Monday, September 28, 2015

Hardness of Heart

And all the RCL preachers just looked at this Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 10:2-16) and thought, "Uh oh. I wonder if I could preach a sermon on the Old Testament text."

Let's not beat around the bush. Here it is. It's what we're dealing with. On Sunday, like it or not, we are going to hear Jesus say, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." Boom. Drop the mic. Exit, stage left.

I don't know about you, but, as a preacher who often stands in the pulpit in front of many divorced and remarried people, my instinct is to start looking for explanations. Divorce isn't the same now as it was then...In that culture, divorced women would be particularly vulnerable...Jesus says lots of hyperbolic things like 'if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off'...Let's talk about the little children at the end of the lesson instead.

As a preacher and as a student of the bible, there are two divergent directions that I feel the need to explore. First, how might this text not really mean what we think it means? Would a twenty-first century Jesus who knew how divorce works in our lives still say the same thing? Are there cultural barriers that we can't see through that might otherwise change the tenor of this difficult text? And, second, what if this text means exactly what we think it means? What if divorce and remarriage is the same thing as adultery? What if our church has been mistaken in allowing the remarriage of divorced persons for the last several decades? I'm not actually preaching this week, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't wrestle deeply with this text before Sunday.

Over the coming days, I'll explore these in more detail, but, for now, here are some mitigating and aggravating points that will guide my thinking between now and Sunday:
  • Matthew gives us the infidelity exception, which Mark leaves out. Does this matter?
  • When is a marriage not really a marriage? We don't use annulments in our church, but the principle might still apply. Surely Jesus doesn't want an abusive relationship to persist.
  • What is adultery anyway? Given Jimmy Carter's admission in his Playboy interview, maybe we need to worry less about divorce and more about fidelity.
  • Given the Pharisees' question and the ensuing argument, in which Jesus and his opponents cite two contradictory passages in the Hebrew scriptures (Genesis 2 and Deuteronomy 24), might this passage be more about the nature of marriage as a spiritual union than the regulations regarding divorce?
  • When Jesus says that the law (Deut. 24) was written because of their "hardness of heart," is he prioritizing a "spiritual" law over a "practical" law? Does this change how we read the Old Testament?
  • Why does Mark follow up with the bit about receiving the kingdom as a little child? How is this teaching on divorce related to the teaching about children?
  • Should the church have a much clearer and more distinct theology of Christian marriage (as opposed to secular/legal marriage) and get out of the wedding business except when the couple understands their marriage to be primarily an image of God's love for the world? How do we distinguish between the two (other than, perhaps, what Jesus says about divorce)?
As you can see, there's lots of work to do. Prayers, indeed, for preachers and congregations a like.

God's Transforming Call

September 27, 2015 – The 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
I’m not sure you’ve noticed, but a guy named Francis has been in the news lately for having made his first-ever trip to the United States. Thousands and thousands of people have flocked to see him—even if only to get a glimpse of his Fiat motorcade as it buzzed down the highway. And those of us who haven’t left our homes to try to get a peek at the Bishop of Rome have seen video clips of him laughing with the President and addressing Congress and the United Nations and stopping his car to bless a disable child on the side of the road. All of us seem to love him. It doesn’t even matter whether you’re Catholic or even Christian. Our whole nation has caught Francis Fever.

Perhaps that’s because, in a refreshing sort of way, Francis seems to transcend the politics that usually dominate our media coverage. And he does so by making everyone happy and everyone angry all at the same time, ensuring that no one is able to claim him as their own. To the delight of liberals and the fury of conservatives, he regularly calls for an end to human-caused climate change, for a solution to the refugee crisis, for the redistribution of wealth to benefit the poor, and for the abolition of the death penalty. And, to the delight of conservatives and the fury of liberals, he refuses to legitimize same-sex relationships, to revisit the role of women in the church, to accept the remarriage of divorced persons, and to loosen the church’s position on abortion or birth control. In short, he’s managed to infuriate both Rush Limbaugh and Gene Robinson, and that’s saying something. And, given that he’s the successor of St. Peter, the rock on which our Lord built his church, maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that Francis sounds as hard to pin down as Jesus himself.

If ever there was a gospel lesson that portrays a Jesus who is kind, gentle, and accepting and, at the same time, stern, harsh, and condemning, it’s this one. It starts with John—yes, John, our patron saint—who gets all upset that someone else is using Jesus’ name to cast out demons. Perhaps those of us who call St. John’s our church home can identify with our namesake, who wasn’t about to let an outsider get away with using his master’s reputation for his own exorcizing purposes. “Teacher, we tried to stop him,” John explains, “but he just wouldn’t listen.” But instead of intervening as John had hoped, Jesus looks at John and said, “Why does that make you so upset? No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. If he’s not against us, he’s for us.”

What a remarkable and unexpected philosophy for a religious movement: whoever is not against us is for us! John, on the other hand, embodies our instincts, which are exactly the opposite. Those of us who have walked with Jesus as his disciples expect others to do the same. If you want to call yourself a Christian, you’d better be a follower of Jesus—like us. Who do you think you are using the name of Jesus, which is to say our brand, to suit yourself? Stop wearing that cross necklace just because everyone else is. If you want access to Jesus, get in line with the rest of us. People like us know what it really means to be a Christian. You can’t just do whatever you want; you’ve got to do it our way.

But Jesus says no. His movement isn’t exclusive. You don’t have to do it his way. He refuses to stop anyone who’s having success. He refuses to turn anyone away. He isn’t worried that someone will misrepresent who he is and what he stands for. He trusts that anyone and everyone who encounters the power that he represents will be transformed by that power. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Sure, try it your way. If it works, great. If not, try something else.” It’s that kind of openness and accepting spirit that makes the Jesus movement distinct.

But don’t confuse “if it works, great” for “anything goes” because, when it comes to following Jesus, those aren’t the same thing. Jesus might not mind it if you find him by your own path, but, once you’ve found him, he has pretty high expectations for what your life should look like. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off…If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off…If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God [maimed or lame or blind] than to be thrown into hell.” Those aren’t the words of a gentle teacher who lets his pupils get away with whatever they want. They’re the words of a prophet who means business.

Jesus might welcome anyone into his company, but that doesn’t mean that his company is for everyone. Anyone is welcome, but that doesn’t mean that anything goes. Jesus has such a high understanding of God’s kingdom that, instead of letting us adapt it to fit our lives, he forces us to shape our lives completely according to the principles that the kingdom represents—principles like sacrifice and humility and holiness. On these he is uncompromising. The bar for admission is as low as the ground itself, but the standard for participation is through the roof. Many are called, but few are chosen. Everyone is invited, but only a handful belongs. I remember Jesus saying something about it being easier to squeeze a camel through the eye of a needle, but maybe he was just joking.

But with Jesus, it’s always good news. The good news is that God welcomes everyone into his kingdom. God loves everyone—the whole world—unconditionally. No matter who you are or what you believe or what you’ve done, God loves you perfectly and completely. But the rest of the good news is that God isn’t going to leave you where he found you. Jesus said, “No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” Jesus knew that there is irresistible power in his name. Anyone who comes into contact with that power must be transformed by it. The same power that grabs us wherever we are transforms us into full citizens of God’s kingdom. The same power that rescues us from our life’s dead end recasts that life into one befitting God’s kingdom.

The good news is for everyone. If you’ve never heard that God loves you no matter what, let that unconditional love fill you from top to bottom. And, if you’re familiar with that good news but recognize that it still needs to reshape you into the disciple Jesus is calling you to be, then submit again to the power of Jesus’ name. Call upon him and be transformed. Give yourself again to Jesus and let him shape you into a child ready for the kingdom. No matter where you are, God is calling you. And, no matter where you are, God isn’t going to leave you there. God has bigger plans for all of us.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Too Much or Too Little

In a good week, I start this blog on Monday with some frustration--either at the lectionary or at the texts themselves. On Tuesday I ask some questions about how everything is going to fit together. Wednesday I usually write about the Daily Office or whatever feast is being observed at our midweek Eucharist. Then, at last, on Thursday I pull things together and give a glimpse of what Sunday's sermon will be like. This is not one of those weeks.

It's Thursday, and I still can't make sense of Mark 9:38-50.

In this relatively short passage, Jesus (or perhaps Mark) takes us in so many different directions:
  • "Whoever is not against us is for us." Great text for evangelism and the church's future.
  • "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones..." Powerful warning about getting in the way of the faithful.
  • "If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off..." Terrifying words about the reality of sin.
  • "For everyone will be salted with fire." Wait, what?
  • "If salt has lost its saltness, how can you season it?" Encouraging words for living deeply in the good news.
Rather than preach on all of those (nightmarish situation for all involved), my instinct is to pick one of those and run with it. (Or perhaps I'll abandon ship and preach on the reading from Numbers and shared ministry.) But I worry that it is unfair to the congregation, which will hear Jesus say, "Cut off your hand and pluck out your eye or else you might not make it to heaven," to preach on "Do not stop him...if it he isn't against us he's for us." What do you think? Does the preacher do the congregation a disservice by pretending they aren't still thinking about chopping off their sinful parts when she or he is explaining the importance of a non-confrontational, orthpraxy-before-orthodoxy approach to building the following of Jesus?

Yesterday, Steve Pankey wrote a great piece on the significance of sin, and his post deservedly was picked up by the Christian Century. In it he addresses head on Jesus' hyperbolic but not metaphorical remedy for sin, arguing that, while Jesus doesn't actually want us to cut off a limb, he does want us to, in a very real way, cut of that which causes us to sin. It's a great focus on that part of the passage, but what about the rest? Must we essentially ignore the first half of this gospel lesson?

I think there might be a connection. When in doubt, go back to the text. Part One: Man casting out demons in Jesus' name without committing to follow him; disciples angry; Jesus hopeful. Part Two: Jesus warns disciples not to get in the way of discipleship; gives hyperbolic teaching on sin. Part Three: Jesus refocuses on the universality of judgment and exhorts all to remain true.

What is sin? Is sin that which separates us from the community (think mystical communion) of God? Might sin be that which makes it impossible for us to take our place in the kingdom?

I don't know what it's like to walk into a new group of friends with a disability--a missing hand, leg, eye, or otherwise--but I wonder whether Jesus' instruction to the disciples about cutting off that which causes them to sin is a refocusing of our theology of sin. Could Jesus be saying, "Your participation in my movement (God's kingdom) isn't dependent on whether you look normal on the outside but on whether you belong to me?" Might that be the reason he jumps from the man casting out demons without following him (seeming outsider but actually part of the movement) to cutting of the sin-causing limb?

I really don't know. Thursday isn't a good day for an exegetical stretch. Maybe I need to put down my hope for preaching too much and accept that it's better to preach too little.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Calling All Sinners

In our parish, we elected to observe the Feast of St. Matthew today (9/23/15), using the option presented on BCP p. 17: "Feasts of our Lord and other Major Feasts appointed on fixed days, which fall upon or are transferred to a weekday, may be observed on any open day within the week."

It's one thing to minister to sinners. It's another thing to put them in charge.

Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Matthew, the tax collector whom Jesus called to be a disciple. Imagine, if you will, what that symbolized to his contemporaries. Tax collectors were Jewish individuals who worked for the Roman Empire to collect revenues from the citizenry. Keep in mind that no one liked the Romans. They were the unholy occupiers of this Holy Land. At times, they used brutal tactics to quell any rebellion in this far-away province of the Empire. Revenues were crucial, and everything necessary was done to ensure that the money kept flowing to Rome.

Paying taxes to Caesar, using a coin that had a forbidden graven image of the semi-divine emperor and an inscription that declared that emperor's eternal reign, was itself an act of faithlessness for Jews. Remember the episode in which some Pharisees asked Jesus whether it was lawful (in the Jewish sense) to pay taxes to Caesar (Matt. 22:15-22). It was, in effect, a Catch-22. Refuse to pay and the Romans would brand you a traitor and lock you up. Pay the taxes and your own religious authorities would declare you unfaithful. What must it have been like, therefore, to serve as the agent of Rome who takes all the taxes from his people and then delivers them to the evil overlords?

On top of that, consider that tax collectors were inherently dishonest. They were paid a commission on what they collected. Squeeze more from your fellow Jews, and your family lives well. Develop a soft spot in your heart for your peers, and your family struggles. No one had anything good to say about a tax collector. But that's exactly who Matthew was. He was, by definition, a cheat and a thief. He was Jewish but could not show his face in religious gatherings. He was hated. He was despicable. He was a slimy, creepy, Roman-sympathizer. He was the very definition of sin. And he is exactly who Jesus called to be one of the twelve.

It is controversial when a minister spends time with notorious sinners. If I developed a prayer breakfast for loan sharks or a bible study for drug dealers or a dinner group for prostitutes, I think it would raise eyebrows. If I started a "take a meal and a bible to strippers" ministry, I would have some explaining to do. But what would it mean if I invited someone like that to be our children's minister or teach a bible study or serve on the Vestry? What if I made a notorious sinner my right-hand-man or right-hand-woman? Can you imagine?

Jesus called Matthew to be a disciple (Matt. 9:9-13). "Follow me," he said. Immediately, Matthew got up from his tax booth and followed Jesus...right to dinner with a bunch of tax collectors and other sinners. The Pharisees were appalled. "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" they asked the disciples. And Jesus replied, "I have come not to call the righteous but to call sinners." Notice that language. Jesus isn't just ministering to the sinners. He's not just offering them a healing touch or a moment of his attention. He is surrounding himself--inviting into discipleship, establishing his ministry, and building God's kingdom--with sinners like Matthew. In calling a tax collector to be his disciple, Jesus showed us that his ministry isn't for sinners it's of you and me.

If we are committed to continuing the ministry of Jesus--if we call ourselves Christians--we must stop reaching out to the outcasts as if they need our help and start identifying ourselves in their company. We are the tax collector. We are the prostitute. We are the loan shark and the drug dealer. Christian discipleship is not based upon a model of inviting sinners to choose holiness before following Jesus. It is the sinner who does the following. Christianity is not for good people because being a Christian is not about being good. Being a Christian is about being a sinner whom Jesus has called to follow him. We do not choose holiness. God, who is holy, chooses us. Jesus, who is holy, chooses us. It is his choice of us that makes us holy--not our choice of him.

We, the church, are not the antidote for sin. Coming to church will not make you holy. Saying your prayers will not make you holy. Reading the bible will not make you holy. Being nice to other people and treating them the way you want to be treated will not make you holy. Following Jesus will not make you holy. Jesus Christ alone can make you holy. That is good news. We, the church, are not inviting people to embrace a life of holiness. We are spreading the good news that Jesus Christ is inviting sinners like us to follow him right into God's kingdom.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

That Rabble!

Among the many threads that has stretched through the lectionary readings over the past several months is that of grumbling or complaining. Back when we were stuck (interminably) in the "bread of life" discourse I grumbled about having to preach on the same thing for weeks in a row, but, in those readings, we heard about the Israelites grumbling in the wilderness as they searched for food and Jesus' contemporaries grumbling about how he identified himself as "the bread that came down from heaven." Even the disciples grumbled or complained (same word in Greek) about this difficult teaching. All that whining, and we're still not through with it.

This Sunday, now reading from Numbers 11, we hear, yet again, that the Israelites wept because they did not have any nice food to eat--only the heavenly manna: "If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at." They were sick of manna, and I might be sick of reading about it, but Moses was sick of dealing with it. Described in the NRSV as "displeased," he approached the Lord and said,
Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,' to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, 'Give us meat to eat!' I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once--if I have found favor in your sight--and do not let me see my misery.
Moses preferred death to continued subjection to the people's grumbling. Anyone else in ministry ever felt like that? Anyone ever felt like God had laid the burden of a difficult people on his or her shoulders? Anyone ever prefer escape at any cost over repeated confrontation with an unhappy rabble?

God's solution, of course, isn't to kill the Israelites or mercifully take Moses' life. Instead, he tells Moses to gather seventy elders of the people together so that God might take some of the Spirit that had been placed upon Moses and redistribute it among the others. This first part of this lesson is also one of options for the first reading at a priestly ordination, which make sense--being an elder means sharing ministry. And the fact that the sharing of the spirit was real not only in a psychological manifestation of shared authority is expressed in the prophecy of Medad and Eldad, who missed the meeting but still managed to receive a share of God's spirit. For us, then, we must ask to what extent ministry and the authority and responsibility that come with it must be shared, and we must seek God's real and actual help in redistributing that Spirit-given power.

This morning, I had a conversation with a parishioner who recalled a conversation he had with another rector several years ago. At the time, he and his wife were new to the Episcopal Church, and, curious about our church's polity, he asked the rector, "Who is in charge of this church?" The response of the rector, as relayed to me in the story, was "I am." We joked about that for a little while--me always conscious of how that episode might have been repeated in inexplicit ways during my own tenure--and eventually I confessed to the parishioner that I'm still learning about that.

I've been ordained for over nine years now, and I've served as a rector for almost four of those years, but I am only just beginning to learn to focus on the parts of my vocation--my calling--that are unique to priestly ministry and to let everyone else be in charge of everything else. The obvious point is that I should spend less time chairing meetings and working on budgets and more time preaching, teaching, presiding at worship, anointing the sick, hearing confessions, and the like. Shared ministry isn't supposed to start when we're fed up with the congregation we serve. It should begin from a place of health and mutuality. It should be rooted in each of us discerning what specific gifts we have been given, what authority has been entrusted to us, and how God is calling us to serve.

Moses got help at his breaking point. God was faithful and made it possible for his ministry to continue successfully. But why would we wait until we're ready to run away or hide under our desk in the fetal position before we find ways to ask God to share his Spirit of leadership and authority with others?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Who Draws the Line?

For the most part, Jesus is a nice guy. Whether you call your self a Christian or identify as an agnostic or claim to be a full-on atheist, I think we can all agree that Jesus shares a lot of good humanist ideas worth following. Welcoming the outcast, preaching non-violence, caring for the needy, and practicing humility are all laudable tenets anyone would be glad to emulate. Usually, Jesus says things that are easy to cozy up to. Even if they're radical, counter-cultural teachings like "turn the other cheek" or "to save your life you must lose it," his words are attractive at their core. So when he opens his mouth and lays down a threat, pointing a finger of condemnation at any who would cross him, it gets my attention.

This coming Sunday, we will hear Jesus say, "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea." If Jesus gives an ultimatum like that--if Jesus predicts the consequences of disobeying him to be more dreadful than execution by drowning--we'd better pay attention.

But what is he talking about? Why this stern warning? This is Jesus' response to one of his disciples who was worried that someone outside their company was using Jesus' name to cast out demons. "Teacher, we tried to stop him," John explains, "because he was not following us." John has a traditional, in-or-out, membership-based approach to discipleship, but Jesus takes a pragmatic approach: "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us." Notice the power of those words. As is so often the case with how God works, it is the opposite of what we expect. If you're not against us, then you're for us. The circle of exclusion isn't drawn by those on the inside as if to segregate themselves from the masses. The line in the sand is drawn only by those who except themselves from the ministry--as if to say, "I don't belong." The implications for the contemporary church are staggering.

Jesus explains that those who do a feat of power in his name will find it difficult to stay in opposition to his movement. That makes sense, and today's church leaders shouldn't forget it. If someone appeals to the name of Jesus--in prayer, in meditation, in crisis, in jest--and experiences the power of that name, they won't soon be able to speak evil of it. The message is practice first, comprehend second. In this case, Jesus' approach to evangelism is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." That suggests to me that we should be purveyors of Jesus' name and not merely gatekeepers for congregations.

How often does the church say to someone, "I'm sorry, but you can't do it that way?" You must pray the way we pray. You must worship the way we worship. You must believe the way we believe. We try to help people "get it right" because we know from experience that our way of doing/being church is beneficial. Hearing the word faithfully preached and participating in the sacraments faithfully administered is crucial to developing a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ. We want people to come and join our churches. That's how we measure success in discipleship. Although I might not be ready to give up on the importance of "average Sunday attendance," I wonder whether Jesus would look at the way we try to bring people into his company and warn us that we're in danger of suffering a punishment worse than having a millstone hung around our necks and being cast into the sea.

There is great power in Jesus' name. Who are we to attempt to restrict the use of that name and the power that goes with it to mechanisms we have approved? When we say to someone, "If you want to be a real Christian..." or "If you want to be sure you'll go to heaven...," we're guilty of placing stumbling blocks in front of people who may already be on the right track. The church should worry less about its own survival and more about sharing the name of Jesus with the world. If the power of Jesus is real in a person's life even if that person never darkens the door of a traditional church, we must believe that God has already grabbed onto his/her heart. Tell people about Jesus. Stop worrying about whether they go to church. Soon, no one who has experienced the power of Jesus will be able to speak ill of him. If you're not against us, you're for us.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Afraid of What?

Sometimes scripture lessons contain little lines that mean a great deal but escape my notice because they are not central to the passage. Perhaps, after I've preached on the lectionary texts long enough to mine every decent story or point of analysis I can muster, I'll turn my focus to these little throw-aways, but, for now, they seem mostly hidden.

This week, when we read Mark 9:30-37, we'll hear Jesus predict his passion and death, and we'll hear the disciples argue with one another about who is the greatest, and we'll hear Jesus tell them that they must become servant to all, and we'll hear Jesus pick up a little child and urge us to invite the simplest among us into our midst. But we probably won't hear the bit about the disciples being afraid to ask Jesus a question.

As a part of my daily spiritual disciplines, whether I am preaching or not, I read the lessons for the upcoming Sunday and listen for what the Spirit might say to me through them. Today is Thursday, and I've had four days now to read this short passage from Mark, but today is the first day that I really noticed the line that reads, "But [the disciples] did not understand what [Jesus] was saying and were afraid to ask him." Afraid? Really? Afraid of what?

School work has always come pretty easily for me, so, when I asked the teacher a question that seemed obvious to everyone else, my peers often thought I was showing off. Actually, I'm an external, aural learner--I need to say it to know it. Still, when I write a sermon, I say the words out loud in order that I might remember them. Because of that, I am shocked to read that the disciples--Jesus' closest followers, those who had given up their lives and left their homes to go wherever he went--were afraid to ask Jesus what he meant. What's the worst that could happen? Would he yell at them for being a little slow on the uptake? Would he fire them as disciples? Would he curse them out of existence?

Yet, at the same time that I find myself amazed at the disciples' reticence, I understand it deeply. How could they ask him what he meant? This was important stuff. This was central to Jesus' identity. They could tell that it mattered a great deal. For them to ask about it was to admit that they did not know who he really was. To say, "Jesus, we don't get it," felt like saying, "Jesus, we don't believe in you." Of course, that isn't true.

Sometimes I am afraid to ask a question because it shows my ignorance. But even more than the best teacher or parent, God already knows how much I don't know. And he loves me anyway. Jesus knew that his disciples were struggling with his messianic identity. He knew that God's upside-down logic of a savior who was rejected and killed wouldn't make sense to them. Maybe that's why he stops to bring a child in their midst--as if to show them he was patient enough for even the simplest questions and to invite them also to be like children and come to him with more questions than answers.

Don't be afraid to ask God all of your questions--the tough ones, the obvious ones, the skeptical ones, the angry ones, the disappointed ones, and the "stupid" ones (whatever those are). If you don't understand who God is or how Jesus' life and death and resurrection mean that God has already saved you even from death itself, don't be afraid. Just ask. Keep asking.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Wasting Jesus' Death

For the second Sunday in a row, we will hear Jesus predict his passion and death, and, again, Mark will pair that prediction with an embarrassing display by the disciples. It seems like the RCL knows that it's football season in SEC Country and wants to be sure that everyone has a chance to hear this tough teaching.

Last week was full of firsts--Peter was the first human being (rather than demon) to identify Jesus as the Messiah and, in reply, Jesus predicted his death for the first time. Unable to comprehend Jesus' radically unexpected, totally unconventional description of messianic identity, Peter rebuked his master (shame, shame!), and Jesus rebuked Peter right back, saying, "Get behind me, Satan!" This week (Mark 9:30-37), the RCL skips over the Transfiguration and the dramatic healing that follows it and jumps straight to Jesus' second passion prediction. (There are three in Mark, and the third will come on October 18.) And this time, instead of Peter sticking his foot into his mouth, it's the whole group of disciples, who embarrass themselves with seemingly no understanding of who Jesus is or what it means to follow him.

After a day of walking together, Jesus asked the disciples, "What were you arguing about on the way?" And like children "they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest." This time, Jesus' corrective strategy was different. He could have shamed them all by rebuking them: "What do you mean, 'Who is the greatest?' Haven't you been paying attention? Don't you know what I've been saying? Don't you even know who I am?" But their silence suggests they've already learned half of the lesson, which is not to boast. The other half--the part that eluded Peter last week, too--is making a connection between a life of total humility and God's principle work in the world.

For once, I want to applaud the authors of the lectionary for putting these two weeks' gospel lessons back together to make a point I wouldn't have seen as clearly. (You may be interested to know that the 1979 lectionary offered a choice last Sunday to read either the Transfiguration or Peter's confession but followed up with the same lesson as in the RCL this week.) Jesus' messianic work is to suffer and die and be raised again. Our Christian work is to follow him down a road that leads to death of self and new life in him. That's nothing new. But putting these two episodes next to each other reminds me how hard it is to understand that...and how hard it is to convey that to a congregation of success-driven, money-focused, cafeteria-lifestyle people like me.

Life gets in the way. We get in the way. Our first response is to refuse to follow a messiah whose fate is a shameful death. "This cannot happen to you, Lord!" we all exclaim. But Jesus forces us to accept the reality of his fate. About the time we are willing to accept Jesus' path for himself, our second response is to deny that path for ourselves. "After Jesus suffers, dies, and rises again, I wonder which one of us will be the greatest in his kingdom," we think in one form or another. But, of course, that is another example of missing the point--of wasting Jesus' death.

If we believe Jesus' death is limited to a particular moment in history, then we've forgotten what it means to follow the crucified one. There's a reason the principle image of our faith is the cross instead of the empty tomb. Yes, Jesus is the resurrected one, but he's first and foremost the one who suffered and died. His death and our union with that death is still our entrance into God's kingdom. His death was not an accident of history. It wasn't merely a reflection of the authorities' unwillingness to accept his message. It is his way. It is how God works. His humble, suffering, emptying is the method of God's work in the world. And, therefore, it must become the focus of our work in the world, too.

We waste Jesus' death if we relegate it to a moment from the past with no influence or power today. Yes, as a particular moment in time, his death set us free from sin once and for all. He does not die over and over. We are already reconciled to God. That reconciliation, however, must continue to shape who we are. It has affected us and must continue to affect us. His death is as unexpected an illogical to us as it was to his disciples. Accepting it--both its past reality and its present influence--is a daily struggle. It is the life of the Christian.

Final Words

This post originally appeared in The View, the weekly parish newsletter for St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, AL. To read the rest of the newsletter and find out more about our parish, click here.
Yesterday, someone at Rotary stopped me to say, “I’m really glad to see you here…because the last two times I’ve seen you have been at funerals.” We both chuckled a little bit at that macabre realization. He was right: I have been to several funerals lately—some as an officiant and others as a member of the congregation. As you might expect, in my line of work, I take part in a good number of funerals. Although our parish only holds ten or so a year, I try to attend the funerals of parishioners’ parents or other loved ones if possible as a way of reminding them that they are loved and prayed for by our whole parish family.

There are as many different ways to say goodbye to someone and give that person into God’s care as there are people on the earth. Each faith tradition, each congregation, and each family all have their own rituals for burying their dead. An ancient practice—perhaps, as the recent archeological discovery of a pre-human graveyard deep within a cave will attest, even more ancient than humanity—we rely on ritual to help us say and do what needs to be said and done in our moment of grief. Ranging from militaristically complex to childishly simplistic, all of our traditions pretty much boil down to two basic truths: we loved the one who has died and we must now let that person go. As you can imagine, however, finding the right balance between saying “I love you” and saying “goodbye” can be difficult.

Frequently, as I help a family prepare for a funeral, most if not all of them belong to another denomination. As a way of reassuring them that we will take good care of their loved one and their whole family, I explain to them that, in my opinion, our church does as good a job of burying the dead as anyone. “We recognize and memorialize the one who has died,” I say, “but we focus primarily on God’s promise of new life both for the person who has died and also for the whole Christian community.” In other words, we spend more time looking forward than looking back. Yes, we remember the life and witness of the one who has died, and, yes, the message of God’s promise of everlasting life is articulated specifically within the context of that person’s life and death, but our funerals have more to do with Jesus than with the person lying in the casket. In my experience, that is the key to stepping away from a moment of grief with seeds of joy and hope that ultimately overcome even our most painful losses.

When Jesus came to the tomb of his friend Lazarus, he wept. Despite having power over life and death, the Son of God shed tears of sadness at the grave of one he loved. Why? Because even though he knew that Lazarus would rise again, Jesus was moved with grief at the death of his friend. Similarly, the tears we cry at a funeral are not shed in despair or desperation but in recognition of the earthly loss of one we love. Nevertheless, the overriding sentiment appropriate for a funeral is that of joy. As the explanatory note to our burial liturgy states, the service reflects “the certainty that ‘neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’”

There is a reason why, during the service, we cover the casket with a pall instead of a spray of flowers. There is a reason why no flowers other than those on the altar are present in the church during the funeral. There is a reason why no one other than the clergy will deliver a eulogy (actually a “homily” or “sermon”) as a part of the liturgy. There is a reason why we do not allow an individual to sing a solo at a funeral. The reason is because, in the eyes of God, we are all the same. Essentially, as the old saying goes, our ritual is the same “for a prince or for a pauper.” God’s promise of everlasting life is made to all of us regardless of who we are, how we have lived, or how much we are loved by family and friends. God’s love is bigger than our lives, and God’s love is bigger than our deaths. Therein lies our true hope—our only source of joy in the midst of sadness.

Some people find our burial office particularly impersonal or rigid. I, for one, find comfort in knowing that the liturgy is bigger than any one of us—that its solemn grandeur reflects the not the quality of an individual’s life but the magnitude of God’s promise to defeat even death itself. In our moment of deepest need, when we bid farewell to one we love and deliver that person into God’s loving arms, what more could be said?

Monday, September 14, 2015

Hard Wood of the Cross

I'm a little foggy about the details, but I remember a seminary professor celebrating the three prayers for mission that were added to the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer in the 1979 version of the Book of Common Prayer in place of the prayers for the President and Those in Civil Authority, for the Clergy and People, and for All Sorts and Conditions of Men. Although the use of the Daily Office in public worship has waned considerably in the Episcopal Church, those prayers are worth knowing and saying on a regular basis, and, on Holy Cross Day, I'm drawn particularly to the third prayer for mission in Morning Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, who didst stretch out thine arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of thy saving embrace: So clothe us in thy Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know thee to the knowledge and love of thee; for the honor of thy Name. Amen. (p. 58)

Those words echo the gospel lesson for today (John12:31-36a), in which Jesus says, "Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." It is a remarkable missionary vision to hold the crucifixion of the messiah as the means by which all people are united in the one faith and worship of the one God.

On the one hand, the crucifixion was a sign of defeat. As Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian wrote, the story of Jesus as the Messiah is plausible...except for the fact that he was crucified by the Romans. That one detail, in his estimation, made the entire gospel story unbelievable. No one worships an executed rebel. If Jesus' movement to free Israel from the bondage of Rome had been successful, which is to say worth buying into, he wouldn't have died at the hands of those he had come to defeat. Clearly, the gospel--namely the resurrection on the third day--has something else to say about that.

Add on top of that the absolute repulsive horror than a crucifixion represents. Nails driven into body parts. Sun-baked and burned flesh. Gasping a wheezing. Coughing up blood. Helpless misery on full display--and by full display I mean totally and completely naked display. Crucifixion was gruesome for a reason: it was to warn any other rebels not to cause trouble in the Empire. Now, I like to rubberneck at a car crash as much as the next guy, but I couldn't stand to watch a crucifixion. It would push me away. Yet, in God's kingdom, the very horrible event of the cross is that which draws us in--indeed draws us to the crucified one.

As followers of the crucified one, we celebrate his death as much as his resurrection. Partly that's an acknowledgment of the humility and perfect sacrifice that was offered by Christ on the cross (see Philippians 2). But it's also more than that. The cross and our veneration of it is a recognition that the exaltation of the messiah could not unite all peoples without first breaking down the ethno-religious barriers that separate us. The Jewish expectations for a Messiah--one who would defeat the enemies of Israel--could not become the hopes for Gentiles without the cross. The cross is God's way of saying God's victory is universal. Otherwise, we get a noble Jewish king who rules in power but cannot draw all people to himself.

Celebrate the cross. Celebrate the reversal of our expectations. But, as you celebrate the cross, don't fall into the same trap. God's victory alone can unite all people. It is not our victory. The cross made us sure of that.

Just Keep Coming

September 13, 2015 – The 16th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here. 
Just keep coming. Whatever you do, don’t stop coming to church. It might not make sense, and you might not feel like it, and it might even hurt to do it, but, please, no matter what, don’t stop coming to church.

Like most people, I don’t really know what to say to someone in a moment of tragedy. How can any words address the magnitude of a devastating loss? But people far wiser than I am have told me that the most important thing I can do is to remind people in a crisis that they need to keep coming to church. That’s not because church is the place where we get the answers to those unanswerable questions, nor is this the place where anyone has words that can make our pain go away. We come to church because this is the one place in our lives where it’s ok to be wounded and to ask questions that don’t have answers. There is something about simply showing up here that fills a void that rational thoughts and platitudinous pats on the back cannot heal.

But tragedy isn’t the only reason people have unanswerable questions. How is anybody supposed to make sense of God in the twenty-first century? Science is increasingly able to answer our many wonderings about the origins of the universe and life on this planet. How do we reconcile those academic explanations with a faith that is built on primitive propositions? How can we be intelligent, educated, thoughtful human beings and still make sense of things like the virgin birth and the resurrection and the promise of eternal life—all things we affirm every Sunday in the Nicene Creed? Even more basic than that, how can we believe in an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God who stands by and lets children starve and refugees drown and violent, evil individuals kill thousands of innocent people every day? How in the name of God am I supposed to stand up here and tell you that you’re supposed to believe all of the things that the church holds to be true when the world around us seems so far from the kingdom God has promised us?

My answer is the same: just keep coming to church. Keep showing up—not because I have the answers for you. I don’t—far from it. But in your searching, in your skepticism, wherever you are, whatever questions you cannot find the answers to, I urge you to keep coming to church because being a Christian isn’t about understanding all the answers; it’s simply about following Jesus. And I believe that, as we follow him down the road ahead of us, wherever he might be leading, we learn to trust and believe even in those things that we do not understand.

Today’s gospel lesson is a real turning point in Mark’s gospel account. There are sixteen chapters in Mark, and this episode occurs right in the middle. The first eight chapters are stories of Jesus’ miracles and teachings—each providing further evidence that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God—the Messiah, the savior, the one who can deliver God’s people from bondage and set them free in the new life of God’s kingdom. The last eight chapters are a steady climb toward Jerusalem and the culmination of Jesus’ earthly life that awaits him there—his death on the cross and resurrection on the third day. This moment in Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do the people say that I am,” and the truth finally comes out is literally the pivot around which the whole book of Mark turns.

“Who do the people say that I am?” Jesus asked his disciples. They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others say one of the prophets.” Jesus was fishing for an answer. Mark wants us to see that the crowds were aware that Jesus was a truly remarkable religious figure. But then Jesus shifted the focus away from the crowds and bore down right on his disciples. “But who do you say that I am?” he asked them. And Peter replied, “You are the Messiah.” And, as simple as that, in a flash of epiphanic lightning, for the first time, a human being (rather than a demon) acknowledged who Jesus really was. For the first time, the Holy Spirit helped Peter put all of the evidence together so that Jesus could be identified as the one whom God had sent.

And then what did Jesus do? He sternly ordered his disciples not to tell anyone about it. How puzzling! This newfound truth must not be shared. It must be treasured quietly, privately, until Jesus’ messianic work was done. And what was that messianic work? “…[to] undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Now, whether we understand it or not, we know that part of the story. For us, the passion and death of Jesus is inseparable from his identity as God’s Son. But, for his disciples and for the rest of the Jewish world, the thought of the Messiah undergoing suffering, being rejected, and being killed was anathema. It was unthinkable. It did not make sense. It could not be understood.

These strange, incomprehensible words filled Peter with confusion and frustration and concern, so he stepped in and rebuked his master, saying that this terrible fate could not belong to God’s Messiah—a very reasonable conclusion indeed. But just because something didn’t make sense to Peter and the other disciples, doesn’t mean that it didn’t make sense to God. Jesus looked at his bumbling, earnest right-hand man and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things but human things.” The moment of realization had come and gone. Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Messiah. He had acknowledged the greatest truth in the history of humanity, but the reality of that truth still escaped him. For all his faith, Peter still could not see the implications of his confession. He could not believe what Jesus was asking him to believe. There was still much work to be done. There was still a long journey ahead before all the pieces would come together.

As they left this climactic encounter, Jesus pulled together his disciples with the crowd and said to all of them, “If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Notice that he did not say, “If you want to be my disciple, go off somewhere and study all that I have said and done until it makes sense to you.” He didn’t tell them, “You must understand me before you can follow.” Instead, he invited them to let go of themselves—to put down their own needs for certainty—and pick up the burden of walking behind him. Follow me. Walk with me. Journey with me. In time, the unbelievable truths of the gospel will make sense—not in your minds but in your hearts.
That is Jesus’ invitation to all of us. Come, follow me. Following Jesus is how we accept the things that we want to believe but cannot comprehend. It is how we give ourselves over to a truth that we cannot understand. Journeying with him is how we let go of our needs for rationality and explanation and logic and comprehension. This is not a journey of the mind. It is a journey first of the feet and then of the heart. Through his Son, our savior, Jesus Christ, God is inviting all of us to be faithful. That doesn’t mean that he’s asking us to understand precisely what it is that we confess or to comprehend the great, unfathomable mysteries of our faith. No one can. Instead, God is asking us to be faithful—to show up, to keep coming to church, to keep walking beside the Christian community as we journey together behind our Lord wherever he leads us. It is the journey itself that shapes us into a people of faith. It is putting one foot in front of the other—of showing up and saying our prayers—that makes it possible for us to give our hearts even to something our minds can never understand. So, whatever you do, don’t stop coming. Keep coming to church until your heart belongs to God.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Peter's Epiphany

Generally speaking, in the church there are two kinds of commemorations--people or events. We remember people whose lives are a testament to holiness. Don't get me started on a theology of sainthood, but, in the style of the New Testament authors, I understand all Christians to be "saints" or, literally, "holy ones." Perhaps all people have a witness worth remembering, but some people seem to have the sort of witness that resonates across cultures and generations, and so we put a date on the calendar to remember them. The other sort of remembrance is an event--sometimes a post-biblical event like the Consecration of Samuel Seabury. (Note that we're not commemorating the first bishop of the Episcopal Church but the fact that he was consecrated as the first bishop. There's a big difference.) But most of our event-specific commemorations are taken directly from the biblical story: Christmas, Easter, Epiphany, the Visitation, the Transfiguration, etc..

This Sunday--like all Sundays--is a commemoration of the resurrection, which is, of course, a pretty big deal. In our church, there are rules over what other commemorations can take the place of a Sunday, and there aren't many of them (only six, if you exclude those that always fall on a Sunday or, in the case of Ascension Day, on a Thursday). So, when I say that this Sunday is just a Sunday, I don't mean that lightly. But we're not commemorating anything else...except, that in our gospel lesson, we read a story that has its own commemoration.

The Confession of St. Peter, which we will read about in Mark 8:27-38, has its own feast day (18 January, which happened to be a Sunday in 2015 but isn't reckoned as important enough to take the place of the regular Sunday observance and so was transferred to the first convenient open day in the week.). That is a really long way of saying that it's a really big deal. Think of all the gospel stories you like--healings, walking on water, stilling the storm, etc.. How many of them get their own day in the calendar? The aforementioned big ones do, but most of the ins and outs of the gospel don't merit a special commemoration. This moment--Peter's confession--is so remarkable...perhaps other-worldly...that we stop everything once a year and remember the story. (Plus the other times it comes up in the Sunday lectionary--around this time of year twice every three years.)

What's the point? The point is that this pivotal moment in the gospel (notice it comes right in the middle of Mark's 16 chapters) isn't just a moment of Christological realization. It's a heaven-sent miracle of clarity. Matthew's version of the story recalls Jesus saying to Peter, "Flesh and blood have not revealed this to you but my father in heaven!" (Matthew 16:17). This kind of insight--this epiphanic moment--isn't the product of Peter's careful study but a lighting bolt from heaven. He didn't put all the pieces together. God put all of the pieces together and gave Peter an insight that even Peter himself didn't expect.

Don't forget about what happens next. Jesus orders the disciples to tell no one and then goes on to predict his passion, death, and resurrection. It is no accident that, in response to this image of messianic suffering that Peter steps in and rebukes Jesus for saying this. Think about that for a second. Peter acknowledges that Jesus is the Messiah and then takes him aside and rebukes him. Those two things cannot go together, but they happen just like that as a sign that Peter's heavenly epiphany still required some earthly synthesis.

What is our response to this gospel story? Have we been given a glimpse of who Jesus is yet still haven't understood what that glimpse really means? Do we call ourselves Christians but still need to learn what it means to be a follower of Jesus? I know a lot of people (including me) who have these sorts of Petrine moments--revelations that start something but still have a long way to go. On Sunday I'm preaching about this gap between insight and deep knowing because I hear Jesus' words "take up your cross and follow me" as an invitation to discovery. Like Peter, we must walk the road to truly know what it is that we have confessed.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Constance and Her Companions

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

When you think of a nun, what comes to mind? For me it's a strange mixture of The Blues Brothers and EWTN and the sisters I know at the Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman. In other words, it's a little bit penguin, a little bit rosary, and a lot of nice--but all Catholic. Many people do not know that there are nuns and monks in the Episcopal Church and throughout the Anglican Communion. While not nearly as numerous or prominent in secular culture (or sacred culture, for that matter), Episcopal nuns, like their Roman Catholic counterparts, live in community and take vows particular to their order. In a very deep way, they give up their lives in the service of our Lord.

A week ago today, we celebrated the Martyrs of New Guinea. They were the eight Anglican clergy, teachers, and missionaries who, faithful to their bishop's instruction, remained at their post despite the Japanese invasion of the island in 1942. Along with over 300 other church workers killed in New Guinea, they died for their faith--martyred because they refused to run away in the face of danger.

Today we celebrate the Martyrs of Memphis, who, like their counterparts from the South Pacific, refused to run away in the face of danger. This time, however, the invading army was microscopic. In 1878, a yellow fever epidemic broke out in the Mississippi Valley. Spread by mosquitoes--a fact not known back then--once the virus arrived in a warm, wet place like Memphis, it spread like wildfire. By the end of the outbreak, an estimated 20,000 people died along the Mississippi River, including 5,000 in Memphis. Anyone of any means left the city for higher ground, where it was known to be safe. So many people left that the City of Memphis was officially disorganized, and it would not reconstitute itself for another fourteen years.

Although everyone with financial resources left the city, the poor stayed behind to die. Even though they knew the danger, they could not relocate themselves. And so they waited. And they were infected. And they became sick--violently ill with flu-like symptoms, blood-filled vomit, kidney and liver failure, which resulted in jaundice (hence the name "yellow fever"). With all of the city's professional class having evacuated, who would take care of these dying people? Who would stay behind and ease their suffering, hold their hands, and dispose of their remains? The nuns did.

Constance was the first Anglican nun to die of yellow fever in the 1878 outbreak. She and others with her accepted a dismal fate so that they might care for those everyone else had left behind. Although not cut down by machine guns or burned on a pyre, these women, who had already pledged their lives to the Lord, gave even their life for the Lord's work. Today, we remember their sacrifice and ask how God is calling us to do the same.

Jesus said, "Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life." When is a hyperbole not a hyperbole? Might Jesus really mean what he says? I'd like to invite you to reconsider what it means to hate one's life--to lose it for the sake of the gospel. Step back away from the abstraction and the metaphor and the exaggeration and consider the literal reality of giving up your life for Jesus' sake.

No, you likely won't be asked to take a bullet for Jesus. And, no, you probably won't find yourself in the path of the machete-wielding soldiers of ISIS. I doubt you'll have to run into a fiery building to save a toddler. But, still, I believe that Jesus is asking you and me to give up our lives for the sake of the gospel. I don't know when or how that opportunity will present itself, but it's something to consider well before the moment arrives.

Today, conscious of the witness of the Martyrs of Memphis and mindful of Jesus' words, I feel called to consider my own life as less valuable than that of others. As a follower of Jesus, my life must be last. I must be less important than the yellow fever victim. My life must be less valuable than that of the victims of gun violence. My claim on my own life must be smaller than that of a starving mother or a AIDS-ravaged father or a drowned Syrian refugee. How is that possible? By immersing myself in the gospel truth that my life has value not because of how I live it but because of God's love that extends beyond it.

It starts with commitment. No one becomes a nun because she expects to die in a pandemic. No one becomes a police officer because he expects to die in the line of duty. No one becomes a Christian because she thinks she will be martyred one day. But we do become Christians because we are willing to follow Jesus--even unto death. Remember that your life counts not in this world but only in the next. Remember that what you have and what you do and how you live will not matter in the grave. Only God's love--a love stronger than death--really matters. Commit yourself to that love. Allow your life to lose its comparative value. Allow yourself to count for less than everyone else. Make that a daily practice. And, so, be prepared to die--really, actually, physically die--for the sake of the gospel.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Tautological Prayer

I live with a three-year-old, which means I am routinely subjected to a logic that defies reason. When asked why he hasn’t done a particular task, he provides an answer that, judging by the confidence in his voice and the certainty on his face, makes perfect sense to him, but with words that leave the rest of us scratching our heads. When asked about his day at school, his stories are rarely easy to follow, often leading us down a wandering path with many turns but no clear destination. He is still learning the nuances of the English language, so he regularly says the opposite of what he means—me: are you sure you don’t need to go to the bathroom? him: No!—which confuses anyone who is not accustomed to his own reversed logic.

Of all my son’s peculiar patterns of speech, one seems to have captured the hearts of everyone in our family and many others in our congregation. With unrestrained enthusiasm, he proudly declares something, which the rest of the world understands as obvious, as if it were a discovery worthy of publication in a leading scientific journal. “Guess what!” he will say to a total stranger in the grocery store; “I have a mommy!” To anyone who might be listening, he will declare, “I’m three, so I’ll be four on my birthday.” With no apparent appreciation for the ridiculousness of his statement, he will announce to the family, “When I get dressed, I will be wearing clothes.”

The other day, he said something along those lines and stared up at me as if I were supposed to say something in response. He repeated himself, again waiting for my reply, so I looked at him and said, “That is a tautological statement—an argument that cannot on its face be refuted and thus actually says nothing.” So he went and found his mother and said the same thing to her instead. My son’s tautologies—self-evident declarations—flooded into mind the other day when I read Psalm 37, and I wondered to myself whether the psalmist used that logic on purpose.

In a familiar prayer that reminds the reader to “wait patiently upon the Lord,” the psalmist declares in verse 4, “Take delight in the Lord, and he shall give you your heart's desire.” Think about that for a moment. To take delight in something means to take great pleasure in it—to enjoy it, to look forward to it, to relish it, to desire it. If I take delight in the Lord, how can the Lord not give me my heart’s desire? That way of thinking is a little like me telling my children that they can have whatever they want to drink with dinner…as long as what they want is milk. Sometimes nuances get lost in translation, but I think the logical certainty of that theological statement was clear to its author, which makes the invitation all the more powerful. God will give us whatever we want as long as we want what God will give us.

What do your prayers sound like? What do you say to God? Lately, my children have been teaching me a thing or two about prayer. As a part of our nightly routine, each member of the family is invited to name something or someone for which we might pray. (Sound familiar?) The requests are simple: for my family, for people who are sick, for a good week. These prayers are not demanding or instructive, as if to inform God what it is that God needs to do. Instead, they are simple, and their simplicity invites God to work in our lives and in the lives of those we love in ways that we can see and feel and know. The truth behind those prayers, of course, is that God will do God’s work regardless of our intercessions, and we pray in order that we might recognize that work. That principle might be obvious—even tautological—but within it is remarkable power.

Prayer doesn’t change God; prayer changes us. God is not a first responder, who waits by the phone in case someone in need should call. God knows our needs even before we ask him (Matthew 6:8). In other words, God is already at work before we are even aware that a need for God’s intervention exists. Regardless of our ability to see it, God’s plan of salvation is always unfolding all around us. Prayer is one way for us to seek a deeper understanding of that plan. In its purest form, prayer is an attempt to align our hearts and minds and wills with God’s perfect saving work in the world. It is our attempt to take delight in the Lord so that we might want that which God is already giving us.
Strip away the complexity of your prayers. Let go of any need to rationalize for yourself or for God the desires of your heart. Trust that God is at work in ways that surpass your ability to see them, and believe that God’s blessings will always surpass your ability to ask for them. Allow prayer to be a way for God to draw you closer to himself instead of a way for you to bring God closer to what you want.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Teaching Profession

I used to think that I wanted to be a teacher, but then I read the lessons for this coming Sunday. In Isaiah 50, we hear of a teacher's miserable fate: "The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher...I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting." James warns those who think of becoming a teacher to think again: "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness." If that weren't enough, Jesus takes time to explain to the disciples the core of his mission and message only to be rejected by his closest followers: "Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again...And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him." This Sunday seems to be about teaching, but I don't like what it says.

Teaching is hard in any context. Have you ever had teach a fifth grader how to read? Have you ever tried to get general chemistry into the mind of a thick-headed eleventh grader? On top of that, we pay the women and men who teach our children a ridiculously low sum and give them funding that isn't sufficient to get the job done. (Here's an interruption for a political side note. Think your local schools need improvement? Wish better teachers worked in our schools? Want our nation's economy to be built upon the brightest minds in the world? Let's raise taxes until we can double the salaries of educators and fully fund our schools.) Teaching is difficult in the secular world, but it's also tough in the sacred sphere.

Religious teachers are called upon to convey the truths that people find most difficult to hear. They are the counter-intuitive, fly-in-the-face-of-human-logic principles upon which religion is built. God chooses the least to become great and the weak to become strong. If you surrender a tithe of your first fruits, you will discover blessing. If you make alliances with your unholy neighbors, you will become a weaker nation. If you want to discover true life, you must die to this one. God's messiah will be rejected and killed and after three days rise again. Who wants to hear that? Who can hear that?

Isaiah's voice shows us what happens when a God-sent teacher brings his or her God-ordained message to the world. The world rejects both teaching and teacher--to the point that the prophet only has God on his side: "The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near." Similarly, Jesus, after conveying the heart of God's upside-down gospel, is rebuked--rebuked!--by his own disciple and, eventually, killed by the religious authorities. The alternative is portrayed by James, who warns that those who are called to be teachers better not water down the teaching as they will be judged with greater strictness. Fun all around, huh?

Like it or not, I am a teacher. I first heard a call to ordained ministry within the context of being a teacher. I love teaching. It's what I do. I wanted to teach chemistry, but God had other plans. And, because I'm not teaching something of my own choosing, I must recognize that this teaching doesn't belong to me. It's the upside-down message of the gospel. It's supposed to be a hard thing to teach. It's supposed to make people uncomfortable. If I'm going to be that teacher and won't get the comfort of the world, I need to have the confidence of Isaiah. I need to remember the resolve of Jesus. I need to consider the warning of James. In other words, I need to be a student of God's word and a person of deep prayer.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Preaching Advice

On Sunday we have a problem. Our epistle lesson will include the most famous line from the Book of James--"Faith without works is dead"--which begs for an explanation, but, as I've written all week, the gospel lesson--"Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs"--demands the attention of most preachers. It is a mistake to let James' confounding statement on faith and works go by without comment, but, if I were preaching (and I'm not), I'd still tackle the gospel lesson. Today, therefore, I want to say a word about James. But first, a story...

The evening before I was due to report to VTS for my final year of seminary, I preached a sermon at my sending parish in Birmingham, Alabama. I had been invited to preach at the Sunday night service, but, given that I was due in Alexandria, Virginia, at noon the next day, it was highly inconvenient. Still, it was the only such invitation I had ever received, and I wasn't about to miss it.

The 5pm service is a casual Eucharist with a band that leads the congregation in music that in our diocese is primarily associated with the Cursillo movement. It's upbeat and folksy--not exactly what I'd call "contemporary Christian," but certainly not 17th-century German hymns. I don't recall wearing vestments (i.e. cassock and surplice). I knew my presentation needed to be "accessible," so I didn't write out my text--only used notes. I thought it went well, but, then again, I was a third-year seminarian who thought all my sermons went well (though I would probably cringe if I heard them again). As the service ended, I more or less bolted for the door since a 12-hour drive still waited.

Before I left, though, the Dean asked to speak with me for a moment--he had something important to tell me. My heart raced. My diocese had made it clear to me that I probably wouldn't have a job there when I finished. The Dean was my only real hope in finding a job, and I expected that he might have a lead for me. When he began to speak, though, my dreams were crushed. "Let me give you a little preaching advice," he said. "Don't try to preach more than one sermon at a time. Just say one thing. Your sermon had two or three main points, and it left the congregation a little confused." I was heartbroken. Not only was it not the vocational assistance I had hoped for, but ten minutes after a preacher delivers a sermon is not the right time to offer a critique in any circumstance--especially when that preacher is a third-year seminarian. Yes, it was good advice, but I was so angry at the Dean that it took me a year or so to accept his advice.

Fast-forward seven or eight years. Our diocese (yes, same one) hosted Tom Long as the speaker at one of our quarterly clergy gatherings. He came and gave a presentation on preaching, which I found fascinating, enlivening, and helpful. Among the many things I took away from his teaching was an invitation to do the exact opposite of what the Dean had told me. He said, "Augustine used to preach several sermons all at the same time, directing each part to the appropriate audience--some non-believers, some proselytes, some mature Christians, others falling away from the faith. Don't be afraid to address different parts of your congregation in the same sermon."

It was revelatory. "You mean to tell me that the Dean was wrong, and I've been preaching up the wrong tree ever since?" Well, not really. Most of the time--given the audience in our congregation--it's right to preach one sermon with one message. But occasionally the congregation is more diverse than that. And, more importantly, sometimes the same passage says different things to different people. And this Sunday is one of those Sundays, and I think the best way to tackle James 2 is with a multi-pronged approach.

I'll skip all the Lutheran "epistle of straw" rhetoric and jump straight to the application. James is a beautiful, wonderful, powerful text aimed directly at a particular group of people. If you read the whole book in one sitting--I highly recommend it--I believe this becomes clear. These Christians were clear in their minds that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was the central moment in salvation history. As the author expresses in 1:2-4, this was, for them, a given: "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." Those words are not for people who have no clear direction in their troubles. This is not a letter written to a community that needs a message of hope. They already had that message of hope. They needed help with the application.

The community to which James wrote needed help remembering that the good news of Jesus Christ is a life-changing testimony. They were a social mess. They reserved places of honor for the rich while excluding the poor, forcing them to sit on the floor or stand up in the back of church. He wrote, "Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?...If you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors." Favoritism, discrimination, and exclusion are incompatible with the gospel. That seems clear enough. Those of us who follow Christ are called to a specific lifestyle. The call to holiness is nearly universal in the books of the New Testament. James' words should not surprise us. But, as in all things, when his message is distilled to its absolute purist form, it can easily be mistaken for something else: "Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead."

James is not offering a reprioritization of faith beneath works. He does not suggest that works are necessary for salvation. He is making a descriptive statement--not a prescriptive one. And that's where the preacher needs to be clear. That's the opportunity for multiple sermons at the same time. Here's what that might look like.
  • Faith without works is dead. If you're confident in your faith, if the gospel of Jesus Christ is the focus of your life, if you know what it means to be forgiven and transformed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, let James' words sink in. Ask yourself what difference the gospel makes in your daily life. If you aren't being drawn deeper and deeper into the self-sacrificing love of Jesus, recommit yourself to the gospel and let its seeds bear fruit in your life. Commit to a life of discipleship.
  • Faith without works is dead. But if you don't know the life-giving, life-freeing, life-redeeming love of God in Jesus Christ, put James' words on a shelf and come back to them later. Although you're welcome to read and study and ponder his words, keep in mind that he wasn't writing to you or to people like you. Consider, instead, an axiom he very well might have used: works without faith are dead. Start with the basics. Remember that God loves you no matter what you do, no matter where you are, no matter what you believe. But anticipate that God's love won't leave you there. It will take you and transform you.
  • Faith without works is dead. If you're somewhere in the middle--you consider yourself a Christian but aren't really sure what difference that makes in your life--think about James' words as a sign on a ski slope. You get to choose which slope you ski down. If you're an intermediate skier like me, you might enjoy the black diamond as a way of stretching you and making you a better skier, or you might want to head down the blue slope, where you can enjoy the speed and confidence of being within your depth. Ask yourself how James' words sound. Are they an invitation to deepen the faith you already have? If so, take them on. See how they might draw you closer to God. Or do they seem to be leading you toward greater frustration--an endless cycle of trying harder but not getting closer. If so, leave them be. You need to remind yourself that your works don't matter to God--only to you. God loves you regardless of your works--regardless of the discipleship you practice.
I suspect that most people in our congregation are in that third category. We know who Jesus is. We know that God loves us no matter what. But whether we hear James' instruction as a Spirit-inspired invitation to gospel-centered, grace-filled discipleship or a frustrating call to try harder to make God love us more isn't clear. It's both things at the same time. Why would the preacher pretend that James' words aren't doing both things to our congregation simultaneously?

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Two Thousand Years of Prejudice

I watched Blazing Saddles the other night and again laughed my way through Mel Brooks' satirical criticism of the unvarnished racism typical of Hollywood's portrayal of the American west. I laughed both because the movie is hilarious and also because, in a way, Brooks is making fun of me and the dominant culture with which I identify. Although sometimes it masks the truth, laughter also can be disarming. In the film, Brooks finds a way to get people like me a little closer to the mirror of self-scrutiny. He hasn't finished the job, but he's advanced the cause.

Among the dozens of mock-racist references in the film is a scene in which the black hero, Sheriff Bart, encounters Taggart, played by the legend Slim Pickens, who questions the sheriff's authority by calling him "Boy." Taggart says, "Now what the hell do you think you're doing with that tin star, Boy?" Without hesitation, the sheriff quips back, "Watch that 'boy-shit,' Redneck. You're talking to the sheriff of Rock Ridge." Taggart's answer sums up the whole purpose of the film: "Well if that don't beat all! Here we take the good time and trouble to slaughter every last Indian in the west, and for what? So we can appoint a sheriff that's blacker than any Indian. I am depressed." 

Even though I'm a generation removed from desegregation, as a southerner, I recognize the reference. "Boy" was (and still is) a term of derision used by whites to refer to black men of any age. It has been used for centuries as a way of emasculating, dehumanizing, and humiliating people of another race. It is primarily a way of denying a black man the decency of his name and the respect appropriate to an adult. In the Jim Crow south, white men and women were referred to as "Mr. This" or "Miss That."  Blacks were not shown that courtesy. They had last names, but the white community disregarded them. First names were common, and "boy" was a way of further exerting dominance over blacks. Even as a child of the 1980s, I was taught to address older white men and women by their last names, but I called most (if not all) of the black men and women I knew by their first names--even those as old or older than my parents. I was never taught to say "boy," but still the exclusionary culture lingers. I was in college before anyone bothered to ask me what that unconscious and inherited practice represented. That was twenty years too late.

On Sunday, as we read Mark 7:24-37, we have an opportunity to address head-on the pervasive effect of lingering prejudices that are not confessed and from which we have not repented. In the first of two encounters in the gospel lesson, Jesus will look at a woman of Syrophoenician origin, which is Mark's particular way of referring to her as a Gentile, and say, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." Those are difficult words to hear from Jesus. They aren't the sweet, accepting, gentle words we expect from our Lord and savior. But it's even worse than that. It's tough enough to hear Jesus be mean to a woman in need--someone who is begging him for help. It's harder still to hear Jesus espouse a theology of salvation with ethnic/religious priority reserved for Jews (see yesterday's post). But the hardest part of all is to hear Jesus call the woman a dog--a racial epithet used by Jews in that day to refer to the subhuman class of people known as Gentiles.

Take a moment to let that sink in. Jesus chose a commonly used racist word to identify the woman. This wasn't just a common household image from a culture in which dogs ate the bits that people dropped on the floor. In fact, Jews would not have kept dogs in their homes. Dogs were thought to be unclean as they might easily get into religious mischief like digging around graves or rustling through non-kosher refuse. This was a specific term of derision. It was the parlance of the day. No, he doesn't say it directly to her as in "You're just a dog!" And, yes, the Greek word Mark uses is actually the diminutive for dog, which is kind of like saying "puppy" or "little dog," so it's not as bad as Matthew's version. But we're still left with Jesus using a word that we can't explain away.

To refer to the Gentile woman as a "dog" was like me referring to a black man as a "boy." Culture is everything. We might want to think that Jesus didn't mean it in a derogatory way, but that's like me trying to explain a joke about a "boy" or a "mammie" as not being racist. I cannot say those words when referring to a black person and not convey the racist baggage that come with them. Likewise, think what you want, but Jesus can't drop the d-word and not be heard by his contemporaries as reinforcing racist stereotypes.

So where does that leave us--with a bigoted, racist Jesus? Surely not. Racism is a sin, and I believe with every fiber of my being that Jesus lived without sin. But the words he said and the way he used them were a reflection of a racism that he inherited. Jesus might not be a racist, but, from two thousand years of hindsight, we can judge that what he said was racist, and that's what we really need to deal with. Sometimes the sacred things we carry with us from the past have their roots in the racism. We must address those roots. We must repent of them. No, Jesus is not guilty of the sin of racism. No, we cannot travel back in time and condemn him or others for what he said, nor should we try. I am not suggesting that the "I didn't know better" defense is a get out of jail free card, but Jesus lived at a time when racial equality wasn't even a consideration. Jesus and his contemporaries were not rejecting the dignity of every human being because they wanted to use discrimination as a way of preserving their position of power. They were operating in a culture that could not recognize racism as a sin. But our culture is different. And we would be mistaken to let this passage come and go without stopping to identify within it the roots of racism.

Perhaps it is no accident that Sunday has also been declared "Confession, Repentance and Commitment to End Racism Sunday" by several denominations. This effort is "spearheaded by the AME, AME Zion, and CME Churches," but Gay Clark Jennings, the President of the House of Deputies, and Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop, have also published a letter calling on the Episcopal Church to join in the observance. What does that mean for us? What does all of this mean for me?

As with so many things, the healing of racism begins with confession and repentance. Don't shy away from the issue of race as portrayed in this passage. There is hope here. This isn't a passage that calls upon us to perpetuate our racist past. In the end, the woman's refusal to let Jesus' dehumanization be the end of the story leads to her salvation--the healing of her daughter. She is a strong character. She has a place in a Mel Brooks movie. She takes Jesus' label and turns it upside down. She uses craftiness and nimbleness to undermine his intentions. Jesus isn't necessarily the bad guy in the story, but he isn't necessarily the hero either. Let the Syrophoenician woman tell the gospel this Sunday. Look for ways to celebrate her strength. For racism to be healed, we must look at our past--moments like Mark 7--and find ways for the reversal of a racist moment to ring true in the present day.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

It's Not About You

If you can remember two weeks ago--back before Ashley Madison was the only thing we had to talk about--there was a brief Internet sensation involving James Harrison, linebacker for Pittsburgh Steelers, who made his sons return the trophies they received at a youth football camp. You can read a little bit about that in this Huffington Post article. For some people, this was a cause for celebration. As the sarcastic article states, "Americans are getting tired of self-indulgent socialization, in which kids are praised and rewarded for just showing up." Judging by the social media firestorm directed at Harrison and those who picked up his cause, others considered the no-trophy movement a big mistake. My favorite perspective came from the article's author, Galanty Miller who wrote, "Within our absurd 'you get a trophy just for participating' society, literally getting a trophy just for participating is probably the one aspect of today's horrible parenting that doesn't make children believe the world is all about them" (emphasis in original). Whether you like the trophies or not, I hope you can appreciate that sentiment.

On Sunday, Jesus is going to bark at a sweet Gentile mother, who is desperate to have her daughter's demon-possession cured. She will ask him for some help, and he is going to call her a dog: "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." We don't like that Jesus. We want Jesus to help her. We want Jesus to be nice to everyone. We want him to respond openly and willingly to everyone's need. We aren't comfortable with his racist language. But that's the Jesus who is coming to church on Sunday, and we'd better figure out how to handle it.

Tomorrow, I want to write about race and culture, but today I want to focus on the woman--the humble, faithful, bold, feisty, patient, tenacious, mother who gets what she came for. When Jesus calls her a dog, essentially refusing to help this woman because of her race, she responds not by rejecting the premise of his argument but by accepting it: "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." In response, Jesus says, "For saying that, you may go--the demon has left your daughter." Note how Mark tells the story. Jesus doesn't reward her faith. He rewards her statement and the fully deferential, fully accepting, fully willing-to-eat-crumbs attitude behind it. There is no "your faith has made you well." One could argue that, as a Syrophoenician, she has no recognizable faith. This time, it's the statement itself that turns Jesus around.

Let me stop for a moment and acknowledge that I'm also uncomfortable with this. As I'll point out tomorrow, Jesus is shockingly race-conscious in his initial rejection of the woman's request. I'm sure I'll refer to it again tomorrow, but Steve Pankey's post from today makes the important point that Jesus' racially biased response to the woman was fully appropriate and fully expected back then. Yes, Jesus' remarks are racially loaded. Yes, they would be inappropriate today. Yes, it's wrong, then, to conclude that the woman should be praised for her acceptance of her racially marginalized position. Again, I'll tackle that tomorrow. For today, though, let's leave the tacit promotion of racism through praising the woman for accepting the oppression she is given aside (if that's even possible) and let her deference teach a lesson to those of us who identify as privileged but who, in the story of salvation history, are not.

It is not all about us--and by "us" I mean Gentile Christians. Jesus did not come to earth to save least not directly. Yes, his outstretched arms on the hard wood of the cross was the means by which God has gathered all nations unto himself, but Jesus didn't come looking to save the Gentiles. He came only "to the lost sheep of the house of Israel"--Jesus' answer to the woman in Matthew's version of this encounter. News flash: that's not us. That's Israel. Where is our place in the divine economy? When do we get a seat at God's banquet table? Actually, we don't. We get to gather up the crumbs under the table, and we should be thankful for that.

This woman's statement is remarkable in at least three respects: 1) for her remarkably bold wit, 2) for her willingness to accept her place as a dog under the table, and 3) for her ability to see that God's salvation is abundant enough even for those who eat the leftover crumbs. And the only way she can see that there's enough for her--and if for her then for everyone--is by remembering that she doesn't need a seat at the table in order to be saved.

God's salvation is bigger than we expect, but it's bigger than we expect because we're less significant than we think. It's not about us. It's about God saving God's chosen people and using them to save the world. Those of us who know the deep promise of salvation through God's son, Jesus Christ, have been given a remarkable gift. But that gift is not primary. It's an afterthought. We're getting the leftovers. We're not supposed to have a place at the table, and that's ok. God's abundance is big enough. And we need to spend some time gathering up crumbs to see that.