Thursday, October 29, 2015

Unbound Saints of God

What's your favorite part of the Lazarus story? Is it the strange comfort Jesus offers Mary and Martha in their moment of grief: "Your brother will rise again." Or is it Jesus' refusal to heed the warnings of the stench-filled tomb? Or maybe you focus on the comfort we are offered by Jesus, who wept at the tomb of his friend. For me, though, it's the very end of the story I like best.

As we listen to John 11:32-44, we will hear three successive imperatives from Jesus, and, although our attention may naturally fall in the middle of that series, I'll suggest there's some theological benefit to seeing all three as a climactic progression that carries us all the way to the very end.

First, Jesus says, "Take away the stone."

Then, Jesus says, "Lazarus, come out!"

Finally, Jesus says, "Unbind him and let him go."

With the removal of the stone, dramatized by Martha's objection over the stench, Jesus invites possibility. Why would one bother to uncover a tomb? Because in Jesus there is an opportunity for new life. One doesn't roll the stone away unless one expects to find something other than a dead body. This first command is an invitation to accept that there is new possibility lying even in the supposedly smelly tomb.

With the command to Lazarus, Jesus reveals that possibility. We don't get to see what happened inside the dark resting place--whether the body was suddenly filled with breath or whether the eyes opened first--but we hear those powerful words and see that Jesus has power over life and death. He speaks and even the dead hear his voice. Soon, emerging from the tomb, is the shroud-wrapped man--a sight that must have astonished and frightened even the most resolute women and men looking on.

With the instruction to the onlookers, Jesus takes this miracle to its real conclusion. The bonds of death are to be loosened. The clothes of the grave are to be discarded. The tendrils that tie Lazarus to death itself are to be torn away. The crowd--family and friends--are told to do the unwrapping. They participate in the final setting free. As the Lord of life, Jesus calls Lazarus back from the dead, but the community takes part in the setting free--the celebration and reinitiation into the land of the living.

I think it is a mistake to ignore this final instruction or cast it aside as if it were merely an obvious conclusion to the story. Jesus' last command is what makes Lazarus' revivification real to his family and friends. Think of it this way: if a shroud-wrapped dead man came strolling out of a tomb, would you run up and hug him? Heck no! Lazarus' new opportunity for life must be embraced by the community--otherwise he remains a zombie-like pariah. Jesus is completing the cycle by giving him back to those who love him. And I think there's a teaching here.

Keep in mind that Lazarus eventually died again. I don't know when or how, but this resurrection wasn't permanent. Jesus isn't raising him to new life in the same way he promises to bring us through the gate of death and into the life that awaits us. This is just a moment. It's a big moment and a powerful prefigurement of that resurrection that we're still waiting for, but it's not the true end of the story. Instead, this raising of Lazarus is an opportunity for more life--not new life. And what will the characteristics of the rest of his life look like? Well, ask someone who survived a near-death moment what the next morning felt like. As Brad Pitt's bizarre character from Fight Club explains after nearly killing a store clerk, "Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of Raymond K. Hessel's life. His breakfast will taste better than any meal you and I have ever tasted."

Lazarus is unbound, and those who loosen the grave clothes participate in the what-comes-next. all of them are given a gift--deep, true, meaningful life. Jesus has entered their lives in a completely transformative way. Nothing will ever be the same. Jesus has shown them that death is not the end of the story--that, eventually, all of them will die and be raised again to new life. Because of that, the rest of this life is lived as though they had already been set free. The promise of new life gives freedom to this one. The resurrection breaks in here and now. We await new life in Jesus, but we are already set free in this one.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Glory Don't Sink!

In staff meeting yesterday, Sally our children's director asked me if I had a preference on what the focus in the children's church sermon should be. "No," I said, "It's really up to you. You could preach about Lazarus or baptism or All Saints'. You pick what you think will be best." Quickly, she replied, "Good. Thank you. I was worried that the boys in children's chapel would want to talk about how much Lazarus stank and that we'd never get to the rest of the story."

She has a good point. One of my favorite lines in the KJV is John 11:39, when Mary says to Jesus, "Lord, by this time he stinketh." This Sunday, as we celebrate the Feast of All Saints, we hear a part of the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the tomb (John 11:32-44), and it's hard to get past the physical. (And I don't think we should.) John tells this story with great tension between God's mighty acts, which transcend the limitations of this physical world, and our ability to see them despite our reliance on the world we know. It's as if John is begging us to experience the slowly developing faith that starts with Martha and then Mary saying, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died," and climaxes with Jesus calling out to his friend, "Lazarus, come out!"
In the middle, we get to watch even Jesus' closest friends struggle with who he is. Although omitted in this reading, John 11 starts with the disciples' confusion over whether Lazarus is merely sleeping or really going to die. Then, we hear Lazarus' sisters confessing their faith that Jesus has power to heal the sick--that he is God's anointed one--but the tears that dominate the scene (even those of Jesus himself) cloud our sight. As we stand outside the stone-sealed tomb, we know that Jesus is someone special, but do we know who he really is?

Jesus tells them to roll away the stone. (Can the foreshadowing be any thicker?) And, then, we hear the objection: "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days!" And what is Jesus' reply? "Did I not tell you that, if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" Jesus takes Martha's reasonable, rational, physical objection (and that of everyone else--including the reader) and turn it upside down. He puts it back to them as a question of faith. Didn't I tell you? Don't you believe? What do you think it means that I am the Christ (11:27)? Haven't you put all the pieces together yet? And then, in his prayer to the Father, Jesus reminds us that he has "said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe."

My Lord, already he stinketh! But God's glory don't stink. What are we looking for? What are we expecting? What are we hoping the Christ will do? It's not too late. Sickness will not win. Not even death can defeat God's Christ. If you believe, you will see the glory of God--the living, breathing, unbound glory of God.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Because Blackface Is Never A Good Idea

This morning, I noticed an article on that reported of an Alabama teacher who had posted pictures on Facebook from a costume party at which he dressed up as Kanye West, complete with dark brown makeup/pigment on his face. Around noon I discovered that the teacher, Heath Morrow, works at my son's school. No, he is not my son's teacher, but it did get my attention on several levels. For one, I sent the principal, who is a parishioner at our church, a text to tell her that I was praying for her and for her school and to offer to talk with her if she needs anything. Also, it made me consider in a closer-to-home sort of way what sort of teacher I want instructing my children. Because of that, I stopped to pray for Mr. Morrow, whom I do not know but who almost certainly has found himself the center of a lot of attention he would much rather avoid. Lastly, it made me stop and consider my reaction, others reactions, and where the real finger of blame should be pointing.

For starters, although I shouldn't need to say it, I want to be clear that I think blackface is wrong. Always. It is always a bad idea. Why? Because the practice of white people darkening their faces to appear like black people is grounded in a history of racism. For decades, white performers amused white audiences by pretending to be black--not to celebrate or imitate in a flattering sort of way the cultural distinctiveness of black people but to mock them, to overemphasize commonly held racist stereotypes, and to get a laugh from their peers at the expense of black people. To me, that seems to be a good enough reason for us to all agree that blackface is always wrong. It means a white person darkening his or her face in order to pretend to be black in any sort of humorous way--even if not to make fun of black people or to use stereotypical black images to get a laugh--is to borrow a piece of history that is forever tainted with racism. No matter how much you love black people, you cannot put on blackface with impunity. Imagine wearing a Nazi SS uniform to go trick-or-treating. No, it's not illegal (free speech is a real thing), but it's a terrible idea that expresses a failure to value the horrific experience of 8,000,000 victims and their families.

But is it always wrong? Might there moments when a genuine cultural reenactment of a moment that depends on racial differences could be enhanced by a particular person putting on dark brown makeup to play the role of a dark-skinned individual? Could a teacher ever wear an historically accurate Nazi uniform to show his or her class what it looked like as an educational experience? Maybe. But even the NY Metropolitan Opera has agreed that casting Othello in blackface isn't necessary for the integrity of the performance, and I think the rest of us can follow suit. Some moments from the past should stay in the past.

Perhaps Mr. Morrow is a big fan of Kanye West. Perhaps he wasn't being funny at all. Maybe he really wants to support Mr. West's supposed bid for president in 2020, as the sign he is holding in the picture suggests: "Kayne for Prez 2020." Maybe he had no intention of making anyone laugh because he was pretending to be black, but it doesn't matter. He should know better.

Yes, context is everything. In his apology, Mr. Morrow called the incident "an error in judgment." Indeed it was. But, whether his choice of costume represents a one-time mistake or a pattern of racist behavior on his part, the problem is the same: we live in a culture that is largely ignorant of our racist history. Even accidental or unintentional or incidental racism is still racism. That it never occurred to Mr. Morrow that wearing blackface was wrong is the real problem, and I don't blame him for it. I blame myself. I blame all of us.

I want my children to be taught by people who are sensitive to the nuances of history. Even though my children are white, I want them to go to a school where every child feels like she or he has an equal opportunity to learn. I don't want them to sit next to a classmate who knows first-hand the pain of having a teacher who is ignorant of the racist implications of the social media posts he made over the weekend. I want to meet with the parents of the black students in Mr. Morrow's class so that I can ask them how it feels to send their children back to school. And I want to do all of that, not to point a finger of blame at Mr. Morrow, but to confess my own participation in this culture that denies the full cost of racism on its citizens of color.

I am part of a community in which it is not obvious to 100% of the people that blackface is a bad idea; therefore, I am a part of the problem. Until we can all see the pain of our racist past, we have no right to move on as if it didn't happen or doesn't still matter. As a member of the majority culture and one who is the beneficiary of unearned privilege, it's my job to remind my children and my parishioners and my friends and anyone who will listen that there is still much work for us to do. Don't blame Mr. Morrow. Learn with him from the mistake we have all made.

Really Big Hope

Sunday is All Saints' Day, and, in many churches, the Roll of Remembrance, which includes the names of the faithful who have died in the past year, will be read. Yes, I know there's a separate occasion for that on November 2, when the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed is observed. Yes, I understand that confusing those who have died in the past year with all the saints who have gone before undermines our ability to focus and properly celebrate either. Yes, I know the Episcopal Church has an underdeveloped theology of sainthood. But, sweeping all of that aside for a moment, when I read John 11:32-22, I find myself wondering just how big of a hope we are celebrating.

There is a strategic question given to us by John that brings that consideration to the front of my mind. As Jesus weeps at the grave of his friend Lazarus, some in the crowd say to themselves, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?" (It's fortuitous that, despite jumping from Mark 10 to John 11, there is still a connection with opening the eyes of a blind man.) It is the timing behind this question--the "aw, shucks! he should have made it here a little sooner" attitude that it represents--that forces us to consider just how much hope we are willing to have in Jesus.

The crowd shows that they have learned to accept that Jesus is a remarkable healer. He has done amazing things like feeding the 5,000 and walking on water. In John 9, he even healed a man who was born blind. Confirming the remarkable nature of that miracle, the man, when confronted by the religious authorities, declares, "Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind." In other words, there is evidence that Jesus is a unique healer--that his powers to restore people to health are unparalleled in human history. The crowd has accepted this premise. Their question is genuine. They know that someone with Jesus' healing touch could have saved Lazarus from dying.

But, of course, the story wasn't over. Jesus did what no one believed could be done. Dead is dead. As Miracle Max says, "With all dead, well, with all dead there's usually only one thing you can do...Go through his clothes and look for loose change." But Jesus isn't just a life-saving healer. He's the one who can reverse even death itself, which is to say God himself.

Just as there's a huge difference between saving the life of a sick man and bringing a four-day-dead man back from the grave, there's a tremendous chasm between recognizing Jesus as a remarkable healer and identifying him as the one who has power over life and death. Which one do you believe in? Which one does the church hold up as savior of the world? Do we want a remarkable healer--one who can comfort us, restore us, and make things right in this life? Or do we want a savior--one who can take us from this life, through death, and into life everlasting?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Prayer for Help

In our worship, we use a predetermined set of lessons to guide us through the liturgical year. In Advent, there are readings about expectation and judgment. In the season after the Epiphany, we hear about miracles and other manifestations of Jesus' glory. In Lent, we read about sin and repentance. As much as I might quibble with the lectionary authors about which passages are cut short or omitted entirely from the schedule, I am most grateful for the use of a lectionary, without which I suppose I would be left to figure it out on my own, which would almost certainly make for a boring pattern.

What you may not notice, however, is that with each week's lessons comes a particular prayer, called a "collect" (emphasis on the first syllable). Sometimes it reflects the liturgical season. Often the one or more of the readings is connected to it. Many were written by Thomas Cranmer, and almost all of them are beautiful, poetic, and theologically rich. In my last post for this week, I'd like to focus on the collect for this Sunday and reflect on its remarkably counter-instinctive nature. Here it is in full:
Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
It starts with an invocation--Q: To whom are we praying? A: "Almighty and everlasting God." But then it skips the acknowledgment, which is a middle bit usually designed to remind us who it is to whom we're praying. For example, last Sunday we prayed, "Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations...," and you can see that acknowledgment that God has revealed his glory among the nations in Christ. This week, it's missing, which suggests to me that we're even more desperate for an answer than usual.

And what is our prayer? First, that God will "increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity." Think about that for a minute. We're asking God to give us more faith, more hope, and more charity (another word for love). We're not offering these things to God in exchange for something. We aren't pleading our case, making an argument that God should give us something based upon who we are or what we've done. We aren't praying, "Almighty and everlasting God, as we grow in faith, hope, and charity, give us what you promise." Instead, it's pure request.

As the prayer continues, we discover that we're not only asking God to increase our faith, hope, and charity but also to "make us love what you command" so "that we may obtain what you promise." Again, a reiteration of the belief that God doesn't give us what he has promised when we have done what he asked. Instead, we ask for help doing what we need to do so that, through God's help, we finally realize what is being given to us. It's the total opposite of human nature. It's the complete reversal of parenting.

How often do you say to your children, "If you're good, I'll buy you a treat?" We do that all the time. It's what we do. We reward accomplishments. We celebrate achievement. We praise good behavior. And we set all of that up as a conditional relationship: IF you do this, I will give you that. Insert a loud claxon siren here! That's the opposite of grace. That's the opposite of the gospel. And parents like me, who use those techniques, are unwittingly undermining our children's ability to trust that God's love is unresponsive to their behavior and that we need God's good gifts before we even start to do what is asked of us.

Faith is a gift. Hope is a gift. Love is a gift. Obedience is a gift. All of the ingredients to the Christian life are a gift. God gives them to us. Then, God also gives us his love, his mercy, his forgiveness, his fulfillment. We bring nothing to the equation. Our relationship with God is not a bartering system. As we will pray this Sunday, God makes it possible for us to trust that God will take care of us. What do we offer? Not one thing. And for that I am thankful.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Not Worth Waiting For

October 18 is the day we remember St. Luke, but, this year, October 18 was a Sunday, so that means we get an excuse to remember him and his witness to the gospel on Wednesday at our midweek healing Eucharist. And how appropriate is that? St. Luke the physician points us to Jesus the great physician who comes to offer us healing as we come to seek healing in his name.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul calls Luke a doctor, but we know him less for his healing arts than for his faithful witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. Luke and Acts are ascribed to him--a two-volume work in which he gives us the pure poetry and magnificent reordering of the world that the reign of Jesus Christ represents. As a missionary, he stuck with Paul through thick and thin. As we read about in today's lesson from 2 Timothy, Luke was the only one left with Paul as he sat in chains and the end of his life approached. We don't know much about his work as a physician, but, as I let my imagination run, I am drawn to the thought that Luke, as a healer, understood the work and ministry and promise of Jesus in a way that I struggle to see.

There are many unique passages to Luke's gospel account: the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the healing of the ten lepers, Jesus' birth account, Mary's Magnificat and Simeon's Nunc Dimittis. I don't know if I have a favorite, but close to the top must be today's gospel lesson, in which Jesus quotes Isaiah in the local synagogue: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives  and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." For Luke, that was the summary of Jesus' mission. For Luke, that was the focus of Jesus' birth, life, death, and resurrection--the transformation of the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed. And when will all of that happen? For Luke, the answer is clear: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

The Christianity of my childhood was an experience of being stuck in the middle. Jesus came a long time ago and will come again some day, and, in the meantime, we're stuck in between remembering the past and waiting for the future. Sound familiar? As my reading and understanding the scriptures deepens, however, I discover that Christianity isn't a time stuck in the middle. It's what Luke describes. It's now. The good news of Jesus Christ is too important to put off and wait for. We need it now.

There is an immediacy to Jesus' proclamation of the good news. There is an immediacy to Luke's retelling of the promise. I wonder whether he, as a physician, was familiar with the importance of now. I wonder whether he knew what it meant to not wait until the last minute, to act without delay, to provide relief in the present, to minister to the needs of today. Imagine, if you will, a physician looking at a patient and saying, "Well, we're all going to die someday. Why bother taking care of yourself now?" That's ridiculous. Yes, the inevitability of Jesus' return to consummate all of God's promises shapes our lives here and now, but the manifestation of Jesus' transformative and healing presence in our lives isn't something we can wait for. It must be now.

Jesus came not only to initiate a new order. He came to bring it to completion--not only someday but today. We have good news for the poor. The captives are released, and the oppressed are set free. The blind are recovering their sight. This is the year of the Lord's favor, which is to say that debts are cancelled and families are reunited and forgiveness is celebrated. We cannot afford to put that off any longer. That must be the world we live in now. Stop waiting. Do something. Do anything.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Historically Jesus Christ

I can't remember exactly when I was first introduced to the concept of the "Historical Jesus," but, as that label took root in my brain and eventually began to influence my understanding of faith, I have grown in respect for the distinction. In short, the Historical Jesus is that figure from first-century Palestine who would have been known by his contemporaries as "Jesus of Nazareth." He walked and talked and breathed and taught and was executed on a cross by the Romans. That sounds familiar, of course. There's nothing strange about that. But the other Jesus--the one most of us understand as the Jesus of the Christian movement--is the one who not only walked and talked and breathed but also healed the sick and walked on water and rose from the dead. In other words, the former is found in history books, while the latter is found in the bible. Make sense?

There was a big push in the Enlightenment to strip all of the unrealistic properties from the New Testament and leave only those parts of the Christian story that were rational and, in the mind of people like Thomas Jefferson, "believable." This was a nascent quest for the Historical Jesus. For me, the powerful insight came when I was able to see that the Jesus of History became the Jesus we worship in the light of the resurrection. Until then, the world thought of him as a remarkable man--a great teacher and healer with a dramatic, controversial message of God's coming kingdom. That Jesus was executed as a traitor of Rome. But the Jesus who rose from the dead is Jesus the Christ--the living Son of God, the savior. The Historical Jesus informs our understanding of the Jesus of faith, and, in some ways, the stories of the resurrected one help historians understand who Jesus of Nazareth was. My faith isn't threatened by the search for the Historical Jesus and the work of the Jesus Seminar. It's helped by it. But I recognize that, no matter how much I learn about the Jesus of history, to understand Jesus as my Lord and savior requires faith--something not provable in the historian's quest.

And then there's Bartimaeus. Do you remember how Mark 10:46-52 unfolds? "When [Bartimaeus] heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, 'Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!'" Mark brings us right up to that moment of distinction. The crowd even tries to hush the blind man. His identification of Jesus as "Son of David" was a radical statement. This was to place upon Jesus' head the mythological crown of his ancestor David. This was to integrate the Historical Jesus with the Jesus of faith, and the people weren't ready for that. "Be quiet!" they said to the blind beggar, but he yelled out all the more, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"

As I wrote about yesterday, Bartimaeus sees what so many of us fail to see--who Jesus really is. Most of Jesus' contemporaries, including his disciples, needed the resurrected Jesus to hit them over the head with a physical appearance before they could utter the confession, "Jesus is Lord." Paul, too, needed an appearance by the resurrected and ascended Jesus, who struck him blind on the Damascene road. Bartimaeus, though, unable to see the physical world, has his spiritual senses heightened. He cuts through the layers of historical accuracy and lays open for us the true Jesus of faith.

The tension still exists. Was Jesus really raised from the dead? Did Jesus really walk on water? Did he really raise the dead? Did he really say all of those things? Is his legend pure legend, or is the synthesis of faith an accurate assembly of who he was? Bartimaeus suggests that, even though those who watched the strange preacher couldn't see it, it was there to be seen by those who used the lens of faith--even before the light of resurrection shined upon the scene.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Christmas Is Coming

I can tell that Christmas is coming. No, it's not because the local home improvement store has stocked its "seasonal" section with trees and lights and other decorations (though my son was perplexed by that). No, it's not because the radio has started playing Christmas carols (though I'm sure that will happen soon). It's because Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 10:46-52) is the story of Blind Bartimaeus receiving his sight.

Here's what I mean. Yesterday, we read about the fallout of Jesus final passion prediction, the last detailed warning he gave to his disciples before they hit the home stretch to Jerusalem. This Sunday, they make it as far as Jericho. At this point, we're only 17 miles away from Jerusalem. More importantly, as we turn the page in our bibles and look to Mark 11, we see that the next thing in the story is Jesus' triumphal entry into the holy city, so, clearly, we're getting close. In liturgical terms, we will end the year with a crucifixion account on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, and there isn't a lot that happens between Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and his death on the cross. And, as soon as the liturgical year is over, we start Advent, and then come Christmas and so on...

But, first, Bartimaeus. I can't remember all of the details about the uniqueness of this story, but I remember Bartimaeus being special. For starters, he has a name--one that is recorded for us. Why would Mark bother to remember his name? And not just his name but also his father's name (Timaeus)? Probably because he was known to his readers--or at least his reputation was. This isn't just a story about a healing. It's a story about calling a disciple. And there's another important detail. Unlike most (if not all) of those whom Jesus heals in Mark's account, Bartimaeus is invited to follow Jesus. He jumps up, throws off his cloak, and joins the procession to Jerusalem. And the shedding of the cloak may be a baptismal image--perhaps a stretch, but a nice image for one who is "healed" and then becomes a disciple, which is a little like our understanding of baptism.

Hear Bartimaeus' cry: "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Although unable to see with his eyes, Bartimaeus is able to see the one who approaches. He recognizes what others could not understand--that Jesus is the descendant of David. This appellation sets Jesus' journey toward Jerusalem as the march of an entering king. As we saw last Sunday, though, Jesus' kingship is not what any expect...except, perhaps, Bartimaeus.

His story is different. He knows where Jesus is going. His ability to "see" the savior makes the healing of his blindness almost an extra detail in the story. I read it and wonder whether he needed healing at all. There is no magic spell--no spit on the ground, no anointing of the eyes, no bold word "Be opened!" This healing is a reflection of a faith that already exists--the kind of mature faith that the disciples, most recently represented by James and John and their foolish request, seemed to lack.

We're getting close now--close not to Christmas but close to the culmination of Jesus' earthly ministry. Bartimaeus can see it. Even when no one else can, he can see. As we sprint through these last few weeks before the holiday season really kicks off, will we see it too?

Reborn as Slave to All

October 18, 2015 – The 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24B
Isaiah 53:4-12; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
 You may listen to the audio of this sermon here.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, well, either I don’t want learn my lesson, or, for some reason, I can’t.

This morning’s gospel lesson comes on the heels of Jesus’ third prediction of his passion and death, and, even though they’ve heard it three times, James and John don’t seem to have gotten the message. “See,” Jesus said, “we are going up to Jerusalem, and [there] the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.” And what did the sons of Zebedee say in response? “Um, Jesus, since we’re headed into the royal city,” they asked. “we’re wondering if you would promise to do something for us.” Seems kind of foolish, doesn’t it.

And that is precisely the point. This is third time in Mark’s gospel account that Jesus predicted his death. And, each time, one or more of the disciples reacted as if his message had no bearing on them at all. And, like clockwork, every time the disciples reacted incredulously, Jesus responded with a rebuke. The first time, Peter pulled Jesus aside and said, “This will never happen to you Lord,” and Jesus said to him, “Get behind me Satan!” The second time, the disciples began to argue among themselves over who was the greatest among them, and Jesus called them out, saying, “Whoever would be first among you must be last of all.” And, finally, this third time, James and John made their woefully tactless request, so Jesus gathered the twelve together and said, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

Since Mark seems to want to tell us the same story not once nor twice but three separate times, I’m beginning to think that this isn’t just a passage about two dunderheaded disciples but an attempt to hit me over the head enough times for me finally to get the message: if I want to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, I must become like him. I must learn to serve others in his name.

But that doesn’t sound so hard, does it? If following Jesus means serving others, we can make this work, right? We love to help others. We’re good at that. We can knuckle down long enough to get our merit badge in community service. We can rack up a ton of service hours tutoring at Banks-Caddell or helping out at the Free Clinic. Plus, who doesn’t love serving others as the host of a big party? I can walk around with a tray of cocktail weenies if you’re willing to refill people’s half-empty glasses. That sounds like fun. And what about a mission trip? There’s a good idea. There’s nothing more fulfilling that pilling a bunch of eager helpers into a plane and flying them around the world so that they can serve others in the name of Jesus. Surely that’s what he meant. We will have earned our star-laden crown and seat of honor in God’s kingdom in no time! Then, we can go home and put our feet up. “Jesus,” we’ll say, “when we’re done with this whole servant-of-all-thing, will you please make sure that the banquet that awaits us in heaven is even better than we could imagine?”

We think that Jesus is asking us to serve others, but he’s not. He’s asking us to become servants. He’s not inviting us to take on a ministry or to help those in need. He’s asking us to become slaves of all. Following Jesus isn’t an occupation; it’s a transformation. Being a disciple isn’t a pursuit; it’s an identity. If we are going to belong to Jesus and take part in his kingdom, we must be made like him. We must become the lowly servant that he was and is. But how will we ever do that?

In my childhood, I was brought up by a woman named Francine. She wasn’t at our house every day, but most days she was there when I came home from school. My mother was busy teaching piano lessons, so, Francine, as she folded another basket of laundry or mopped another floor, asked me how my day was. She took care of me and my brothers, and she took care of our house. She loved all of us, and we loved her, but, still, we could never know how much she gave for the sake of others because, when the day was done and her work was finished, she went home and did it all over again, taking care of her children and taking care of her house. I thought servanthood could be measured by how often I volunteered to help others, but there are many people in this world who know that service never ends. They are the ones who do not wear it as a uniform or count it in hours worked or dollars spent. They live it and breathe it and sweat it and sometimes die knowing nothing else. They are the ones who know what it means to become like Jesus—to be slave of all.

Being a Christian isn’t about doing nice things, treating others with respect, serving the needy in Jesus’ name, or crisscrossing the globe to offer extravagant acts of charity. Being a Christian means being like Christ, and being is a whole lot harder than doing. The disciples didn’t get it, and we don’t get it either…because this is not a lesson to be learned but a lifestyle to be lived. Jesus beckons us to become the servant of others and to become the slave of all. But we cannot do that on our own. We cannot choose that identity for ourselves. Instead, we must surrender. We must die with Jesus, with the one who gave his life as a ransom for many. We must die to this life and be reborn not as triumphant egoists, who wait to inherit the riches of heaven, but as simple, lowly slaves whose every breath and every act is an emptying of the self in devotion to our Lord.

We must become like Christ, but that is not something we can become on our own. Jesus, himself, must remake us in his image. We must let him bear in us the marks of the nails and the scars from the crown of thorns. All that we want for ourselves must be crucified along with Christ. Like him, we must give up everything in order to become a true servant—a slave of all. Don’t trade the riches of this life for treasures in heaven. Give them up so that you might be reborn as a slave to all and discover what heaven really is.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

God's Way, Jesus' Way, Our Way

I must tip my hat to Steve Pankey, whose posts this week on "We are Able" and "Mark's Key Verse" have completely reshaped my approach to Sunday's sermon. I'm particularly drawn to his recollection that John Yieh, also a mentor of mine, said that "Mark’s gospel message can be summed up in one verse, 'For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve' (Mark 10:45)" (direct quote of Steve not Dr. Yieh). That, and Steve's warning that it is "vitally important for the preacher to study [that verse] carefully," have forced me back into my commentaries. Woe to me if I preach a sermon on Mark 10:35-45 without first allowing the significance of 10:45 to sink in.

The funny thing, though, is that, as I look at commentaries on this passage, I can't find one that doesn't also include Mark 10:32-34 along with Sunday's lesson. Perhaps the lectionary authors didn't want to subject congregations to the third passion prediction of Jesus lest we find it too familiar or, God forbid, even repetitive, but I don't think Mark 10:45 can be read without Mark 10:32-34. Go back and read all of Mark 10 and see for yourself how inseparable the description of the Son of Man's servanthood is from the foretelling of the passion.

But, while we're going back in the text, let's go back even further. Take a minute to consider the first two passion predictions in Mark's gospel account and the reaction of the disciples to each:
  • Peter confesses Jesus as the messiah; Jesus responds by predicting his rejection, suffering, death, and resurrection; Peter reacts by rebuking Jesus; Jesus responds with "Get behind me, Satan!"; and Jesus calls the crowd together and teaches them to "deny [themselves] and take up [their] cross and follow [him]." - Mark 8:27-28
  • Jesus again predicts his death and resurrection; Mark tells us that the disciples didn't understand but were afraid to ask any questions; the disciples discuss among themselves who is the greatest among them; Jesus calls them out; the disciples remain silent; Jesus tells them that "whoever would be first must be last of all and servant of all; and he puts a child in their midst as an example of how to receive him and the one who sent him. - Mark 9:30-37
Add on top of that the unfolding of the third passion prediction. While walking to Jerusalem, Jesus gives the fullest and most detailed prediction of his death. Holding true to the pattern, two of the disciples, James and John, come up to him and ask him for seats of honor when Jesus comes into his glory. Jesus responds with the same rebuke and teaching he's already offered: the way of Jesus is to be servant of all, which means those who follow him must accept the same.

The two-part gospel lesson for Sunday (the disciples' rejection & Jesus' rebuke), therefore, is still missing its important antecedent (the passion prediction). James and John's foolish question isn't just an expression of greed or self-centeredness. It is a direct rejection of the path that Jesus is walking and the path to which he calls us. As the disciples approach Jerusalem, the dreams of their master's entrance as Israel's anointed king are right in front of them. Even the thrice-delivered predictions of Jesus' rejection and death cannot dissuade them from their fantasy.

James and John's question is our question. It's there in the story to teach us something. We follow Jesus as Lord. We hail him as King. But the path he leads--even still today--is the way of the cross. Why? Because that is God's way. As R. T. France wrote in his commentary on Mark, "Hitherto Jesus has spoken of [his death's] necessity, but now he offers a new perspective on the concept of messianic suffering which sets what might otherwise have been seen as a meaningless tragedy in the context of the redemptive purpose of God. This is not a setback to Jesus' mission, a victory for his opponents; it is what he came for" (The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, p.409).

If the cross still has meaning and value in the Christian story, it must remain the center of our lives as those who are willing to become servants of all in the name of the one who came to serve and give his life as a ransom for many--Jesus. If we are not willing to serve as Jesus served, the cross becomes a tragedy. It becomes a moment of God's defeat. But God did not merely accept our plan and change it to good. God's way has always been the cross. God's way will always be the cross. It must be so for us as well.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Unknown Request

Although I can only speak for my own tradition, it appears to me that most expressions of Christianity are exercises in competitive holiness. Verses like "Many are called, but few are chosen" and "Narrow is the gate and hard is the road that leads to life, and those who find it are few" ring in the collective consciousness of would-be disciples. With that mentality, beer bottles never end up in the recycling bins where neighbors might see them. Sunday church is a performance art where one is judged by how well her children are dressed and behaved. Behind each sweet, saintly smile is a dark side of self-righteous condemnation--or at least that's what we tell ourselves to reassure us that we're not the only hypocrites in church.

But, if that's bad, my tradition is even worse. Instead of trying to show others how "Holy Ghost sanctified" we are, those of us in the Grace-vs-Law, classically evangelical, historically Protestant tradition compete to show others just how not holy but made righteous by the blood of Jesus we are blessed to be. "There is no sinner greater than I," a preacher might proclaim from the pulpit, not quite bragging but getting pretty close. Instead of exuding holiness, we rely on the trope of sinner-turned-saint to express our understanding of discipleship. We want the world to see how fully dependent we are on the gospel. We eschew even the slightest scent of works-based righteousness, and want our companions in Christ to see just how confident we are that it is nothing we have done that has granted us a place in the kingdom. In other words, we compete to be last in line because, as Jesus said, the last shall be first. There's a one-upmanship of humility that is as ridiculous as it is disingenuous.

As I read this Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 10:35-45), I can't quite tell which one James and John had in mind when they asked Jesus for permission to sit at his right and his left in his glory, but, whichever one it was, they were mistaken. In fact, Jesus underscores that confusion, telling them "You do not know what you are asking." Given that the passage concludes with Jesus reminding his disciples that "whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all," I've always understood the request by the Sons of Zebedee to be a grasp at power. I'm starting to wonder, though, whether the instruction meant for me turns upon the opposite reading.

When asked by Jesus if they are able to drink the same cup and be baptized with the same baptism, they respond clearly, "We are able." (Read Steve Pankey's insightful post on those dangerous words here.) I suspect that they know that conflict is ahead. They recognize that their master is in direct conflict with the religious and political authorities of the day. They must know that trouble lies ahead and that even life-threatening disputes are in their future. They seem willing to risk everything to follow Jesus.

Consider that the verses immediately before this episode constitute Jesus' third prediction of his passion and death. Yes, I know the gospel consistently portrays the disciples as blatantly unaware of the implications of Jesus' passion predictions, and I don't dispute that pattern here. But I wonder whether James and John can already see that it will only be through death that glory is found. I wonder whether their request of Jesus is an acknowledgment that they must surrender completely to his movement, giving up even their lives, so that they might receive the heavenly reward that awaits.

Doesn't that sound familiar? Isn't that what it means to be a Christian? Didn't Jesus tell us that? But there's danger in focusing on the reward instead of the obedience. Whether we project holiness or brokenness, whenever we compete with others for the shiniest crown in the kingdom, we do the gospel an injustice. Whether I'm sitting in the front row of church or wearing my cross necklace down at the watering hole, if I'm looking for what's coming to me, I'm missing the point. The truth is that all of us want the glory that awaits. We want riches in heaven. Whether we're trying to be win the lifetime achievement award for holiness or the come-from-behind trophy, the award is the mistake. Just follow Jesus. In the kingdom, there's no difference between first and last place.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Didn't See It Coming

It's not a new question by any means, but, as I read again Isaiah 53, this time in anticipation of this Sunday's Track 2 OT lesson, I wonder whom the prophet had in mind when he wrote about that Suffering Servant. Scholars have debated the question for years, and, although I'm not interested in rehearsing the options here, I do find myself reading those heart-breaking words wanting to know what specific pain and rejection the prophet had known and seen to write such a personal, agonizing account. Christians quickly identify Jesus as one who is foreseen by those words. And, yes, of course, I see that connection, too. But the prophet knew first-hand the kind of redemptive betrayal that is behind those vivid verses. He had seen it or felt it. To write those words, he must have known it--and not only as a foreshadowing of something that wouldn't take place for centuries but as something he lived through.

Who is the suffering one? Who is the one who "was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth?" Is that the story of God's people in exile? Is that a leader among God's people? Is it a prophet or priest or political leader? I don't know. No one knows. I like some guesses better than others, but, more importantly, I just want to live in that place of transformative pain. I want to recognize the one whom I have not seen.

Almost as a liturgical piece like a psalm, I hear these verses as a back-and-forth between a leader and a congregation. Someone declares, "Surely he has born our infirmities and carried our diseases," but the crowd responds, "yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted." If not a call and response, it is the poet's revelation that the one who must have done this for us was the one whom we thought was being punished. It is the total reversal of fortunes that breaks my heart. It is the fact that I should have known better but couldn't see it. The one majestic display of redemptive love is right in front of my face, and I missed it!

As Steve Pankey preached about in his sermon yesterday, the world assumes that the rich and successful are those whom God has blessed. Similarly, those who are poor and miserable are those whom God has punished. It's society's way of ignoring the increasing gap between rich and poor--haves and have-nots--and making themselves feel better about trampling on the rights, property, and lives of the underclass. That might be how the world works--how we see things--but it's not how God works, and it's not how God calls us to live.

The one who was oppressed was oppressed for our sake. As the prophet declares, the pain of the suffering one is a part of God's redemptive plan. The pain is not empty. We may have caused it, but God uses it to transform the situation. The question remains whether we will see it.

I'll get to the gospel lesson later this week. For now, though, I want to linger in the searing pain of the suffering one. I want another chance to see it for what it is. I want to regard him not as one "struck down by God and afflicted" but as the one "by [whose] bruises we are healed."

What's Your One Thing?

You can read or hear this or any sermon from St. John's on our parish website or through our iTunes podcast.
October 11, 2015 – The 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner

A link to the audio file for this sermon is also here.
What if I told you that there was only one thing you had to do to go to heaven? Just one thing—and not some crazy, ridiculous Herculean feat that none of us could do—but one, simple, within-your-power thing that gives you a guaranteed ticket straight to paradise when you die. Would you do it? What if it wasn’t easy? What if it turned out to be a really difficult thing but still something totally possible? Would you do it? What if it required you to give up something really important? Would you still do that one thing even if you had to reorient your life completely and make some huge changes in order to do it? Would it be worth it? Maybe it sounds crazy, but what I’m asking you is how much you think heaven is worth because Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man in today’s gospel lesson forces us to ask that very question: what would we give up for heaven?

A man came to Jesus and knelt before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Before listening to Jesus’ response, take a moment to think about that scene. The man knelt before Jesus. That was a sign of humility and respect—the universal posture of supplication. The man needed something, and he knew that Jesus was the one who could give it to him. Jesus’ reply was in response to this man’s hopeful request, and his words were exactly the kind of answer any religious teacher would give: “You know the commandments—don’t murder, steal, or lie; don’t defraud your neighbor, and honor your father and mother.” And the man said, “Yes, I know all of that. I’ve done all of that, but I want to be sure. I want to know what is missing.” And then Jesus leveled the spiritual blow that sent the man reeling.

Jesus looked at the man and loved him, and, in that love, he said, “You lack one thing. Go, sell all that you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come follow me.” Jesus wasn’t picking on the man. He loved him. He wanted the man to find the salvation he sought. But Jesus wasn’t just any teacher, he was the Good Teacher, and he could see that, despite keeping the commandments, the man was missing one thing. “If you want to inherit eternal life,” Jesus said with hope and love in his heart, “Go sell everything that you have, and give it all to the poor.” And the words shocked the man, and he went away grieving because, as Mark tells us, he had many possessions.

Today, dear friends, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that Jesus isn’t asking each of us to sell everything that we have and give it to the poor. But the bad news is that whatever he’s asking us to do is just as hard for us. What is your one thing? If you knelt down at the feet of Jesus and asked him what you must do to inherit eternal life, what is the one thing that Jesus would ask you to give up? What’s the one thing that, as soon as you heard him say it, you know you’d have no choice but to get up and walk away full of grief? What’s your one thing? What’s the one thing that is keeping you from entering God’s kingdom?

The key verse in this passage isn’t the bit about selling all that you have and giving it to the poor. And it’s not about rich people having a harder time getting into heaven than a camel fitting through the eye of a needle. No, the one thing you need to hear is Jesus’s response to the disciples’ question about who can be saved: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” If you want to go to heaven, that’s the only thing you need to learn—that, if it were up to you to get inside those pearly gates, you’d have no chance at all. Instead, you must learn that the only way you’re ever going to get into God’s kingdom is by depending totally and completely and exclusively on God.

Money just happens be the one thing that gets in the way more often than anything else. Why? Because money give us the illusion of power. Money gives us the illusion of self-reliance. Wealth insulates us from the challenges of life. A full checking account means food in the pantry and gas in the tank. A steady paycheck means new shoes when the old ones wear out and a warm, dry house when the weather is cold and wet. Money buys health insurance, which pays for doctors and nurses and scans and tests and pills and hospital visits, all of which keep us healthy and strong…for now. But take it all away and where would we turn? If you lost your job and your bank account and your portfolio and your house and your family and your friends and your health and you had absolutely nothing, where would you turn for help? To whom would your cries for mercy be directed?

Whether we know it or not, we depend on God. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we depend on God. No matter how carefully we insulate ourselves from the cold, bare, hungry neediness of life, we need God to get us through another day. We need God to save us. And, when we forget that, when we think that we can do it on our own, we find ourselves on the outside of God’s kingdom, wondering why the doors are shut and locked and why no one will let us in. We cannot afford to forget that only God can save us. But, in a life built on the security and stability that we think we have provided, how will we remember that?

What is the one thing in your life that makes you feel secure? What’s the one thing that gives you the illusion of self-reliance? Here you are, at the feet of Jesus, and, whatever it is, that’s the one thing he’s telling you to give up. And it’s not because he wants you to suffer but because he loves you and he wants you to live with him in God’s kingdom and he knows that the only way you’ll ever get there is if you learn to depend on God alone. What is your one thing? What must you give up in order to know what it means to rely on God as if your life—both here and in heaven—depended on it? Is it strength? Is it health? Is it family? Is it friends? For most of us, it’s wealth, but for all of us, it’s something.

You can’t get into heaven until you learn to depend on God and God alone. With mortals, it is impossible, but not with God. With God, all things are possible. What is it that you must give up in order to believe those words with all of your heart? What is Jesus telling you to let go of? And will you do it, or will you walk away grieving?

What do you think: is heaven worth it? If not, there’s the door.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


At the Garner house, we splurge on a cable package that allows us to watch all the kid channels like Nick Jr. and Disney Junior and all the sports networks like ESPN17, but we don't spring for any of the movie channels. When people talk about their favorite shows on HBO or Showtime, I just smile and nod and say, "That sounds interesting," because we don't get those channels. We do, however, get a lower-class set of movie channels--not the kind that spends money on creating original series that win scores of Emmys but the kind that buy the rights to one or two big-name films and then show them every night for a few months.

One of those films has created a rift in our family. Every time I see that No Country for Old Men is on, I stop flipping through the channels to watch it, and Elizabeth sighs and says, "You know that I don't like this movie. Should I go into the other room and read?" That's not a genuine offer, of course. It's wife-speak for "Hey, dumbass, for the umpteenth time, I don't want to watch this; turn the channel!"

But when she's not home--or not paying attention--I get sucked into that slow-playing drama of life and death and decision. I can watch any two or three minutes of the film and be glad that I did. One scene that sticks with me is the moment when Llewelyn Moss is in the Mexican hospital and talks to Anton Chigurh on the phone. The latter has been hunting the former, trying to get back a large sum of money that the latter had stumbled upon and kept for himself. In a cool, unemotional tone that is indicative of Chigurh, he gives Llewelyn a choice. He can either bring the money back and save his wife's life, or he can keep running until Chigurh finds him and kills him and then goes to kill his wife. As he says on the phone, "That's the best deal you're gonna get. I won't tell you you can save yourself because you can't." Although dark and sinister, there's a principled fatalism that dominates the film. It's a hard look at reality that I find penetrating.

We encounter a similar sort of fatalism in today's reading from the Old Testament (2 Kings 22:14-23:3). King Josiah has directed that God's temple be refurbished, and, during the construction project, Hilkiah the high priest discovers the Book of the Law--an ancient, long-forgotten testament to what God had asked his people to do. When Hilkiah read it, he took it to the king and read it to him, and the king's reaction was powerful: he tore his clothes. He knew that those words meant trouble because his people had been doing just about everything that the Book of the Law had told them not to do. So the king sent the priest to ask the Lord what should be done. The prophetess Huldah offered a remarkable response:
Thus says the LORD, I will indeed bring disaster on this place and on its inhabitants-- all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. Because they have abandoned me and have made offerings to other gods, so that they have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched. But as to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the LORD, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the LORD, when you heard how I spoke against this place, and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and because you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, says the LORD. Therefore, I will gather you to your ancestors, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring on this place.
Forgive the long quotation, but, to me, it reads with as much drama as No Country for Old Men. What will happen? God is going to come and bring disaster upon his people. They have gone astray in the worst possible way, and there will be a punishment for it. But the king, whose heart was torn when he discovered the sin that he and his people had committed, would not see this disaster but, instead, would die in peace before the terrible events unfolded. I hear God saying to his people, "You can't avoid the consequences of your actions, but I respect your repentance."

On the surface, that's not a very Christian thing to say. (And, perhaps, it shouldn't be since it's from the Hebrew bible.) But, if we dig a little deeper, I wonder what we might discover in this story.

Remember, of course, that these histories weren't being written as they unfolded. They were written generations later as a testament not only to the past but also as an instruction for the future. This isn't, therefore, a passage that speaks to the futility of repentance but to the power of reform. Even when all of God's people are headed down the wrong path there is still value in turning around and searching for God.

We often diagnose a crisis with the benefit of hindsight. What got us into WWI? Maybe we shouldn't have allowed Hitler to spread across Europe unchecked. No wonder the dot-com bubble burst. Stronger levies and a clearer evacuation plan are necessary in places like New Orleans. Of course poor regulation on complex derivative securities and too-big-to-fail financial institutions led to a sharp decline. As the events unfold around us, we only get a glimpse of what is happening and why we are powerless to stop it. Afterwards, however, we can pick the problem apart and figure out what to do next time. That is the witness of Josiah's story.

No matter what 2 Kings says, I don't believe God works as simply as to bring disaster upon his people as punishment for their sin. I think it's more complicated than that. I think there are geo-political, economic, cultural explanations for the collapse of the Judean kingdom that, to an ancient ear, are inseparable from the economy of sin and punishment. But remember how the story ends. Even though calamity ensues, God preserves a remnant of his people. God's promises are not defeated even if his people are sent to Babylon in captivity. Even in the Old Testament, humanity's sin is not the end of the story. And that brings me back to Josiah.

In a long history of wicked leaders, we celebrate Josiah for his period of reform. The temple was cleansed. The covenant was renewed. The false worship was purged from the land. And, for a time, everything was as it should be. Josiah reigned and died after a period of renewal. And, eventually, God's people forgot what it meant to belong only to him. And the neighboring nations invaded and besieged Jerusalem and defeated the people of Judah. But they didn't forget Josiah. And they didn't forget the power of repentance.

Jesus Christ is our testament that sin is no match for the power of God. The resurrection is a reminder that repentance will always have value. We might not be able to avoid the earthly consequences of our bad decisions. Those of us who destroy our bodies through the abuse of alcohol aren't magically given a new body when we stop and repent--at least not in this life. But we do believe that even our broken bodies are made new on the other side of repentance. We are called to remember the power of reformation. No matter how dark things get, God's forgiveness will win the day. Remember the power of God's mercy. Seek a period of renewal. Return to the Lord and his covenant. And know that your remembrance is not lost to God. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Bad Side of Good

What separates you from God? Perhaps, considering Paul's resounding affirmation in Romans 8 that nothing can separate us from the love of God, a better question would be to ask what inhibits your ability to experience God's loving presence in your life. Sin, of course, is the short answer. But what does that mean? What gets in the way of our discipleship? What prevents us from knowing fully the love of God?

Maybe it's alcoholism or the abuse of narcotics. Maybe it's lust or pornography. Maybe it's prejudice or bigotry. Maybe it's gluttony or laziness. Maybe it's pride or ego. Maybe it's self-centeredness or cold-heartedness. Or maybe, as Jesus puts it in this Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 10:17-31), it's wealth or possessions. Take a minute and think about all of those things. And take a minute to think about which ones plague your life. Think about which vices I haven't mentioned. Think about them and ask yourself, "What's so wrong with that?"

A glass of wine can be wonderful. Pain-killing drugs can be miraculous. Love, including sexual intimacy, is a gift of our createdness. Familial ties and closely knit communities should be celebrated. Food is necessary for life, and rest and relaxation are in too short of supply these days. Confidence and self-awareness are spiritual assets, and sometimes it's best to have tough skin and not let the abuses of this life break us down. And having wealth, of course, means a safe place to live with enough food to eat and the security of self-preservation. What's wrong with any of that?

When people come to me and confesses a struggle with something like alcohol, I usually ask them to what extent that issue has begun to inhibit their lives. What makes your drinking a problem? Is it interfering with your professional life? Is it damaging your personal relationships? Is it getting in the way of you being the person God has created you to be? There is no exact number of drinks per day that makes a person an alcoholic. Instead, an individual, with the guidance of the community to which the individual belongs, must figure out on her/his own where the line between "social drinker" and "alcoholic" lies.

With most of the vices that inhibit our relationship with God, there are distinguishable lines where a potential good becomes sinful. Though there may not be clear and exact definitions, society as a whole has figured out more or less where those boundaries are. Although not unique in this way, wealth stands out as one good-turned-bad where society hasn't figured out where to draw the line between blessing and curse, and, as demonstrated by Jesus' conversation with the man who asks him what must be done to inherit eternal life, it's a problem that isn't new to our generation.

Money is power. Money is independence. Money is freedom. Money is opportunity. Take away money, and so many things that we enjoy disappear. We like those things. We want those things. And, because we haven't learned how else to have them, we accumulate wealth as the means by which we obtain those good things. But God has another plan. God's power, God's independence, God's freedom, God's opportunity are always more substantial than what we can acquire with our own means. And those things can't be bought. In fact, as Jesus makes clear in his instruction to the man who is searching for eternal life, money actually stands in the way of us getting them. Why? Because our dependence on money has inhibited our ability to learn how depend on God instead of ourselves for those good things.

The rich people, whom Jesus describes as having a harder time getting into heaven than the camel who attempts to fit through a needle's eye, aren't those who obsess about wealth. They aren't the super-rich who have more money than they can spend. They are us--all of us--those who don't know where to draw the line. Most of us know how to limit our consumption to one or two drinks. We know to take oxycodone only when we're recovering from surgery and not when we're feeling anxious about work. We know that sex within the bonds of marriage is a beautiful thing and that sex outside of marriage is a misplaced search for affection. But most of us don't know what it means to depend on God alone because we haven't learned to let go of our possessions.

Let go. Let go of your wealth. How much? Should you sell everything and give it to the poor? Maybe. If that's what it takes to learn to depend only on God, then, yes, you should sell it all. That level of self-dispossession isn't right for all of us, but all of us are called to let go of enough of our wealth to discover what it means to depend only on God. That sort of poverty is a spiritual discipline. We take on that discipline in order to learn what the world cannot teach us. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot take care of ourselves. We cannot protect ourselves. Only God can, and that's a lesson we must become poor to learn.

Monday, October 5, 2015

What Jesus Said

If you want to make sweeping categorical statements about who does and does not get into heaven, it helps to be Jesus. He's pretty well accepted as an authority on the subject. For some reason, though, preachers who quote Jesus and give their congregations the exact same message that Jesus delivered to his audience are often chastised for overstepping their bounds. Imagine that! If Jesus says it, we have two thousand years of interpretation to filter out the parts we don't really want to hear (e.g., Jesus' teaching on divorce in yesterday's gospel lesson). If the preacher says it, however, he or she is often labeled as a "radical" or a "liberal" and, before long, is asked to pack up and move on.

In the end, Jesus wasn't very popular with the powers that be either, so maybe the preacher who declares this Sunday that "[it] is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" will feel some level of comfort when she or he is being nailed to a proverbial cross. Of course, the preacher could hide behind a claim of analogy or metaphor or hyperbole. After all, if you boil it all down, the point behind many sermons is basically, "Jesus didn't really mean that." Or maybe the preacher could point a rhetorical finger at the "truly rich," of whom perhaps only one or two calls the congregation a spiritual home (perhaps not for long). Or maybe it's time for the preacher to let Jesus say what Jesus says and be the prophet who shares in his message instead of the pastor who softens the blow.

Truthfully, I've been waiting for months--literally for months--for Mark 10:17-31 to come along. Back in the spring, I searched through all of the gospel texts in September and October, looking for one that offered a clear message of stewardship for our fall focus, and this one is perfect. There are so many beautiful pieces in this passage. The man kneels down before Jesus and calls him "good teacher" as a sign of true, deep, hopeful obedience. The man really, really wants to get it right. Isn't that true of most of our congregations? Jesus outlines the big commandments, to which the man responds, "I've kept all of those since my youth," which is the response that most of us would give, too. Jesus looked at the man and loved him--the only time in Mark's account that Jesus is said to have loved someone--and only then gave him the painful teaching that follows. This is the chance for the preacher to love his/her congregation while sharing with them a tough teaching.

The truth is that our wealth gets in the way. We are rich. All of us who have a place to sleep and food to eat and enough money left over to buy our kid a Christmas present are, by the world's standards, rich. You can argue with me about that, but, call it what you will, if you fit into that category, Jesus is talking to you. Our possessions get in the way. We must become radically self-dispossessed. You cannot enter the kingdom of God if you are clutching onto anything other than the cross. What will it take to let go of everything else?

Stop trying to figure out a way around Jesus' tough teaching. There are no loopholes here. If you want to be a part of God's kingdom, you must let everything else go. The only question is how you can do that. This Sunday's sermon is about finding a way to let go of everything except the cross. It's about stewardship. It's about living lightly. It's about trust and faith and spiritual growth. It's about discipline and sacrifice. It's about learning that the only thing that can get you into heaven is Jesus and that the only way to truly learn that is to stop depending on yourself and cling only to him. It's about selling everything you have, giving it to the poor, and following Jesus. But don't blame me. I didn't make it up. Jesus said it first.

Friday, October 2, 2015

On the Other Hand

Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 10:2-16) is ostensibly about divorce. The Pharisees ask Jesus whether divorce is permitted; Jesus responds with a question about the Law of Moses; and a rabbinical conversation/debate about the interpretation of scripture ensues. We are told by Mark that the Pharisees wanted to test Jesus with their question, so we know the emphasis behind the question isn't as simple as "We want to know what you think." As I've already written this week, we shouldn't ignore these words. They're important. We might not like what they say. They might have their origins in an ancient context that is remarkably dissimilar from our own. But Jesus offers an unequivocal teaching on divorce and remarriage (i.e., it's adultery) that we can't afford to ignore.

Today, however, I want to leave divorce aside and ask whether there's a more important lesson for twenty-first century Christians wrapped up in Jesus' exchange with the Pharisees. I wonder whether the presenting issue of divorce masks the more important and relevant point in this passage--that scripture doesn't always agree with itself. Maybe the most important thing for the preacher to do on Sunday is leave the congregation scratching their heads wondering how to make sense of the bible--an invitation to a deeper, more intentional, always relational reading of scripture.

Here's my shocking exegetical revelation for the day: the bible is inconsistent with itself. Sometimes it tells us to love our enemies, and other times it tells us to kill them all--men, women, children, and livestock. Sometimes it tells us to approach our brother or sister and point out to them their spiritual wrong, and other times it tells us to remove the plank in our own eye before attempting to pull out the speck in our neighbor's. Sometimes it tells us that impregnating a girl gives the baby's father the opportunity to purchase her marital rights from her father, and other times it tells us that merely looking at a woman with lust is equivalent to adultery. Sometimes it tells us that divorce and remarriage is permitted, and other times it tells us that it is strictly forbidden. How will we read and digest and believe the Word of God?

Jesus is asked about divorce, and he responds by asking the Pharisees what the Law of Moses tells us. They reply with Deuteronomy 24 in mind, reporting that Moses allows a man to issue a certificate of divorce. Jesus, however, appeals to Genesis 2, concluding that "from the beginning of creation" men and women have been created to dwell together as one flesh--a union that cannot be separated. (On a side note, I'd suggest a difference between "cannot" and "should not" be separated as a way of distinguishing between when divorce is reasonable and when it is not--all hinging on the question of whether a marriage is, indeed, a true image of God's love for the world.) Bottom line: Jesus plays the Genesis trump card.

Consider that Jesus isn't telling the Pharisees that they've misquoted the bible. He's not telling them that they're wrong. They are, of course, correct. They know the scriptures as well as anyone. But Jesus chooses to prioritize the Genesis 2 mandate over the Deuteronomy 24 prescription on the basis of "hardness of heart." As Jesus understands it, the law regarding divorce was written because human beings weren't able to live as God intended them to live. That law, therefore, takes a secondary place behind the law of creation--the most basic, pre-Genesis-3, before-the-Fall understanding of how we are supposed to live--the way we were created to be.

That approach makes sense to me, but, if it weren't Jesus making the argument, I could easily take the opposite side. Who gets to decide which parts of the bible to ignore? Deuteronomy 24 is clear. It's unambiguous. It's practical literature with clear instructions in it. Genesis 2 is a story about human nature. It's not a textbook for marriage. Jesus uses an argument to discount one part of the bible in favor of another. His teaching, therefore, has less to do with divorce than it does with reading and interpreting scripture.

Jesus shows us two critical things: 1) it's ok to let go of one part of the bible if there is another part that trumps it and 2) we should be honest and transparent in how we make those interpretive decisions. Think the death penalty is wrong? Then you should be clear about how you decide to dismiss those parts of the Old Testament that call for justice through execution. Think war and violence are always wrong? Then you should explain how passages about forgiveness and turning the other cheek take precedence over passages about God's victory over the oppressors. Think divorce and remarriage is ok? Then you should explain how Jesus' interpretation of the scriptures isn't valid anymore.

We have a great opportunity--this Sunday and beyond. We have the chance to be open and honest and thoughtful in our reading of scripture. We have the chance to say to the world that we know that the bible is a potentially confusing text. Even Jesus wasn't always consistent in how he interpreted the Hebrew bible. There is still life in these ancient words. They are still for us. They are still the foundation of our faith. If we can't say that, we need to stop calling ourselves Christians, sell our churches, and spend our Sunday mornings at Starbucks.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Nobody's Business?

On Monday, I wrote about the difficult passage facing preachers and congregations this Sunday. Mark 10:2-6 must rank among the absolute least favorite for those who climb into the pulpit week after week. I've preached on many a challenging text, but Jesus' unqualified condemnation of those who divorce and remarry is perhaps the hardest. It forces the preacher to engage the reality of the text and attempt to straddle the first century, in which these words were first spoken, and the twenty-first century, in which they are now heard. It ain't easy, and that was my least I thought it was.

I disseminate my blog posts through social media, usually using a tweet that is linked to my Facebook account. In a shameless attempt at self-promotion, I try to think of a catchy, perhaps controversial message of fewer than 140 characters (including the link to the post) that will grab people's attention. On Monday, I tweeted, "Who's ready for a sermon about adulterous divorcees? _Sigh_ Jesus doesn't make the gospel easy." Anyone who has spent more than 27 second with me knows I'm a smartass. I can't not be sarcastic. Twitter doesn't allow italics, so that "_Sigh_" was a way of me letting everyone know that I, too, find this text difficult. No, social media isn't the best medium for delivering sarcasm, but I thought that was pretty clear. If not, just read the post. There's nothing in it that suggests that I would look forward to (or even consider) offering a condemnatory sermon. But one of my followers on Twitter (@dennykeane) replied to my tweet, writing, "it's none of your business with the 'adulterous divorces.' Stick to the Gospel of love and mercy." I didn't have a chance to compose a post yesterday or Tuesday (tough week), but here's my reply.

I believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is all good news and all grace. I believe that God is merciful beyond our comprehension. I believe that all Christians are called to share God's good news of forgiveness and reconciliation and salvation through Jesus Christ. And I also believe that Jesus said what he said--"Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery"--and that we need to take him seriously. In other words, I believe that the gospel is one of "love and mercy" and that the gospel requires us to take sin seriously. The good news depends on us hearing both at the same time.

The Pharisees approach Jesus and try to trap him by asking him a question about divorce. Jesus' reputation for holding a high view of holiness had spread (see last week's lesson on cutting of whatever limb causes you to sin), and they wanted to see if Jesus would contradict the Law of Moses, which has very clear and permissive (if you're a man) rules for divorce. Jesus, neither taking the bait nor shying from a rhetorical fight, puts the question back to them: "What does Moses say?" When they reply with the expected permissive answer, Jesus appeals to a higher authority--the Law of Creation: "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.'" That's a rabbinic strategy on which I'm not an expert, but I sense that Jesus is pulling out the big guns. It's the kind of rhetorical appeal that doesn't invite much conversation even though there's more explaining to do.

If that weren't tough enough, the disciples, in a private moment, ask Jesus to be sure he meant what he said. "Um, Jesus? You said some pretty tough things back there. Were you being serious, or were you just proving a point?" We'd like Jesus to reply and give us some wiggle room. We want a pastoral answer rather than a theological one (see Steve Pankey's excellent post from Monday on the difference). But he doesn't give us even an inch of relief. Instead, he doubles down and makes it as plain as can be: if you divorce and remarry, you're an adulterer--period.

So, back to the twitter reply I received from @dennykeane, whose business is it? Jesus isn't likely to throw the first stone, but he forces us to confront the demands of the kingdom. You will be holy. You will live a life befitting God's kingdom. You will not cause a little one to stumble. In Sunday's exchanges with the Pharisees and disciples, Jesus reminds us that a pattern of divorce and remarriage is a human reality that obscures our view of the holiness of God's kingdom, and that is as true today as it was back in the first century. We cannot afford to lose sight of that, and I think that's the preacher's business.

Brokenness, failure, infidelity, sin--they are all realities in this world, and, thanks be to God, they are all absent in God's kingdom. As Jesus makes 100% clear, our hardness of heart is the reason Moses/God gave us the rules concerning divorce. Those rules are not, therefore, descriptions of kingdom life; instead, they are a recognition of what isn't the way it's supposed to be. If we pretend that the brokenness of this world--including the corruption of marriage--doesn't matter in the kingdom sense, we lose sight of the power of God's promise to make all things new. That doesn't mean that God loves adulterers any less. That doesn't mean that forgiveness isn't real. That doesn't mean God's mercy has any limits. But it does mean that divorce and remarriage isn't the way God wants the world to be. We cannot shy away from that. That proclamation is my business, and I won't back down from that.

It is our job--all of us who follow Jesus--to proclaim the universal invitation to God's kingdom and the uncompromising demands of kingdom life. Do sinners go to heaven? Absolutely. Can anything separate us from God's love? Absolutely not. Is sin a reality that we must confront and from which we must repent in order to experience the fullness of God's forgiving love? Without a doubt. Is it my business (and yours) to share Jesus' difficult yet ultimately hopeful message that sin is real and that God's forgiveness is even greater? Yes, yes, yes. On that, we cannot waiver.