps away, he pulls Martha right back into the middle of the emotional angst she had experienced but from which she was trying to escape. “Mary has chosen the better part,” he said to her. “The problem isn’t hers. It’s yours. You’re distracted by many things. You need to learn your own lesson. I won’t solve your problem for you. You have to solve it yourself.” Ouch. That stings. It hurts when the person we thought would take our side and give us relief steps back, slaps us in the face, and says, “Tough stuff, Sally Jane. You deal with it.”

Jesus the healer. Jesus the reconciler. Jesus the feeder. Jesus the exorcist. Jesus the teacher. Jesus the pastor. Jesus the friend. But not Jesus the fixer. Jesus did not come to earth to fix all your problems. Salvation doesn’t mean that we get what we want—that our slice of cake is as big or bigger than our sister’s, that our grass is as green or greener than our brother’s, that our life is as full and happy and complete or more so than that of others. Jesus came and lived and died and rose again not to take all of our problems away but to equip us to deal with them on our own.

Think about it this way: if Jesus Christ is the means by which you are reconciled to God—if he is the way that you know in your heart that God is waiting to welcome you into his kingdom—why would you complain about anything? If God loves you like that, who cares about anything else? Stop whining to God. Remember that God loves you. Believe that he will save you even from death itself. And let everything else fall into its proper place and keep it in its proper perspective.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Bread of Life

This post originally appeared as the cover article for our parish newsletter, The View. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn about what's happening at St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, AL, please click here.

I do not enjoy telling people no. Saying yes is a great deal more fun, and in Christ we discover that God’s answer to us is always yes. Despite our rejection of his love and our refusal to stay in covenant relationship with him, in Jesus Christ God reaches out to us in a gesture of unbreakable, undeniable love. The resurrection is God’s pursuit of us with his yes despite our resounding no, and that part of us that is a fragile child who seeks only affirmation and love is desperate to hear that eternal yes from our heavenly father. It is my own need for that yes that makes it hard for me to tell someone else no—especially when I am speaking as a minister in God’s church—but sometimes my no is the only way to invite someone to hear God’s yes.
Every Sunday we celebrate God’s great and redeeming yes by gathering at the Lord’s Table to partake in the death and resurrection of Jesus. As I explain to newcomers, I do not know exactly how that happens—how bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ and how receiving it unites us to him—but I trust in my heart what my mind cannot grasp. Our invitation to Communion, therefore, should be broad and wide and inclusive. It is, after all, his table—not ours—and who are we to stand in the way of anyone who desires to commune with the Lord? As one who has been turned away from the sacrament in churches that belong to other denominations, I have felt the heartbreak of hearing that I am not welcome—that I do not belong—and I rue the thought that I would be the one to turn anyone away from God’s presence. Still, though, there are times when my answer to one who seeks a morsel of bread or a sip of port wine must be no.
On Sunday, we will continue our lectionary’s exploration of John 6. For five weeks in a row, we will hear gospel lessons that center on Jesus’ invitation to receive the Bread of Life. Last week, we heard how Jesus fed the five-thousand with only five loaves and two fish. Starting this Sunday, we will hear how Jesus explained that act to a still-hungry crowd. Through it all, we will experience the tension between those who seek a transformative encounter with God and those who just want a little bread to eat. As would-be followers of Jesus Christ, we must ask ourselves into which category we fall. Do we come to Jesus because we want a little more sustenance for our life’s journey, or do we approach him because we want to be transformed?
The sacramental meal of Holy Communion is an opportunity to present ourselves to God as those whom God has changed and is changing and will change until we are made perfect. We come as hungry, broken, sinful people, and we leave as filled, restored, reconciled children of God. The Lord’s Supper is not a dinner party. It is a celebration of radical conversion. It is a foretaste of God’s kingdom feast. The invitation to Communion, therefore, is not based on hospitality but on participation in the transformative life of Jesus Christ. We dishonor his death and resurrection if we, as Eucharistic Prayer C puts it, come to his Table “for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” “This is a life-changing encounter,” the clergy might say to the congregation. “If you like your life just the way it is, please stay in your seat. But, if you seek new life in Christ, you will find it here.”
Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” In order to partake in that bread, we must recognize what is being given to us—not merely a morsel to fill our stomachs but a bounty to satisfy the longing of our souls. Jesus is the one who offers us new and abundant life, but the path that leads to that life takes us first to death. If we want to live with him forever and never be hungry again, we must die with him first—a death that is revealed in the waters of baptism. Only then can we participate in the life of the risen one and gather at his heavenly banquet.
If you ask me whether your atheist cousin can receive Communion while visiting our church, my answer will be no. If you ask me whether your unbaptized friend can receive Communion after spending the night at your sleepover, my answer will be no. If you tell me that you do not believe in Jesus Christ or have no interest in participating in the transformed life of a disciple, I will tell you that you are no longer welcome to receive Communion. Please know, however, that doing so causes me great pain, and please hear my “no” not as an end in itself but as an invitation to something bigger—to further conversation, to baptism, to conversion, to renewed faith, to real transformation. No matter what, God’s answer to you is still yes. It always will be. But we cannot afford to take his yes for granted.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Tricky Bread of Life

Last Friday, my friend and colleague Joe Gibbes mentioned that he was preaching on John 6 for each of the next five Sundays. Personally, I can't imagine anything less exciting for my homiletic focus as I really don't like the Bread of Life discourse--too much talk and not enough action--but Joe made a very convincing point. He remarked that lots of people tell new Christians to go read John as a foundation for their nascent faith, but he disagrees. And why? Because of John 6.

Yesterday, we started a succession of gospel lessons that take us through one of the most difficult, confusing, counter-intuitive chapters in the gospel. John 6. The feeding of the 5,000 was a gentle but central introduction. The rest of the chapter is a rhetorical back and forth between Jesus and the crowd and the disciples about his identity, God's mission, and our response. In the coming weeks, we'll hear Jesus say, "Eat me." (Well, sort of.) He will tell the people they must eat his flesh, and, when they object and ask him to clarify or soften his hyperbolic message, Jesus refuses. It's hard. And I think Joe might be right--this is a time to preach a five-part series on this tough sequence of passages. But our preaching schedule isn't set up that way.

This week, my colleague Seth Olson will have the opportunity to preach on John 6:24-35. I don't know if he'll choose to focus on the gospel, but, as I anticipate preaching the following week, I'm focusing on this particular exchange because I think it's an important framework for the rest of John 6.

The crowd who had been present for the feeding of the 5,000 sought out Jesus. "When did you come here?" they asked, unaware (or perhaps unable to believe) that he had walked across the water. Side-stepping their question, Jesus responded, "You're only looking for me because your tummies were full of bread." For me, their pursuit and Jesus' response is the central theme of this chapter. In John 6, Jesus is being identified as the one who provides for God's people, but the people are only interested in the provision itself.

Perhaps this should passage should inform our approach to evangelism. When we introduce people to Jesus, are we presenting the provision or are we directing them to the one who provides? When we preach forgiveness, are we merely offering absolution or are we presenting a transformative encounter with the one who forgives? When we talk about love, are we giving out hugs or are we inviting people to be embraced by God?

People are hungry. People are poor. People are lonely. They are burdened with guilt. They are confused. As Mark put it (alas, though, not John), they are like sheep without a shepherd. What are we offering? Food? Money? Companionship? Relief? Guidance? But then what? People don't need a Band-Aid, they need rebirth. And we--the church--cannot offer rebirth. That comes only from God.

As I explore the rest of John 6 and suffer through the interminable Bread of Life discourse, I'm trying to avoid the same trap into which the crowd fell. I'm trying not to focus on the bread but on the one who provides life. This isn't a time to preach Eucharistic theology. This is a time to invite people to see the real Jesus--God's ultimate answer for the world's ultimate need.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

God's Abundance & Our Scarcity

July 26, 2015 – The 9th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here (link corrected on 7/27).
Over the last two weeks, I’ve almost forgotten how to cook. Our family has been inundated with delicious meals, brought to our house by you—people who love us and care for us. Thank you. Y’all have done such a wonderful job that neither of us has needed or wanted to cook. Usually, though, when we’re not dealing with a newborn, Elizabeth and I enjoy splitting that responsibility at our house. If I get home in time to make dinner, I delight in preparing a meal for our family. Often, however, I’m not there in time to help, and Elizabeth prepares a wonderful meal. But, on those occasions when both of us have been too busy to cook, we rely on an old, familiar dish to get us through the evening meal: leftovers.

If I call Elizabeth on my way home from work and ask her what is for dinner and the answer is “leftovers,” it takes me a minute to figure out whether that is good news or bad news. “What have we already eaten this week?” I think to myself. “Oh, that sounds good,” I might say, recalling that we had had a family-favorite a few days earlier. Or, I might say, “Oh, that sounds good,” realizing that reheating a so-so dish isn’t going to make it any better. For the most part, though, I like leftovers. Both of us are pretty good cooks, and, if we stick it in the fridge and not the trash can, it’s probably worth eating again.

Some of us, though, look upon leftovers with disdain. My grandfather refused to eat them. He came from another generation—one that started without refrigeration—and to him leftovers were a sign that the household cook had not done her job. But my grandmother was clever and persistent, and she knew that if she was going to recycle a Sunday roast, she had to disguise it as beef stew. Everyone around the table knew where that stew had come from, but somehow casting it in a new form was good enough for my grandfather. Maybe you’re like that, too. Maybe in your house leftovers represent a defeat instead of an economic victory. But, in God’s house, leftovers, it seems, are always a sign of God’s blessing.

I chose to add a verse to the beginning of today’s first lesson because I wanted all of us to hear that miracle story for what it really was: a sign of abundance in a climate of scarcity. “Elisha the prophet came to Gilgal during the time of a great famine.” For an agricultural community like ancient Israel, a persistent drought could mean the deaths of thousands. In times of famine, people lived literally day to day. They hoped and prayed that their crops would yield even enough to keep their family alive. No one could predict exactly when the rains would return, so everyone lived cautiously—as frugally as possible.

Yet, in this climate of scarcity, a man from Baal-shalishah brought to Elisha a sack full of bread and ears of grain—the firstfruits of his harvest—to support the work and ministry of this holy man of God. Think about that for a moment. The bible tells us that this offering was of his firstfruits—the very first cut of grain that was taken from his field. He did not wait to fill up his barn. He did not stop to be sure that his family would have enough. He did not hold back some of the bread in case he needed it. He did not know whether the rest of harvest would be fruitful. Someone could catch his field on fire. A sudden storm could blow and wash his crop away. Through his offering, this man trusted that God would provide. In a climate in which every single grain was precious, this man gave it away, and his faithful offering, though small, became enough to feed a multitude.

Without hesitation, Elisha told his servant to set the bread and grain out for the people to eat. “But master,” the servant objected, “How can I possibly feed a hundred people with so little?” And the prophet declared, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” Some left over, Elisha declared, enough even for leftovers. With God, we discover that even our scarcest offering is an opportunity for abundance.

The sun rises and sets. The rain falls from the sky. The seed sprouts and grows and bears fruit. Children are born. They grow up and have children of their own. We study and learn and work. Our work bears fruit, and we support our families and one another. And we smile, and we laugh, and we breathe, and we grow old, and eventually we die. And, in both life and death, God will always provide. God is giving us an unfathomable abundance. Our lives are a testament to his blessings. There is always enough—enough even for leftovers. Signs of God’s abundance echo all around us. They resound throughout the generations. The invitation to believe that God will always provide is a gentle, easy call. So why, then, do we let an attitude of scarcity choke our faith until it is dead?

So what if there is a famine? Is God not bigger than a drought? So what if there are wars or rumors of wars? Is God’s reign threatened by the affairs of humanity? So what if our country is politically divided? So what if our people are killing one another in the name of hate? So what if there are terrorists who seek to do us harm? Is God held hostage by any of that? So what if the stock market tanks? So what if inflation flies through the roof? So what if everything we have been saving evaporates overnight? Will God abandon us because we are poor? No. God’s abundance is always—always—bigger than our scarcity. And the problems of this world will not be solved until we learn to trust in God. The challenges we face cannot be overcome until we recognize that God himself is the only way those challenges can ever be defeated.

Are you holding back your life, your heart, your treasure, your ego because you are worried that you might be left empty-handed? Are you budgeting your relationship with God because you want to be sure that you’ll have enough for yourself and your family and the life you’ve always dreamt of? As you plan for the future, is your first priority making sure that you won’t outlive your fortune or is your financial plan a recognition that God’s abundance can never be exhausted? If you think it’s up to you to have enough, you’ve missed the point of being a Christian. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has shown the world that what we have and what we do doesn’t matter—that the only way to true, abundant life is through God.
Stop holding back. Stop living in fear. Stop filling your barn first. Open up your whole life to God—your heart, your mind, and your wallet. Let faith in God and God’s abundance be the rule for your life. Let him take your attitude of scarcity and transform it into a confidence in his abundance. Let God show you that there will always be enough—even enough for leftovers.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Jesus--Fully Human, Fully Divine?

I don't blame Arius, the arch-heretic who refused to accept that Jesus was fully divine (of the same substance as the Father) despite also being fully human, for struggling to understand how to reconcile what would become orthodox Trinitarian theology with the logic of the Judeo-Christian monotheistic tradition. I don't blame him, but, still, he was dead wrong. If you have your own doubts, go read the Athanasian Creed--that theological statement that attempted once and for all to settle the Arian controversy. In so many ways, the Christian faith is built upon the foundation of Jesus' dual-nature, one-person identity. As the Athanasian Creed declares of this doctrine, "This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved."

That might be foundational, but we still do a really bad job of talking about Jesus Christ in ways that embrace that two-nature, one-person belief. That was true in the fourth century when the Arian controversy was unfolding, and it is true today. And this Sunday's gospel lesson gives us a great example of that struggle.

Out in the wilderness, surrounded by a crowd of hungry followers, Jesus looked at Philip and said, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?" That's a reasonable question. What do you do when more people turn up for your revival than you expected? What do you do when you don't have enough to feed the crowd? "Quick!" Jesus said to one of his lieutenants, "We need to get some food for these people. Where are we going to get it?"

But for John a question like that doesn't belong on the lips of Jesus. In John's understanding, Jesus is God among us. (Yes, that's still an unfinished antecedent of the Trinitarian orthodoxy that will be declared three hundred years later, but it's a start.) And, as far as John is concerned, the God-among-us shouldn't be asking questions like that. He should already know the answer...which is why John--not Jesus, not Philip, not Peter, but John--goes out of his way to add an editorial explanation that not only excuses Jesus from this moment of uncertainty but also completely changes the nature of this exchange between master and disciple. John writes, "[Jesus] said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do."

Do you remember The Princess Bride--that great cult classic from the 1987 in which the narrator (Peter Falk) reads a wonderful story to his grandson (Fred Savage)? Early in the movie, when the princess (Robin Wright) jumps in the water to escape her kidnappers, she is nearly attacked by the shrieking eels, which, as Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) explains, always get louder right before they feed on human flesh. Well, right as the drama reaches its height, the narrator interrupts the story and tells his grandson, "The eel doesn't get her." It's a total shock to the audience, including the grandson, and the narrator explains that the grandson was looking nervous. Instead of letting the story play out--instead of letting the child and us discover for ourselves that the eel doesn't get her--the narrator steals that moment from us and explains it in an editorial fashion. That's the charm of The Princess Bride, but, from my vantage point, it isn't so charming in John.

So what if Jesus asks Philip where they will buy enough bread to feed all those people? Is that really such a bad thing? Sure, maybe Jesus was saying that to test him. The reader can figure that out on her own. Or maybe Jesus wasn't so sure. Maybe Jesus had a moment of unease. Maybe he even had a moment of panic. Can't the Son of God get nervous every once in a while?

I know that John was fighting a remarkable uphill theological battle. It's hard to convince the 1st century world that a man, Jesus of Nazareth, was God among us despite having been executed on the cross. I know that John is making a case for Jesus divinity. I know that little tidbits like this are important to him. But I miss the opportunity to embrace the humanity of Jesus while also embracing his divinity. He multiplies the loaves and fishes in a way no human being could do. This is God's work among us, clearly. So is it really all that bad to let us see his human side, too?

Not surprisingly, Mark's version of this story is more sparse. The disciples plead with Jesus to send the crowd away so that they can buy food, and Jesus' response is, "You give them something to eat." What does he mean? Did he mean to test them? Did he intend all along to feed them? Or was the discovery of the loaves and fish an unplanned opportunity? We don't know for sure, and that's ok. We don't have to know.

It isn't easy believing in the God-man. It isn't easy writing, teaching, preaching, or talking about one who is fully human and fully divine. As a Chalcedonian Christian (and unless you're from Ethiopia, you're one, too), I believe that those natures come together in one person without confusion or mixture. One does not dominate the other. They coexist. They are united. Let's look for ways to hang on to that mysterious union and not let our language deny one of Christ's two natures.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Real, Gritty Faith

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Today is the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, and today we celebrate the fullness of faith.

I am sure you have heard the story of Alfred Nobel and the impetus he had for establishing, through his estate, the prizes that bear his name. His brother Ludvig died, but the paper accidentally published Alfred’s obituary instead. The inventor of dynamite, Alfred was hailed as one “who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before,” as the paper reported that “the merchant of death is dead” ( Nobel did not like what he saw. He did not want to be remembered for his contribution to the forces of destruction, so he decided to change his legacy. As if equipped with a time machine, Nobel reversed the course of his life and left the bulk of his estate to establish the Nobel Prizes, thus securing him a legacy as a great promoter of knowledge and the betterment of the human race. Not bad for a revisionist’s first attempt and changing history.  

How will you be remembered? How will I be remembered? I don’t mean that as a vain exercise of writing one’s own epitaph—of trying to control one’s legacy from the grave. There’s a funny, poignant take on that in the film The Royal Tenenbaums, in which Gene Hackman’s character memorializes himself as having died while “rescuing his family from the wreckage of a destroyed sinking battleship”—a complete lie…just like most self-written obituaries. I mean those questions as a reflection on the present. What matters to you? Where is your focus? What is the object of your life? How do you measure success? What drives you?

In the business of religion, we often hold up supreme examples of faith and righteousness and ask—whether implicitly or explicitly—are you as good as that? What do you think WWJD is all about? It’s a movement built upon the belief that we are supposed to be as good as Jesus. Think about that for a second. Who wants to be a part of a church that says, “Our measure for personal success is perfection itself?” No thank you! Likewise, the veneration of the saints is often an exercise in remembering just how not-good-enough we are. There are exceptions, however, and today’s saint is at the top of my list of people worth remembering.

Mary Magdalene is the patron saint of failures like you and me. The gospel accounts of Luke and the longer ending of Mark remember her as one from whom seven demons were cast out. The tradition gets a little muddy, and some people confuse her as the “woman of the city” (i.e. a prostitute) who Luke reports as anointing Jesus’ feet, even though Luke doesn’t actually make that connection. In the Middle Ages, that tradition grew, and, after the Reformation, her penitent identity was held up by the Roman Catholic Church as a model for the church—an icon for the Council of Trent. But, pulling all of that aside, sifting through all of the extra baggage, we are still left with a woman whose grief is magnificent and whose faith is imperfect yet complete.

Mary Magdalene is one who looked on while Jesus was crucified. She is remembered as having seen the place where his body was laid. When the disciples fled and hid out of fear, she was among the women who went to the tomb carrying spices to anoint his lifeless body. In John’s account of the Easter story, Mary is the only one at the tomb—still weeping over her loss. Even when the stone was found to be rolled away and the grave was empty, Mary wept. Angels in white appeared to her asking why she wept, but all she knew was that the body of her Lord was gone. Jesus himself appeared to her and asked her what she was looking for. Still blinded by her grief, she could not see him and pleaded with the supposed gardener for the return of Jesus’ lifeless body. And then her patient, tireless, agonizing grief was rewarded, and Jesus revealed himself to her in a simple word: “Mary.”

Mary Magdalene is remembered as the faithful one—not because she anticipated the resurrection but because she remained at the tomb even through her grief. She is the first to behold the resurrection not because of her understanding but because of her faith—a faith that brought her to the tomb in tears, a faith that made enough space for God to transform those tears into joy. That is the faith that the Magdalene commends to us. She does not ask us to perform miracles, heal the sick, or brave the firing squad for the gospel. She does not invite us to be crucified upside down or travel to far-away lands so that we can be remembered as faithful servants of Christ. She is a reminder to us that we need not be superheroes or understand the deep mysteries of our faith. Her call is that we should faithful in our own time and have a quiet, patient faith that waits. We need not be perfect—far from it. Faith is what makes our meager offering beautiful to God.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

We Have No King But Caesar!

I could spend all day and night staring at a magician who uses slight of hand to pull a coin out of someone's ear or to make a rubber ball disappear or to slide a playing card out of his sleeve. Just give me another chance to stare even harder and be fooled even deeper by the misdirection of the master. When my eye see what my brain does not expect, I smile that gleeful satisfaction of having been fooled. How did he do that? Exactly.

On Sunday we will hear John's version of the Feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:1-21), and, buried deep within the miraculous passage, is a tiny moment of misdirection which may be hard for the preacher to tease out, but I'll suggest that it is worth it.

As the miracle unfolds, Jesus feeds 5,000 people with only five loaves and two fish. There's a conversation between Jesus and Philip--poor Philip--about the need, and then Andrew shows up to offer the meager supplies to the cause. The tension is built. Can he do it? Will he do it? How will it work?

In the afterglow, as the reader settles into the post-prandial satisfaction of what has happened, it is tempting to process the miracle from the pulpit. I could dissect the event. I could tie it in to the reading from 2 Kings. I could explain what it meant for Jesus to feed the multitude in the wilderness a la Moses (but be careful not to overstep next week's reading, too). I could use numerology to describe the significance of the 12 baskets full of leftover bread. I could preach on over-abundance. I could locate this miracle in the line of "signs" that John has used to make the case for Jesus' messiahship. I could do all of that, but I'd rather talk about the crowd's reaction.

Buried in the middle of this passage, hidden in plain sight, John writes, "When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, 'This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.' When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself."

Unless I preach on 2 Kings (see yesterday's post), that's where my homiletical focus is falling this week. The crowd saw what Jesus had done. They said to themselves, "This is the prophet who is to come into the world!" And Jesus runs away before they could make him their king. More importantly, somehow between John 6 and John 19, the crowd changes their minds and, in a moment of mob violence before Pilate, declares, "We have no king but Caesar!" That's either the world's greatest fall from grace or a messianic nosedive of unfathomable proportions.

There are two opposite forces at work in the gospel accounts. On the one hand, the gospel writers need to demonstrate that, despite the shameful crucifixion, Jesus is God's Son--the long-awaited messiah, the king of all creation. But, at the same time, the gospel writers also need to show that, despite being God's Son, the shameful crucifixion is central to Jesus' identity and God's plan for him. That is, the gospel must make the case both for Jesus' exalted identity and his cross-bound destiny. John 6 is a great example of both.

In the feeding of the 5,000, the case has been made that Jesus is the one for whom God's people have been waiting. One cannot experience the fullness of that feeding miracle and not make that connection. But the crowd cannot yet also know that Jesus' destiny is on the cross--that what it means to be the king is to wear the crown of thorns. So Jesus runs away.

We worship Jesus as both king and crucified one, and we do so with integrity and without confusion. We cannot have one or the other. We cannot make Jesus the king we want him to be. We must accept him as the king God has given us. If we put all our hopes on the one who feeds the multitudes to the exclusion of the one who dies on the cross, our cry becomes, "We have no king but Caesar!" We need both. This Sunday, we get both, but it's easy to miss it.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Track 2 Is Letting Me Down

I'm a fan of RCL Track 2. In the season after Pentecost, we get a choice--either Track 1, which is semi-continuous reading through parts of the Old Testament we might not otherwise get to hear in church, or Track 2, which offers Old Testament readings that usually have a thematic tie in to the gospel lesson. Track 2 is closer to the old BCP lectionary. Someday, I'll give Track 1 a try, but, for now, I'm enjoying Track 2.

Or I was until this Sunday.

Here is this Sunday's Track 2 Old Testament reading (2 Kings 4:42-44) in its entirety:
A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, "Give it to the people and let them eat." But his servant said, "How can I set this before a hundred people?" So he repeated, "Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the LORD, `They shall eat and have some left.'" He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the LORD.
I get the connection. The gospel lesson (John 6:1-21) is the feeding of the 5,000. This is an isolated story of a miraculous feeding, so it ties in, but it leaves us with too many questions. Who is the man? And who is the holy man? And why was he bringing all of that food? And in what way is this a miracle? Bottom line: this lesson needs some more text.

I suggest expanding this lesson using Steve Pankey's favorite rubric on BCP p. 888 ("Any reading may be lengthened at discretion"). That might, however, pose a quandary as to whether to we are allowed lengthen the lesson only by adding 2 Kings 4:38a ("And Elisha came again to Gilgal when there was a famine in the land") or whether we have to add all of the verses between 38a and 42, which tells the story of Elisha purifying the poisoned pot of stew by throwing flour on it. (I've got three days until the bulletin is printed, so I don't have to make that decision today.) Regardless, we need some context.

This is the time of a famine. Elisha is a prophet--the holy man of God. And this unnamed man brings to the prophet the first fruits of his harvest despite the fact that there is a famine in the land. Now the story takes on new meaning. This little offering is a sign of abundance--even in a time of scarcity. This story isn't just about a miraculous feeding. It's a story about stewardship.

As I prepare to preach on Sunday, I'm drawn to this passage from 2 Kings--the expanded passage. Yes, the bit about the poisoned stew might be a little distracting, but we desperately need the opening line of that paragraph. Don't print your bulletins before you add it. Don't miss the opportunity to celebrate abundance in a climate of scarcity.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Nature of Prayer

The other day, someone asked me if God grants us things for which we do not ask. I was finishing a hospital visit, and, as is my custom, I asked if there was anything in particular for which I should pray. I ask that question for several reasons. First and foremost, I want to be sure that the "patient" is given the chance to name precisely what is on her/his mind. But I also want to gauge what the outlook is for the "patient" and the family. What are they hoping for? What are they expecting? How can I provide pastoral care that is appropriate for a particular situation. For example, when a person stops asking for healing and starts asking for peace, it tells me something.

When I asked if there was anything for which I could pray, she said that she wanted us to pray for healing. It was a bold request. No one--doctors, nurses, specialists, family, patient, or priest--expects this particular situation to end with a cure. Before I could react to her request--either verbally or physically--she followed up with her question. Should we ask for it? If we don't ask for it, will God give it to us? Doesn't the bible say that God only grants our prayers if we ask for it?

As I said to her, I don't know where that is in the bible...or if it is in the bible. Perhaps it's a particularly limited interpretation of passages like Mark 11:24: "Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours." I explained that I didn't know the scriptural warrant for that approach to prayer, and, although I'm not one to disagree with the bible, I don't think that's how prayer works.

On Sunday, we will pray a collect that says a great deal about what we believe prayer is all about:
Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
I wish I had been quick enough on my feet to recall this prayer in that bedside moment. These words are very familiar to me, but they escaped me when I needed them. In fact, I say a form of these words almost every time I offer a concluding collect after the prayers of the people in our liturgy, and still they were just beyond my grasp. And perhaps that is the point. Sometimes we don't have the right words, but we trust in prayer that God knows better than we do.

I believe this statement is a gateway to meaningful prayer, and I hope it will become more permanently engrained on my heart. We are ignorant and sinful. We cannot see the big picture well enough to know what to say to God, and, even if we could, we still wouldn't have the spiritual composition necessary to ask for the right things.

Prayer is fundamentally an acknowledgment of our weakness. We say to God, "I need help. I need something." And, when we pray, we are making those requests to the one who is always able to help. We are not directing our prayers to a store clerk who may be out of stock or a magistrate who may have fallen asleep. We are praying to God, who always knows what we need even before we ask--and even if we fail to ask.

As I explained in that hospital room, God is not waiting for us to say the right words before he will take care of us. God's love and provision and blessing is always, always bigger than the words we use. When we search for the right words, therefore, it is not to make our request more powerful or specific but so that we can better recognize the source of the answers to our prayers. We ask for healing so that, when healing comes, we recognize that it is from God. We ask for healing so that, when healing does not come, we recognize that God is still answering our prayers though perhaps in other ways. But we never, ever conclude that God withheld his healing, blessing, or love simply because we did not ask for it. Unconditional love means just that--unconditional. God's love isn't conditional on our behavior, our recognition, or our requests.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Balance in Ministry

When they return from their first missionary journey, presumably having healed the sick and cast out demons, the disciples surrounded Jesus and reported to him all that they had done. That's how Sunday's gospel lesson begins (see Mark 6:30-34, 53-56). As if to acknowledge their work, Jesus invites them to "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for a while." What a nice invitation! For a while now in Mark's gospel account, Jesus has been so popular that he can't get any rest, and it seems that the demand on his time and attention has now spread to his disciples, who likewise can't get any rest. Jesus, recognizing the importance of recovery time, makes provision for the disciples to sneak away to a lonely spot and be refreshed.

Only, it doesn't work.

The crowd saw Jesus and the disciples slipping away in the boat, and they followed on foot and were waiting for them when their boat landed. No rest for the weary, it seems.

As I wrote about on Monday, this lectionary selection leaves out what comes next--the feeding of the 5,000. As my colleague Seth Olson pointed out yesterday in staff meeting, the feeding is Jesus' answer to the fatigue. He nourishes the crowd AND the disciples in their place of need by feeding them not only with multiplied bread and fish but also with himself. Since we don't have that in our lesson, we're left with exhausted disciples who never get to rest. And there's something to be said for that, too.

I'm not good at achieving that mystical work/family balance that so many people advocate. I don't even know that such a thing exists. Don't get me wrong: I'm not complaining. I hate preachers who whine about how hard they work and how neglected their families feel. I don't want to hear about that. Just do something about it--something other than whine to me.

This isn't a blog post to encourage people to take more time for themselves, to spend more time with their families, or to step away from their busy jobs to be refreshed. Actually, it's the opposite. I read Sunday's gospel lesson as it is presented to us and think, "You know, sometimes there just isn't time to step away to a deserted place by yourself."

In my experience, clergy who advocate for their own downtime--sabbath rest, comp time, sabbaticals, vacation, continuing education trips--often get into trouble. As the old comic strip featuring the kid coming out of church and asking the pastor what he does every other day of the week (I think it was Dennis the Menace) implies, most people don't know what clergy do Monday through Saturday. Some of our work is visible, but much of it is not. Part of my job is to pray. Part of my job is to be on call--all the time. Part of my job is to meet with people in coffee shops. Part of my job is to visit people in their homes...after work...late into the evening. Few of those things are seen by the rest of the congregation. So, if I stand up and say, "I'm working too hard and need a break," it sounds like I'm just lazy. And, when that happens during someone else's crisis, it seems unabashedly negligent. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Jones, that your goldfish died, but I'm on vacation." Sound crazy? It happens.

I'll suggest that parish clergy need to spend time educating a few lay leaders in the parish about the nature of clergy work. Perhaps a diocesan consultant can come and meet with the clergy and vestry and guide them through a reflection on what sort of expectations for clergy exist. Then, those lay leaders of the congregation can advocate on behalf of the clergy person for his or her downtime. It needs to be a clear and consistent reminder to the congregation that we must all take care of our clergy just as they take care of us.

Clergy, however, need to have the opposite voice. Clergy need to work too hard. Clergy need to be present too much. Clergy need to have bad boundaries. Jesus and the disciples didn't get to rest. They wanted to. They needed to. They planned to. But then things changed. The crowd found them, and the crowd needed their help, and so Jesus and the disciples ministered to them. When a random Tuesday afternoon is empty on the calendar, the clergyperson should slip out the door and go home to be with her family. But she should keep her cell phone on and be ready to head to the hospital if needed. Yes, of course we need rest and recovery, but other things come first. If that is the focus of the clergy and the lay leaders are pushing for more downtime and the pastor is pushing for less, a good balance is possible.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Grace: The Antidote for Karma

This post first appeared as the cover article in The View, the parish newsletter for St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, AL. To read more of what is happening at St. John's, click here.

On my first morning in Salt Lake City, I stopped by the Starbucks on my way out of the hotel. I did not want anything fancy—just a cup of drip coffee—so I handed the barista my reusable cup and three dollars. When she gave me back a handful of change, I reached over to drop it in the tip jar, but, as the coins left my hand, I saw something that gave me a jolt. Written on the clear plastic cube were the following words: “Karma Jar—tips are greatly appreciated.” I sighed a long, slow, achy sigh and thought to myself, “We still have a lot of work to do.”

I carried the image of that tip jar and its pseudo-spiritual proclamation with me every day at General Convention. For me, as a preacher of the gospel and a missionary for grace, it was the clarion call that crystalized my focus during those two weeks, helping me leave behind all that was dross and take up the cause of all that is uniquely Christian in our efforts. There are many institutions in this world who work for the betterment of humanity, and their efforts should be applauded and aided by our church. As Jesus taught us in Matthew 25, we are commanded to give food to the hungry and drink to those who thirst, to welcome the stranger, and to visit the infirm and imprisoned. Social work, therefore, is gospel work. But our approach to making the world a better place—a place we call “the kingdom of God”—is radically different from that of all other organizations and philosophies.

To my knowledge, the gospel stands alone in the history of humanity as the only institution that proclaims the precise opposite of karma. If there are others out there, I hope you will share them with me, but Christianity at its core is the only approach that I know of that teaches that you do not get what you deserve. Karma, of course, is the religious concept shared by Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, and Taoism that teaches that the actions of this life affect the nature and quality of both this life and ones future life or lives. To put it simply, if you do good, good things will happen to you, and, if you do bad, bad things will happen. This logic seems infallible and inescapable. It is as ancient as humanity. And it is precisely the logic that Jesus Christ came to undo.

Before his conversion on the Damascene road, the apostle Paul was steeped in the Hebrew version of getting what one deserves. In his impassioned plea to the Philippians, he wrote, “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more…as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” In other words, Paul was as confident in his religiosity as anyone. Yet, when confronted with the gospel, he threw it all away: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:4-8). Blinded by the light of Christ, Paul discovered that, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, he had been set free from the expectations of what goes around comes around, and he spent the rest of his life sharing the good news of God’s grace with the world.

By invoking the concept of karma, the Starbucks tip jar was a light-hearted way of inviting customers to consider whether their charity would come back to them. As far as I could tell, it was in no way intended to be a religious statement. It was merely fun and playful, but to me it was yet another indication that the world still trusts the old philosophy of just desserts. Like a barometer of grace, that jar was a sign to me that even in Salt Lake City—or perhaps especially in Salt Lake City—the good news of Jesus Christ needs to be proclaimed. And what is that good news? That God’s love for us is not a reflection of what we do—good or bad—but is purely reflected in what God has already done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of his son.

Christianity is the only faith that I have found that is built upon radical unconditional love—a concept which we call grace. Grace is the belief that we do not get what we deserve. Grace is the belief that what goes around does not come back around. Grace is God’s way of telling the world that his love has no limits. As long as people still believe that God rewards those who are good and punishes those who are bad, we will have work to do, which is to say that we will have work to do until Jesus returns. The good news, though, is that our work is delightful. What could be better than telling others that they are loved no matter what? That is good news indeed.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Lectionary Beef

As regular readers of this blog can tell you (hi mom!), I use this venue to take out my frustrations with the lectionary authors on a regular basis. This Sunday is one of those occasions, but, this time, my critical focus isn't only cast upon the authors of the RCL but also those of us in the Episcopal Church who approved switching to the RCL several General Conventions ago.

First, let me recap the gospel lessons for the last few Sundays:

  • June 7 - Mark 3:20-30 - Jesus called Beelzebul and questioned as crazy by his own family
  • June 14 - Mark 4:26-34 - Jesus likens the Kingdom of God to a man scattering seeds & the mustard seed in particular
  • June 21 - Mark 4:35-41 - Jesus gets in a boat and stills a storm
  • June 28 - Mark 5:21-43 - Jesus gets back in a boat and heals two women
  • July 5 - Mark 6:1-13 - Jesus is rejected in his hometown and sends out the disciples
  • July 12 - Mark 6:14-29 - Jesus is confused for John the Baptist by a guilt-ridden Herod
Notice a pattern there? We're making out way through Mark. It is, after all, Year B in our three-year cycle. It makes sense, therefore, that we would enjoy what Mark has to say about the growing and developing ministry of Jesus.

And what happens this Sunday? We bring the momentum to a screeching halt, offer a piecemeal selection of gospel texts, and (in my not-so-humble opinion) waste a Sunday in order to build an artificial bridge toward the "I am the bread of life" discourse in John, which will be the focus of the next several weeks.

Here's what I mean:

This Sunday we have Mark 6:30-34, 53-56. Notice the gap--the big, huge gap. Jesus isn't just going around in a boat, hopping from place to place, as this week's story would give us. There are two important stories we skip over--the feeding of the 5,000 and the walking on the water. In the old BCP lectionary, the former would be the lesson for this Sunday--Mark 6:30-44. And we'd get the latter in the following week. Both are stories shared in other gospel accounts, but this is our chance to hear what Mark has to say about it. By the time the RCL gets back to Mark (not until August 30!!!), we'll be into Mark 7, and these stories will be long gone.

I think I know what the RCL is trying to do here. Like the BCP lectionary, it has several weeks in a row from John 6 right in the middle of Year B's summer. And, I suppose, in the authors' minds it makes sense to let the feeding of the 5,000 be John's version (that's what we get next week in the RCL) rather than Mark's version. But I think this is a mistake on three fronts.

First, as I've ranted about above, Mark has a particular story to tell, but we don't get to hear it. He's the Joe Friday of gospel editors. He gives us "just the facts, ma'am." His stories are unpolished but also unblemished. They are plain. They are refreshing. Go back and read Mark's version of the two miracles we will skip. All the sentimental attachment and conjured up symbolism is left to the reader to insert. John is more heavy-handed than that. I like Mark, and I regret that we don't get to hear him on this.

Second, we are left with only one reading of the walking on the water in the whole three-year cycle--even though the miracle appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (It shows up in Year A in Proper 14.) The RCL doesn't think it's as important--maybe because it's too "magical." I really don't know.

Third, and most importantly for this Sunday, we are left with a gospel lesson that proclaims what--that Jesus invited the disciples to rest for a while? that he was popular and couldn't escape the crowds? that he was a compassionate shepherd? (Oh wait, we've already had Good Shepherd Sunday!) The problem with these piecemeal passages is that they were never supposed to stand on their own. They are connected with the passages around them--the passages skipped by the RCL. As a result, we are asked to preach (or listen to a sermon) on a text that lacks real substance.

And, no, I'm not a fan of switching back to the BCP as General Convention authorized in 2012. As much as I prefer the BCP lectionary, I spoke against that and voted against it because I believe that, unless really special circumstances demand otherwise--the kind of special circumstances that require the approval of a bishop--all of us should have the same texts every Sunday throughout the church. So we're using what we've got. I'm just praying for preachers out there--and for those who will listen to them.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

No Guilt in Gospel

July 12, 2015 – The 7th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
The audio of this sermon can be heard here.
It’s easy to throw Herod under the bus. Scripture doesn’t give us many reasons to admire him. He’s a lustful, spineless traitor who served the Roman Empire instead of the Jewish people he claimed to rule. As we read in today’s gospel lesson, he was not only bad enough to marry his brother’s wife, but he allowed his niece and stepdaughter to seduce him. In a drunken and shallow display of power, Herod foolishly offered the temptress anything she wanted—even half of his kingdom. And, when she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter, rather than tell her “no” because he knew that John was a man of God, he caved. He didn’t want to look bad in front of his guests. He had made a promise, and he couldn’t afford to back down, and so he had an innocent prophet of the Most High executed to fulfill the blood-thirsty demands of his unholy bride. Like I said—not much to admire.

But Herod’s story isn’t as simple as that. Even though he isn’t portrayed as a sympathetic character, I find myself pitying the man because, even though he wasn’t willing to stand up for what is right, we read that he lost sleep because of his cowardice. When Jesus became famous and word of his preaching and healing spread, people began to wonder where this man from Galilee got all this power. Could he be John the Baptist? Could he be Elijah? Is he a prophet like those of old? Herod, however, didn’t need any convincing. He knew. He knew without a shadow of a doubt that God had brought John the Baptist back from the dead just to punish Herod for what he had done. Irrational and ridiculous though that may seem, to Herod it was absolutely real. That’s what unresolved guilt can do to a person. And, even though this story sounds like it belongs in a soap opera, if you scratch the surface of real life, you’ll discover that it isn’t very far from the truth.

Guilt is a powerful motivator and a crippling force. I have seen grown men, who are beheld by the world as successful, upstanding members of society, crumble in tears because of the guilt that plagues their lives. I have listened to women explain how decades later they are still haunted by guilt from the graves of their disappointed mothers and fathers. An octogenarian on his deathbed once told me that God had punished him for his entire adult life because, as a nineteen-year-old, he felt that he was called by God to be a missionary but had refused to answer that call. I have been that quivering, tearful mess of guilt. You have, too. Parents use guilt to get their children to behave. Children use guilt to get what they want from their parents. For all of human history, religions have used guilt to motivate the masses and collect revenues from the faithful. But, today, I want to tell you that Jesus Christ came to earth and died on the cross so that you would never need to feel guilty about anything ever again. And anyone who says otherwise isn’t preaching the gospel.

As anyone familiar with the passive-aggressive tendencies of polite southern society can tell you, guilt is a formidable tool, but, as any good therapist will confirm, it always leads in the wrong direction. Instead of affirming, guilt destroys. Instead of making us better, guilt wears us down. Guilt is built on conditional statements. It is the “if you are a good son…a good daughter…a good person” that keeps us agonizing over whether we have done enough. Guilt says, “I will love you if…” and “you don’t deserve my love unless…” Guilt is expressed as shoulds and oughts. It is the voice of authority—whether that of the teacher or the minister or even the perceived voice of God himself—that says, “Thou shalt do this or else.” It is the overbearing mother who says, “Now, what you need to do is this.” And it is the always disapproving father who says, “What you should have done is that.” Guilt is the inescapable, unsatisfiable, unbridgeable abyss of “you’re not good enough.” And that’s exactly why it’s contrary to the gospel.

The remarkable truth proclaimed in the story of Jesus is that, in God’s eyes, we are good enough. God hates nothing that he has made. God desires not the death of sinners but rather that they should turn to him and live. God united himself to human nature in the incarnation, taking onto himself all that was broken and wrong with our race. He did so out of love—reckless, unrestrained love. The inevitable consequence of that God-initiated union was our rejection of that love, and so we killed his Son by nailing him to the cross. But that was not the end of the story. God reached out with a love that triumphs over even our very deepest sin, and, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he proved once and for all that we cannot separate ourselves from God, who loves us without limit. The union he forged with us through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son is truly unbreakable.

Don’t get me wrong: we are sinners—every single one of us. Yes, God loves you no matter what, but that doesn’t mean you’re not a wretched, miserable sinner just as bad as Herod. (You are, and so am I.) What I’m telling you today is that your sin isn’t the end of the story.

When we come face to face with the totality of our sin and the magnitude of God’s love, one of three things is possible. We can deny our sin and continue on a path that spirals further and further away from the abundant life that God is trying to give us. Or we can deny God’s love and allow our failures to amass exponentially until we are crushed by guilt. Or we can accept both the fullness of our failures and the fullness of God’s forgiving love and, in so doing, be remade by God into the children he is calling us to be.

God is not asking you to wallow in your sin. God does not want you to make a big show of how sorry you are. Your guilt will buy you nothing. In fact, guilt is really just a sign that you refuse to accept that God’s love is bigger than your sin. Guilt means that you aren’t willing to move on even though he’s asking you to do just that. Yes, confront your sin. Yes, take a long, hard look in the mirror. Yes, fall onto your knees and confess to God the totality of your brokenness. But don’t do that because you think God is waiting on you to muster up some tears of remorse before he’ll grant you forgiveness. Do that in order to let go of your sin and the guilt that comes with it. You are already forgiven. In Christ, God has already bought your redemption. Confession is merely our way of realizing that fact—of staring out at the abyss and seeing that God is looking back at us with open arms.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Write It Down

I don't know a lot about Amos, but I do remember that the prophetic image of the plumb line was a substantial contribution to prophecy. We read about that plumb line in the Track 2 readings for Sunday in Amos 7:7-15. In a heavenly vision, the Lord says to Amos, "Tell me what you see!" and Amos replies, "I see a plumb line." As the passage continues, I get a little lost in the application of this metaphor. Neither Amos nor the Lord ever really explain what the plumb line represents or why God is using it as a means of judgment against his people, but people with any sort of carpentry or masonry background can probably figure it out.

The Lord's plumb line was being held beside a wall--an image that suggests that the Lord is assessing whether the wall was built well or poorly. The assessment is never announced, but the judgment that follows suggests to me that Israel's wall was in trouble. Walls, of course, were a means of security--the barrier that kept the opposing tribes and armies out. If the wall is not built plumb, it can easily be toppled using its own unbalanced weight against it. Amos has come into the midst of God's people to announce that their security--the Lord--was being withdrawn from them. Doom and gloom he announced even to the leaders of the nation. "What sort of prophet are you?" they asked Amos, questioning the boldness of this unknown figure. And Amos replied, "I am not a prophet--just a dresser of sycamore trees."

People make bold predictions all the time. Sports analysis pick the underdog. Aging would-be prophets decry the direction of society and predict its imminent demise. Onlookers at General Convention speculate that the bishops will elect someone other than Michael Curry. (I guessed Ian Douglas.) Why? Because audiences marvel when the long-shot guess turns out to be right, and no one remembers when the long-shot guess turns out to be wrong. It doesn't cost a lot to pick the loser. No one makes a big fuss because the expected winner has won and nothing needs to be said to those who chose the underdog. But if the underdog should happen to win...

Amos wasn't really a prophet. He didn't have an audience or a following. He was just a vinedresser to whom the Lord spoke. Why should we listen to him? Why bother paying attention to the unheard of little guy who is saying ridiculous things? Where did he come from? What does he know?

The only reason to write down such a prophecy is if it comes true. As Israel lay in ruin and its people had been carted off in exile, the voice of Amos was remembered. "I guess he was right," the priests and leaders said to one another. "Maybe we should have listened to him. Maybe we should write all of this stuff down so that our children's children's children don't make the same mistake we did."

In a time of substantial religious and social change, I hear lots of predictions. Some claim that gay marriage will be the unraveling of society. Other are sure that, in fifty years, we'll look back and wonder how anyone ever stood in the way of marriage equality. Some believe that the institutional church cannot survive the secularization of society. Others believe that now is the moment when the church is needed most. Some predict that the widening gap between rich and poor will lead to unprecedented unrest in our country. Others predict that the strength of our richest investors will safeguard our nation for generations. Who's right?

Prophecy is about learning from the past--not guessing for the future. Prophets are never fully appreciated in their own age. (That's what makes them prophets.) We aren't supposed to like what they say. And, if we all knew that they were right, we wouldn't need prophets in the first place. Instead, prophets are those fringe teachers and preachers who stir up our consciences in the moment and then leave us scratching our heads decades later. So what do we do about it? We write it down. Take note of the different voices that fill the airwaves. You don't necessarily need to buy into everything you hear (please don't!), but you should probably make space in your mental journal of the bold things you encounter. In a few years, you might find their predictions preposterous or prescient.

As people of faith, we are called to look for God's guiding hand--where is he leading us and who is he calling us to be? Read Amos. Hear John the Baptist. Remember Isaiah and Jeremiah. Listen to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Adam Smith and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Listen to the would-be prophets of our own day and prepare to learn from them. We might not know the answers now, but the truth will become clear in time.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Holy and Blameless

Sometimes in church we have lesson that I think needs to be read twice, and this Sunday's reading from the opening lines of Ephesians is one of those lessons.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved...
We are blessed. God has blessed us. God is blessing us. We are chosen. God has chosen us. God is choosing us. We are destined for adoption. God has destined us to be his children. God is setting us apart, according to his good pleasure, as his beloved, blessed, chosen children. What amazing, hopeful, wonderful news! I need those words to sink in a little deeper. I need to sit with them a little longer. I need to hear them again.

In my culture and context, Christianity's engagement with the world is primarily pointing out how the world is unholy and worthy of blame and condemnation. Even though I'm an Episcopalian, I feel guilty going to the liquor store or parading around the grocery store with beer in my cart, worried that an ecumenical partner might stare at me with the glare of criticism. Our congregation has become a home for several divorced persons who were battered by their fundamentalist congregations. The religious atmosphere in this portion of the Bible Belt suggests--sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly--that addiction is the result of lacking faith, that illness can be traced back to moral failures, and that family struggles are tied to breakdown in discipleship. Into that context, I feel a deep need to hear these words proclaimed from loudspeakers and written on billboards and preached on street corners.

That isn't to say, however, that God's love isn't transformative. God has chosen us "in Christ before the foundation of the world," but we were chosen for a purpose--"to be holy and blameless before him in love." I can't speak for the fundamentalists, but I still need God to do some work on me before I qualify for that. I am not the holy creation God has made me to be. I am not the worthy servant he has called me to become. I am still a wretch--not because of my beer or my divorce or my addiction or my pride--but because I am all of that together--because I am human.

This Sunday, I'm preaching on repentance. I'm preaching on the messy, emotional rollercoaster of sin and redemption. There is good news to share: we are chosen by God to be holy and blameless. There is good news to share: we are chosen as sinners to become those holy, blameless disciples of Jesus Christ. There is good news to share: we are not there yet, but God is working on us right where we are.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Leaving Expectations Behind

July 5, 2015 – The 6th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9B
Ezekiel 2:1-5; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Several years ago, my parents rearranged their kitchen. I still have not forgiven them. Where the cups were, spices are now kept. Where the plates were, flour and sugar are to be found. The cabinet where I grew up looking for cereal now has the plates and bowls in it. Our family doesn’t go to Fairhope often enough for me to have learned the new layout. Every time I need something, I end up opening three or four cabinets before I find what I am looking for. And, with all due respect to my parents, that just isn’t fair. I might only visit once or twice a year, but it’s still home, and home is the place where everything is supposed to be exactly the way I left it. In an ever-changing world, home is the one place where everything is supposed to be just the way you expect it to be.

Plates and cups aside, returning home does bring us right back to where we were, doesn’t it? The other day, our family went to Birmingham for a short visit, and I watched how Elizabeth subconsciously fell back into the routines of her childhood and adolescence. It would be an overstatement to say that her personality changed, but it did shift ever so slightly, and I felt like I was watching a side of my wife that belonged in a time and place that came before I was a part of her life. I do it, too. When my brothers and I get back together, we fall into the same roles we fulfilled when we were teenagers. I boss everyone around. Stewart rolls his eyes. And Andrew tries to keep the peace. You do it, too. Everyone does. When I see families come together for a wedding or a funeral, I watch men and women in their sixties start acting like they are little kids again—bickering, bossing, and blaming.

The inexorable pull of familiarity sucks all of us into its transformative grasp. We do not choose to become our former selves. It just happens. We have a role to fill—a role that meets our expectations and those of others. And everyone else has a part to play, too—typecast from the formative years of childhood. The family system, more than any other, is designed for stability. It resists all substantial change. And, so, anyone who tries to break free of the bonds of expectations is molded back into place. It’s easier that way. The expectations that we inherit from the system of our origin—that system we call home—are too powerful for us to resist. Deny it if we want, when we go home, we still become the people we are expected to be. There’s nothing anyone can do about it—not even Jesus.

Mark tells us that Jesus came back home with his disciples. As was his custom, on the sabbath he went into the synagogue and began to teach, but his words were like nothing the people had ever heard. “Who is this?” they started to mutter to one another. “Is that the carpenter’s son—Mary’s boy?” “No,” another one said, “That can’t be right. No one from around here ever spoke to us like that!” “Who does he think he is, coming in here all high and mighty from the big city?” another objected. “He should know better than that. A country boy like that has no business coming in here like he owns the world. He’s forgotten his roots. He’s forgotten that we don’t talk like that around here.”

Jesus, Mark tells us, offended the residents of his hometown. The neighbors, the aunts and uncles, the family friends, the ones who had watched this curious boy grow up in their midst refused to accept what had come home to them. And Jesus couldn’t do anything about it. “He could do no deed of power there,” Mark reports, “except lay hands on a few sick people.” This time, back at home, the roles were reversed. Usually, the crowds were amazed at Jesus, but this time Jesus was amazed at their unbelief.

“A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown, and among his own kin, and in his own house,” Jesus declared, acknowledging that even the Son of God could not shake the expectations of those who had known him since birth. So what did he do? He left and never returned. According to Mark’s gospel account, this was the last time that Jesus came to his hometown, and it seems he wasn’t interested in looking back. There wasn’t anything for him to do among those who thought they knew who he was. Their expectations had shackled his ministry, so he left them behind and went on to find new possibility.

Jesus teaches us that, like him, we cannot encounter the transforming power of God if we are stuck in a familiar place—a place where our expectations or those of others hold us back. It is no accident that the story of Jesus’ rejection at his hometown is followed immediately by the sending out of the disciples. Notice what he says to them. “Go,” he says. “Go out two by two, and take nothing with you—no food, no bag, no money, no change of clothes or shoes. Just a staff in your hand and the clothes on your back. And when you go, go with the authority to bring the good news of repentance and transformation to everyone you meet. And trust that everything you need is already out there waiting for you. So go!” Those are Jesus’ words to us as well.

Consider, for a moment, the art of the cross-country road trip. Few things are as distinctly American as getting into a station wagon and driving for a solid week in the same direction. Of course, there are any number of ways to get from here to there, but the real benefit of such an expedition is not merely arriving at one’s destination. If you only wanted to get to the other side of this continent, you’d be better off flying. But how could you take in the unanticipated variety of our nation from 30,000 feet? The power of the road trip is not knowing what will come around the next bend, not knowing exactly where you will lay your head at night, not knowing where you will eat your next meal or how far it is until the next gas station. The uncertainty heightens the senses. Every road sign, every detour, every exit on the highway is charged with possibility. If you over-plan your trip and over-pack for every eventuality—well, you might as well not even leave home. You’ll be so busy making sure that you stick to the schedule and use all the right equipment at just the right time that you won’t notice this great nation passing you by. Even if you venture away from home, if you take all of your expectations with you, you rob yourself of the power that this great land has to free you from them. The same is true for our discipleship.

As the church, we are standing on the cusp of a great and exciting yet terrifying journey. Jesus is sending us out into world with the good news of repentance and transformation. He’s sending us out into our neighborhoods and into our shopping centers and into our schools. He’s sending us out into city centers and rural villages. He’s sending us out into coffee shops and movie theaters and parking lots and grassy meadows. He’s sending us out to preach and teach and share that good news in person, in print, and in social media. But it doesn’t take a genius or a Pew Research Center study to tell us that we haven’t been doing a very good job of taking the good news of Jesus Christ out into the world. Instead, we’ve spent the last century or more sitting at home in our pretty church buildings with our pretty liturgies and our pretty music and our pretty preaching waiting for the world to come to us. But how well has that worked? Well, it’s time for us to throw out that logic and get off our duffs and head out on a great missionary journey that leaves all of our expectations behind.
Take no bread, no bag, no money in your belt. Take no prayer books, no bibles, no Sunday school classes, or sermons. Take only the life-changing story of Jesus Christ and God’s love for the world. We cannot assume that we know how to package the gospel story for a world that we barely recognize. We are setting out on a journey that will take us to places we do not know. As the church, we must leave our expectations at home. We cannot worry about how we will get the job done. Those worries belong at home—where everything is just the way we think it should be. If we are going to experience the transforming power of God’s good news and share it with the world, we cannot stay here where we are comfortable, where we are known, and where we know what will come next. Jesus is sending us out with nothing more than the clothes on our backs. He’s asking us to leave everything else behind. It’s a scary thought setting out like that, but, if we stay here, nothing will change. And Jesus didn’t come to perpetuate our expectations. He came to set us—and the whole world—free.

The Grief of Grace

Sunday’s lesson on the beheading of John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-29) is one of the great tragedies of the New Testament—not only because of the death of a great prophet but also because of the Shakespearean nature of the death. Herod was angry at John for publicly criticizing him for taking his brother’s wife as his own, so he had him imprisoned. But there was something about the prophet’s message that fascinated Herod, so he kept him around for a while. Then, one night, during a booze-fueled dinner party, Herod promised his attractive, seductive stepdaughter (and niece!) anything she wanted, and, after consulting with her mother, demanded John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Grieved by the choice but unwilling to embarrass himself in front of his guests, he ordered that John be executed, and the prophet/martyr died because of the collective pride of a drunken man and a cruel woman.

What in the world can we learn from a tragedy like this? I could craft a sermon condemning any number of sins—pride, lust, greed, gluttony—but that seems to sell this passage short. This is more than a morality tale. It’s a psychological thriller.

The opening lines set the stage as an intellectual drama instead of a simplistic teaching: “[Of Jesus], some were saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’”

This is a story about guilt—not a cautionary tale but an investigation of its cause and profound effect. Herod was so consumed by the untimely, unplanned death of John that he jumped to a ridiculous conclusion—that Jesus’ prophetic and powerful ministry was God’s way of punishing him for his misdeed. So beautiful was the flower that he cut down that the memory of it haunted him every day. So clear and kingdom-coming was Jesus’ ministry that Herod knew in his bones that God was coming to get him.

There’s a quickening associated with Jesus and his ministry that seems old-fashioned and unpopular in the twenty-first century. Confronted with the gospel, the burden of our sin is brought to the surface. We know that Jesus is here to proclaim God’s love and to reconcile us to the Father through his death on the cross, so it perhaps surprises us to feel that Jesus’ presence draws our guilt and shame and remorse up from the recesses of our subconscious. Why is that? It’s called repentance.

The gospel is not a Get Out of Hell Free card. Forgiveness and salvation are costly—just ask the one who died on the cross. Yes, God’s love is unearned. We call it grace because it comes to us without price. But, when that free love or grace works its power on us, it exacts an emotional price. It calls us to repent. It calls us to reject our sinful selves. It calls us to confront the totality of our misdeeds and accept the darkness of our humanity in search of something better.

Herod isn’t a good guy. He doesn’t repent. There’s no dramatic conversion. But in this tale we see the seeds of repentance being sown in his heart. Jesus’ ministry had an effect on him—an agonizing, excruciating effect. May we pray that the same would happen to us on the path to forgiveness and the redeemed life.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Keeping Some Perspective

Today was, indeed, a big day for the Episcopal Church. At General Convention, the House of Deputies (lay people, deacons, and presbyters/priests) voted to restructure the church in some substantial ways. By approving those resolutions, we have sent them to the House of Bishops for their debate and approval. We also considered two resolutions on marriage, and we concurred with the House of Bishop's actions to approve them, which means that they have now offiially been adopted by the Episcopal Church. As one deputy said from the floor, he had already been offered the sacraments/sacramental rites of Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, and Ordination, but now he finally was allowed to participate in marriage. I cannot imagine how anyone could deny that this is a big deal for our church and for individuals like him.

In the midst of all this much-deserved excitement, I would like to highlight a few things that may not be apparent to those people who are not present at General Convention--interested individuals who may be watching the webcast or reading about this in the news or on social media. I believe that these less evident observations are very important for the whole church to keep in mind.

For starters, what did we do? We concurred with the Bishops on two resolutions: A054 and A036. The first focused on permitting "trial use" of several liturgies that are written to offer marriage to same-sex and opposite-sex unions. The second changed the section of our canons that defined marriage as the union between a man and a woman, replacing gender-specific language with references to "two people." Yes, there's a lot more to it--like changing the language we use when asking couples to sign the Declaration of Intent--but those are the basics. Here's a little more about what that means.

The use of the phrase "trial use" pulls from Article X of the Constitution of our church. That article has to do with amending the prayer book. Yes, that means that these liturgies are being used with the idea that someday they might be added to the prayer book, but there are no current plans to amend the Book of Common Prayer (1979). That takes acts of two consecutive General Conventions, and there are no proposals being considered to that effect at this Convention. We could use these liturgies for 3 years, 6 years, 15, years, 90 years before considering whether to make them part of an amended prayer book. That part is uncertain, but what is certain is that, for now and for at least the next six years, the prayer book will look just the way it has--with a service of the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage that still refers to men and women, husbands and wives. 

Yes, that means that our church is living in two conflicting principles of canon law. The canons say "two persons," and the prayer book, which is part of our Constitution, says "man and woman," but we've decided to live with that ambiguity. I don't think it will result in any substantial conflict or Title IV (disciplinary proceedings) actions.

Resolution A054 also makes it clear that no one will be penalized for his/her support of these actions or for his/her objection to them. That's very important. It means that clergy--including bishops--and lay people alike will not be discriminated against because they are pro-same-sex marriage or because they are against it. The resolution makes it very clear that this is because our church is still not of one mind (even though the resolutions pased roughly 80/20). There is and will be a place at the table for those who disagree. That was very important. I think it changes the nature of this conversation. I am grateful to those who overwhelmingly support same-sex marriage for remembering to leave room for their brothers and sisters who disagree.

Keep in mind that it does not necessarily mean any change for our diocese. As before, the use of these liturgies is subject to the permission of the diocesan bishop. In our case, that is Kee Sloan. He has already expressed to the deputies from Alabama that he will not immediately make any change to the policies currently active in the Diocese of Alabama. Instead, he will reconvene the Commission who addressed the issue of blessing same-sex unions for conversation and advice. That meeting will be a few months away. Until then--and possibly after--there will be no same-sex marriage in the Diocese of Alabama. I support our bishop in the intentional and deliberate and patient way he is approaching this. Another part of the same resolution calls upon all bishops with ecclesiastical authority or supervision to make sure marriage is available to all their people. Again, that is conflicting language. No, the bishop doesn't have to offer the liturgies, but, in my opinion, the resolution does suggest that he should not attempt to stand in the way of parishioners seeking marriage in other juristictions. (I would also argue the same thing should be true of the clergy in our diocese, but that's anoter point for another day.)

Lastly, let me say that the disagreement in the House of Deputies was extremely respectful. Dioceses and deputies who are opposed to these resolutions were heard without any bitterness or resentment from the rest of the House. There was no applause when the resolutions were passed--no matter how jubilant many deputies must have felt in their hearts. Why? Out of respect for our differences of opinion. Those who spoke against these resolutions expressed their appreciation for the manner in which the debate was conducted. In the midst of great passion and great disagreement, love and respect and mutuality carried the day. I applaud those in our house for the spirit of unity with which our disagreements were discussed, and I hope and pray that unity will prevail throughout the wider church.

In the coming days and weeks, I may have more to say about this. For now, though, I wanted to share with others a little bit more about what is happening in these conversations. I remain hopeful for our church and am proud of the way today's debate was held.