Monday, November 30, 2015

Good News of Advent

I know that today is the feast of St. Andrew, and, in honor of my Scottish heritage, I should be writing about him. But I want as many days this week to write about the wonderful lessons for Advent 2C as I can get, so I'm passing over kilts and haggis and fishermen and the nearness of the word to write about the good news of Advent. (Yes, I mean good news.)

Yesterday in church, I announced the upcoming Wednesday-night series for youth and adults called, "It's the End of the World as We Know It...And I Feel Fine." The title itself got a few laughs, but there were a number of chuckles when I said, "We all know that the world is going to end someday, and this series is about how the end is good news for Christians." Apparently, it's funny to hear Jesus say in the gospel lesson that there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars and the foundations of heaven will be shaken and then hear the rector say, "All that's good news, y'all!" Yeah, I get it.

 But it is good news. It must be good news. This season of waiting and watching and hoping for the consummation of God's plan, for the fulfillment of his promises, for the coming of our Lord must be about good news. Those cataclysmic predictions must be good news for those who are waiting on God to show up in a big way. Those earth-destroying prophecies must be good news for God's people. The big and final end must be good news for us. If not, we're stuck in a religion of hopelessness. If we can't hear the prediction of the end of the world as good news, we're either practicing a religion of "get what you can while you can," which is a thoroughly un-Christian hedonism, or we're practicing a religion of "soon we'll escape this physical world for a spiritual reality," which is a gnostic, dualistic way of saying that this earthly life and the creation itself are meaningless. There's no good news in that. As Christians, we must look forward to the end.

And that's why I'm so excited about this Sunday's readings. Yesterday, Jesus got our attention with "Be on your guard" and "power and great glory" and "distress among nations" and "fear and foreboding," and this week John the Baptist will help us see that as good news by "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins," saying, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God." That's the smooth and straight path through cataclysmic destruction and directly to God's salvation.

There is, of course, a tension in this season of Advent between getting ready for Christmas and getting ready for Christ's second advent--the one that comes in the clouds with power and great glory. One is quiet and deliberate and sweet. The other is triumphant and violent and disquieting. But they aren't separate. They are both salvation. They are both good news.

This Sunday, as we pivot away from end-of-the-world language and toward the prophet's call to repentance, I feel a connection of hope that links the two and that leads us on to what's next in Advent 3 and 4. As a minister of the gospel, I feel the need to identify the unfolding of good news that we are in the midst of. God will make all things right. God is making all things right. We are called to participate in that and, if that will be good news to us, we must repent and claim the earth-shattering transformation for our own. But more about that during the rest of the week.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Bearking the Marks of Christ: James Otis Sargent Huntington

What in the world would motivate someone to give up his possessions, his relationships, his independence, even his whole life to become a monk? Well, on this day (November 25) in 1885, James Otis Sargent Huntington did exactly that. Today is the anniversary of his entrance into monastic life, and we remember it not only because it is a remarkable thing for anyone to accept that religious discipline but also because of the distinct life and work that came out of that monastic profession.

Huntington was an S.O.B--a "son of a bishop"--and he was ordained an Episcopal priest when he was around 26 years old. Initially, his ministry was among some working-class immigrants of New York City, but that immersion into the lives of the working poor only grew throughout his life. Not long after he was ordained, Huntington felt the call to monastic life, but, of course, as an Episcopalian and not a Roman Catholic, the opportunities for being a monk or a nun were fairly limited. So what did Huntington do? He started his own order. The Order of the Holy Cross was formed, and its mother house is still open and active in West Park, New York. Closer to home, Huntington founded St. Andrew's School in Sewanee along with other religious institutions in this and other countries. On the whole, it seems, Huntington was able to do amazing work despite having limited personal financial resources with which to accomplish that work (Information from Wikipedia).

Ironically, there is a freedom that comes from giving up everything you have in the service of the Lord. Although most religious live in community with other monks and nuns, the worldly concerns that are shared within that community are miniscule when compared with our worries. As a monk, you don't have a family to take care of. You don't have physical needs to worry about. College tuition, vacation to Disney World, retirement savings--none of that is a direct burden felt by a religious. Those concerns are just taken care of. Sure, the order must take care of its members, and each person works for the good of the group, but there is a remarkable liberation that comes from making such a profession. As such, one gives up one's own life and becomes completely united to the Body of Christ.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote, "May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." As a Christian, converted from a zealous adherence to Judaism, Paul claimed the cross of Christ as the only thing of value in his life and in this world. A prisoner for Christ, he gave up everything he had and devoted his life to the message of forgiveness, freedom, and salvation that the cross proclaims. Paul knew what it meant to let go of the troubles and concerns of the world to focus exclusively on the good news of Jesus. James Huntington, too, knew what it meant to seek a life unburdened by earthly needs. He sought that lift in a religious community so that he could devote every effort he had to carrying the good news to the poor. What about us? Is the cross of Christ that real to us?

Who's ready to become a monk or a nun? Of course, that call is given to some, but most of us answer Christ's call in other ways. We serve Christ as teachers, janitors, mothers, fathers, doctors, bankers, and cooks. But we must find a way to leave our earthly burdens behind so that we, too, might be set free to live fully for the gospel. In some ways, that's harder because we need to deal with things like college tuition and Disney World and retirement savings. Those things aren't going to go away. But we must keep them in the right perspective. We must find a way to know for ourselves what it means to "boast of [nothing] except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." We must know what it means to be "crucified to the world." We must let the power of the cross shape us just as clearly as it shaped Huntington and Paul. We must be willing to give up everything we have to follow Jesus. That may not come as a religious profession or a life-occupying missionary journey, but it will surely cost us just as much. Will we say yes?

Giving Thanks Every Day

This piece originally appeared in our parish newsletter. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn about what's going on at St. John's, Decatur, please click here.

During the month of November, I have seen several people posting a daily thanksgiving on Facebook. What a wonderful practice! Each day for thirty days, these individuals are thinking about their lives, naming one thing for which they are grateful, and then sharing their gratitude with the world. Consider that practice for a moment. What are some of the things you would share? Could you think of thirty? Could you figure out which thirty among hundreds you would post?

I have never undertaken that particular exercise, and I wonder what sort of effect it has on those who do. Does the daily practice of giving thanks deepen their overall appreciation for the blessings they have received? Does the spirit of gratitude persist beyond the thirty days? Does the habit of sharing a positive perspective change the way they view and use social media? Is their thanksgiving contagious? Does it invite other Facebook friends to consider the blessings in their own lives?

Although it does not appear in social media, part of my daily practice is to name before God those things that are troubling me and those things for which I am thankful. That is how I structure my daily prayers—intercessions and thanksgivings. And something arises out of the daily habit. I discover a shape or direction of how God is present with me each day. For me, my life finds balance as I consider both challenges and blessings together. If I focus too much on the troubles around me and forget the importance of intentional thanksgiving, God’s presence in my life is harder to see. When I am steeped in that daily practice, however, God’s work seems clear and obvious even when times are tough.

The bible is replete with examples of gratitude in the face of adversity. James wrote, “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds” (1:2). Even from prison, Paul wrote, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content…In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13). Again and again, the Psalmist reminded God’s people to choose hope in the midst of struggle: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (46:1) and “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” (23:4). Those sacred words are written so that you and I might take comfort in moments of difficulty, but, in my life, the invitation to intentional thanksgiving has come more substantially from another source: the grateful people around me.

Maybe you know those people, too—the sorts of people who always seem to see the blessings in their lives even when they are surrounded by hardship. Although they always lead with a cheerful smile, just below the surface is considerable pain. Story after story of disappointment, difficulty, and disaster have filled their lives, yet they never complain. Instead, they remind me what it means to be truly thankful. They know what it means to let gratitude define their lives, and they invite me to do the same.

Gratitude, it seems, increases resilience. “How do you do it?” we might ask those whose lives have been filled with tragedy. “How do you even get out of bed in the morning?” And their answer is as astounding as it is simple: “Because each day is another blessing.” Those who refuse to let the challenges of life beat them down are the ones who never forget to count their blessings. That is not a coincidence.
This Thanksgiving, consider more than those things for which you are grateful. That question is too easy. We are all thankful for family and friends and food. Instead, ask yourself how you are grateful. Do you give thanks every day? Have you adopted a pattern of gratitude as a way of life? Are you building up your resilience for whatever hardship might lie ahead by counting the blessings that have already come your way? Gratitude is not a list; it is a way of life. May thanksgiving become a part of who we are.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Keeping Faith

It's easier to live either with total certainty or total abstraction. When you mix the two, things get tough.

Consider the emotional state of a person and her family as they progress through a terminal illness. Before the diagnosis, death, although certain, is too far away--too abstract--to bring any real daily burden. Then, she finds a lump, and everything changes. "What could it be?" she asks herself. She shares the news with her husband, who says, "It's probably nothing," but, of course, on the inside he's anxious, too. Each step closer to a diagnosis is a step of dread. The specific possibility of her mortality is coalescing quickly. Finally, the doctor does the biopsy and sends the sample tissue off for a pathology report. "We'll know in a few days," he says, and the agony only grows. Waiting and not knowing is terrible. Then, the terrible news is disclosed. Shock and anguish overwhelm the woman and her husband. They share the news with their children. "But there are some treatment options," the parents quickly interject, knowing that, still, the prognosis is not good. Months of fighting and struggling pass. A confusion of hope and gloom pass over them in waves. Ultimately, things do not improve, and eventually the decision is reached to offer palliative treatment--enough to keep her comfortable and ensure the best possible quality of life until death arrives. And, strangely enough, for the first time since the lump was found, peace begins to settle in.

We'd rather know or not know, but being stuck in between is agony. Welcome to Christianity.

On Sunday, we begin the season of Advent--the time of waiting, watching, and preparing for the coming of our Lord. We celebrate how the world longed for the savior, who was born 2000 years ago, and we renew that longing as we await his return. The scriptural language of this season is "be on your guard" and "the Lord is coming" and "salvation is near." And, as Christians, we are called to embrace both the imminence and the obscurity of the Lord's return.

In Luke 21:25-36, Jesus declares that the end is coming soon: "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves." In other words, the creation itself will reveal that the Son of Man is on his way. Underscoring the clarity of these signs, Jesus tells his disciples a parable about a fig tree in leaf: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near." As Jesus puts it, it's that simple: "When you see signs in the heavens and distress among nations, get ready; it won't be long."

But it is long. It's very long. The followers of Jesus have been interpreting these signs of distress for 2000 years, and still we're waiting for his return. We've seen the persecutions of the ancient world, the fall of the Christian empire, the darkness of the Middle Ages, the skepticism of Modernism, and all the floods, typhoons, famines, and earthquakes that have accompanied the passing of time. And still no Jesus.

Nevertheless, Jesus urges us, "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap." Well, that's tough. It's hard to live as if the coming of the Son of Man is certain yet know that the timing is abstract. And that's the point. Faith is hard.

We believe in a God who will save us, but salvation sometimes feels very far away. We believe in a God who has the power to make all things right, but his decision to exercise that power seems continually delayed. We believe that Jesus will come again, but we've been waiting for a long, long time. What makes us think that tomorrow will be any different?

Yet we live for tomorrow. The urgency of the kingdom is absolute. We cannot be lackadaisical. Following Jesus means living as if the end is always near. Yes, that is exhausting, but that's what shapes our lives and our faith. Living for the kingdom is what Christianity is all about. As we structure our lives around the imminence of Jesus' return, we see the kingdom breaking through. Our waiting and watching is how the kingdom becomes manifest to us. It's how the abstract becomes certain.

Does Our Kingdom Match Our King?

November 22, 2015 – Proper 29B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Text and audio of other sermons preached at St. John's, Decatur, can be found on its parish website.
“My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus says. Well, he ain’t joking. Has there ever been a time when God’s kingdom—when God’s reign of love and peace and salvation—seemed further away than it does right now? Terrorists have brought the battlefield into our back yards. Gun violence and murder have come to our small town. Our nation seems to have lost its moral compass. Christianity is shrinking—both in numbers and in influence. And the fastest growing religion in the world—in fact, the only religion that is growing faster than the world’s population—is Islam.

And all of those factors have combined with the timing of our political cycle to create a perfect storm of ungodly proportions. As a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I have never felt greater disappointment in our political leaders and candidates than I do right now. In an attempt to satisfy the demands of the electorate, politicians are saying things that, in any other context, would be dismissed as fear-mongering and hate speech. And we are buying into it! In this political season, candidates are appealing to our desire for power and prosperity by promoting unabashed greed. In this season of fear, politicians are capitalizing on our irrational anxieties by calling blindly for more walls and more guns and more bombs. That might be a good way to run a state or a country. That might be a good way to get elected. But that way of being, living, and doing is antithetical to everything that God’s kingdom stands for.

In fact, those are exactly the things that Jesus tells us to let go of. What does he ask us to do? Sell everything that you have and give it to the poor. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemy. Lay down your life. So what does that mean that God’s kingdom looks like? Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst. Blessed are those who suffer. If that is going to be a reality, what is God asking us to do? Welcome the stranger. Bless those who persecute you. Render to no one evil for evil. Live peaceably with all. Those aren’t campaign slogans. They’re the pillars of God’s kingdom. And that kingdom is getting harder and harder to find.

Standing before Pilate, having been arrested by his own people, Jesus declared, “My kingdom is not from this world.” Remember: the Jewish leaders had accused Jesus of leading an insurrection against the Roman Empire—of pretending to be a king who rivaled the authority of the Emperor. But Pilate looked at the humble prisoner before him and thought, “What sort of a king is this? Where are his followers? And why have his own countrymen betrayed him?” So Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And, while we know him to be the King of Kings, Pilate saw Jesus as nothing more than a radical preacher whose threat was not to any earthly empire but only to a religious hierarchy that had no place for him or his message. Naturally, that Roman prelate was looking for a king who reigns in power, but that’s not the sort of king that Jesus is. Instead, Jesus’ kingship is nothing like the kingdoms of this world. It is one of weakness and vulnerability. It is one in which the king himself wears not a crown of gold but a crown of thorns.

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not from this world,” but what does that mean for us? “If my kingdom were from this world,” Jesus continued, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” That’s a really big “if,” and it’s one we need to remember. If Jesus’ kingdom were an earthly kingdom, then fighting would be an appropriate response. But it’s not. So what is an appropriate response to the threat of violence for those of us who claim God’s kingdom to be our own? How is the reign of Christ demonstrated when our lives are inundated by fear? By laying down our arms, by setting aside our hate, by searching for the humanity of our enemies, by choosing love, by opening our doors as well as our hearts, and by accepting the vulnerability that is indicative of the kingdom of God.

But how is that possible? In this climate of fear, how can we surrender everything that we hold dear—even our own lives—when our instincts tell us to defend ourselves and protect our own interests? The only thing that makes that possible is the cross. The cross is what turns the ways of the world on their head and demonstrates once and for all that God will turn weakness into strength, vulnerability into invincibility, even death into life. The cross is what frees us from the need to win the victory for ourselves. The cross is what makes it possible for us to put to death our own needs for protection and survival and success and let God achieve all of those for us. When Jesus died on the cross, God raised him from the dead not so that he could come back and rule over us in earthly power but so that we might die with him and then be raised to life everlasting. That is the power of God. That is how God’s kingdom works.

We must be sure that our kingdom matches our king. Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world. If we want to claim him as our king—if we want to worship him as our Lord—we cannot remain tied to the kingdoms of the earth. We cannot embrace the old ways of winner-take-all and I’ll-get-what’s-mine and let’s-take-care-of-our-own if we want a place in God’s kingdom. Instead, we must embrace the cross as the way of true life—the posture by which God welcomes all people unto himself. We must become followers of the crucified one. We must let his sacrificial, vulnerable love become the model for our lives—not just a dream for the future. As we will sing in a few minutes when we present our offerings at the altar, “The Church of Christ is calling us to make the dream come true: a world redeemed by Christ-like love; all life in Christ made new.[1]” We must allow that kingdom—God’s kingdom—to come in our hearts, in our lives, and in our world—not tomorrow, but today.

[1] “As those of old their first fruits brought” by Frank von Christierson; © 1961 The Hymn Society.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Jesus or God?

I had a conversation with someone the other day who acknowledged that, in her prayer life, she has always felt close to Jesus but has always "had a hard time with God." In those sorts of conversations, as a priest and/or a spiritual director, I try to hide my instinctive heresy-search-and-destroy reactions, but this one, I could tell, crept out onto my face. Actually, I winced. I didn't say anything at the time. Trust me, this wasn't the right moment to say, "Let me introduce you to the heresy of Arianism." But I'm pretty sure she could tell by my facial expression that she had touch a nerve that had evoked a less-than-pastoral response in my countenance.

It's common, though, isn't it? In today's biblically illiterate, doctrinally vacuous, post-Christian world, there are lots of SBNRs who like the sound of Jesus but don't want anything to do with God. (That wasn't her point, but I'm taking it and running with it.) Jesus is all about loving your enemies, welcoming the stranger, turning the other cheek, eating with sinners, and dying for your friends. As long as he's not asking us to do the same thing (hint, hint: he is), how can anyone be against Jesus? God, on the other hand, is terrible. He's a wrath-flinging, judgment-pronouncing, damn-them-all-to-hell God. In fact, if I didn't know better, I'd suspect that Jesus wasn't a big fan of God either.

But that's my fault. That's our fault. As church leaders, as Christians, as evangelists, we are all called to share the good news that Jesus Christ shows the whole world that God loves us--the stranger, the outcast, the sinner. Jesus is God. Jesus is the fullest revelation of who God is. Unmitigated by human interpretation but fully integrated into humanity itself, the Incarnate Word is God as clear as we will ever get him. Jesus is the lens through which we must understand and interpret everything we have ever thought about God. If you want to know what God is really like, start with Jesus, and make sure everything else falls into place.

On Sunday, we'll read about the kingship of Christ: "My kingdom is not from this world...For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." That's not just Jesus' plan for the world; it's God's plan. Jesus elevates the significance of the moment by harkening back to his birth--his coming into the world. His life, death, and resurrection isn't just a moment in human history; it's a fundamental shift in God's encounter with humanity. And, if we want to know what God is really like and what his kingdom is all about, we should listen to Jesus' voice and belong to his truth.

God's kingdom isn't built around a throne of power but a seat of mercy. God's kingship isn't adorned with a crown of gold but a crown of thorns. Jesus isn't an accident. Jesus is the fullness of God. He represents everything that God is. God didn't give us a glimpse of who he is. He gave us the full thing. Gaze upon the crucified one and see your king. This is God. This is God with us.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Suspicious Gazes

Last Friday, I was walking with my three-and-a-half-year-old son to pick up my older two children from school. It's a short walk, and we often take the alley way behind our house because it's less heavily trafficked during the after-school rush. As we held hands, swinging our arms between us, I saw in the distance a cat making its way blissfully down the alley toward us. It was ambling on the edge of the gravel alley, occasionally rubbing its head against the grass shoulder. "Look, Sam!" I said in a hushed voice. "There's a cat!"

By the time Sam said, "Where?" the cat had spotted us. It froze. It squatted down with its belly flat against the ground. Its tail was tucked behind it. Starting at us, it watched our every movement. As we took our next step or two, the cat, having instinctively calculated in its animalistic brain the distance between it and us and the safety of its driveway in between, darted in a flash--at first toward us but then quickly to the side, escaping our potentially predatory grasp and gaze. I don't think Sam even got a chance to see the nimble four-footed creature.

Today, I am travelling to Baltimore for a church meeting. I've been asked to serve on the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church, and I am looking forward to our time together. It seems that most (perhaps all) of the "interim bodies" (groups that meet in between General Conventions) are gathering for an orientation and some initial face-to-face work. I trust that the rest of our work this triennium will be through virtual meetings, so I consider this trip a valuable luxury--the chance to get things started in a big, bold way before the inherent limitations of telephones and webchats begin to take away from our productivity. But, as I make my way through the airport, excited about seeing old friends and new colleagues, I am reminded of just how suspicious everyone has become.

I live in Decatur, Alabama. It's a thirty-minute drive from Huntsville's airport. Understandably, it's a small facility with only ten commercial gates. Since it's a small community and a small airport, I halfway expect to see at least one person I know. But the people I don't know keep looking at me with what feels like suspicious glances. Yes, I know a bowtie can be a little off-putting (perhaps even threatening), but seriously? Do I look that scary?

Of course, I don't know if their glances are suspicious. They might be, but my interpretation of their looks--quick, examining glances followed by a sharp look-away followed again by another raising of the eyes to check me out a second time--as the evaluation of a potential threat says more about me than them. But can I help it?

The televisions around the terminal, all tuned to Fox News, are reminding all of us that terrorists are being arrested at an airport in Istanbul. Flashes of this past weekend's scenes in Paris are not only in our minds but also on the screens. The newsfeed on the NPR app is dominated by updates on a raid in a Paris suburb. Posts on Facebook remind us of the inability of the immigration screening process to ensure that refugees are not terrorists. The headlines in the State of Alabama are a reechoing of Governor Bentley's sentiment that our state's borders are closed to anyone fleeing the crisis in Syria.

In the midst of all this fear and anxiety and resentment, I stop to read the lessons for this coming Sunday, and I ponder how far away the kingdom of God and the kingship of Christ are from this world.

Everyone is a potential threat. Everyone could be a terrorist. Everyone has the potential to hurt us or kill us. I may not be squatting down on the ground, but, as I clutch my bag tightly against my body and dart my eyes around the terminal, I realize I am no different from the cat in the alley. None of us is.

And I don't think that's anything new. Sure, the nature of the threat is a lot bigger than it was in the ancient world, but travel has always been dangerous. Why else would Isaiah's prophecy of salvation look like a safe journey:
And a highway shall be there,
     and it shall be called the Way of Holiness;
the unclean shall not pass over it.
     It shall belong to those who walk on the way;
     even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.
No lion shall be there,
     nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
     but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the LORD shall return
     and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
     they shall obtain gladness and joy,
     and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
 (Isaiah 35:8-10 ESV)
I don't know about you, but I want the world I live in to look more like the kingdom of God. I want my children to grow up in a place that feels less like a terrorism-dominated headline and more like a God-sheltered highway through the rough places. And, if our response to God's promises of salvation is to throw up our hands and wait on God to make all that happen, we will die having seen the kingdom get no closer in this life. Yes, salvation waits for us in the next life, but God's promises are not only for the some-day. They are for now. And that means we have work to do.

To be the kingdom of God, we must act like the kingdom of God. we must open our borders to refugees. Far better for us to accept vulnerability by welcoming in the poor and oppressed than to shut our gates and try to lock everyone out. We must let our guard down--not only as a State and as a nation but also as individuals. Far better for us to greet a stranger with a smile and accept the unknown than to hold everyone at arms length. For the kingdom of God to become a reality, we must all start looking for it. And, as long as we're treating everyone and everything with suspicion, we'll never see it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Love Your Enemies

This post first appeared as the cover article from the parish newsletter of St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, Alabama. To read the rest of The View and learn about St. John's, click here.

In a long list of his difficult teachings, Jesus’ command to love our enemies is perhaps the most challenging. Love our enemies. Love? We are supposed to love them? Maybe Jesus was mistaken, or maybe we misheard him. Maybe he meant to tell us to deal respectfully with those who disagree with us. Maybe he wasn’t talking about our real enemies. After all, Jesus did not know anything about ISIS or Al-Qaeda. Surely he would not ask us to love those who behead his followers and post the gruesome videos on the Internet. Surely Jesus would not ask us to love those who terrorize his people and indiscriminately kill men, women, and children by the thousands. Love, after all, is what we feel towards our spouses and children. Love is what we do for those whom we treasure in our hearts. How can love be an appropriate response to violence, hatred, and terrorism? How can love be God’s answer for those who represent everything that God is not?

This morning, I concluded a nine-week bible study on the contradictory nature of scripture. Entitled “Two Testaments, One God,” it explored a range of topics like war and women and slavery in an attempt to demonstrate that reconciling the inscrutable passages of the bible with our experience of and belief in God is not as simple as saying that the New Testament trumps the Old. The final subject in our series was vengeance, and we could not help but wrestle with last weekend’s attacks in Paris and our instinctive desire for retribution.

With those headlines and death-filled images still fresh in our minds, we read about the great flood in Genesis 6 and 7. We studied the Passover in Exodus 12. Had we not run out of time, we would have read Jesus’ mini-apocalypse in Matthew 12 and the opening of the seven seals in Revelation 6. Each of those is a horrifying, terrifying, and head-spinning account of God enacting his justice against the unjust. In a moment like this, when all people of faith yearn for the Almighty to right the wrongs of terrorism, those passages offer a glimmer of hope—a reminder that someday God will impose his final and complete vengeance upon the earth.

As we all know, however, the bible does not speak with one voice when it comes to divine justice. In our study of vengeance, we also read from Romans 12, in which Paul wrote, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Easy enough, you might think; we can relax and know that eventually God will punish our enemies on our behalf. But do not forget about the next two verses: “To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

What does it mean to “overcome evil with good?” What does it mean to “turn the other cheek?” What does it mean to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?” We might want to see the destruction of those who hate us. We might wait with expectant glee for God to wipe our enemies off the face of the earth. But that is not God’s invitation to us. I believe that Jesus meant what he said. I believe that he asks us to love the very worst among our enemies. I believe that he wants us to let even the most inhumane killer into our hearts because that is what God would do. That is what God does.

I do not pretend that it is easy, nor do I maintain the illusion that my miniscule experience of suffering even compares with the agony and anguish of those who stare godless, gun-wielding terrorists in the face or who bear the scars of their horrific acts for the rest of their lives. But I do believe that loving our enemies is what God calls all of us to do. To love means to let someone into our heart. It means to hope for the best for someone. It means to care about them and suffer with them—even for them. It means to remember that beneath the inhuman persona of a terrorist lies a human being, created in God’s image and loved by God as much as he loves you or me. How is that possible? I do not know…except that, with God, it is.
If we reject Jesus’ teaching on loving our enemies, we lose the entire gospel along with it. God loves you and me. Even though we are sinful, God still loves us. Even though we turn our backs on him, his love is certain. Even though we reject him and his love on a daily basis, God’s love is guaranteed. Why? Because that is who God is—because God chooses to love even the unlovable. There can be no limits to God’s love. That is the message of Jesus. That is the declaration of the cross and empty tomb. That is what it means to be a Christian. And, like it or not, that is precisely who we are called to be.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Listen Carefully

This is one of those weeks where the gospel lesson seems to leap off the lectionary page and jump into a sermon even before I have the chance to do any real study of the text. In John 18:33-37, Jesus says to Pilate, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." Given the violence that has rocked Paris, it is difficult to hear these words as something other than a direct response to terrorist threats, and my challenge this week is to give them a second hearing...and a third and a fourth.

Recently, a member of a local congregation (not ours) remarked that his new pastor has done a wonderful job of folding current events into his sermons. The previous pastor seemed to plod through the lectionary with no appreciation for what was happening in the world around us. This new approach, my friend confessed, was like a breath of fresh air. But his words made me a little nervous. When is it right to preach from the newspaper instead of the lectionary?

There's a balance, of course. We preach with one eye on the bible and one eye on the headlines. We preach in relationship with those who are in relationship with the world. Sometimes the connections are clear and obvious. Sometimes they are tenuous. But I can't recall anyone every leaving church and saying, "You know, I don't think you paid enough attention to the scripture lessons appointed for today."

Yesterday, as I was wrapping up a lector training, someone asked me about incorporating things like the weekend's terrorist attacks into a sermon. Seth Olson had just preached a good, effective sermon that incorporated Paris without abandoning the lectionary. "What happens if the lessons don't work?" she asked. "Good question," I responded. Often the preacher can find a connection--as I already feel drawn in this coming Sunday's sermon--but sometimes there's no connection at all. Then, in my mind, the preacher must decide whether the congregation needs her/him to abandon the set lessons because there is an overwhelming pastoral need for a different kind of sermon. Occasionally, something so big happens that prevents the congregation from hearing a proclamation of the good news unless it is a direct response to the event. And that's a judgment call.

We went back and forth over possible examples. 9/11 feels like a drop-everything-else kind of moment. Likewise, when a tornado rips through your town, people need to hear good news in that context. But what about the death of Princess Diana? In seminary, I took a class on preaching a sermon at the last moment, and one of the examples we were given was that terrible Sunday morning when vicars across the country into the pulpit effectively to preach a funeral sermon for a beloved celebrity. Well, for those who live in England, that's the kind of moment that needs our full attention. But in Decatur, Alabama? I'm not sure. Maybe there are other liturgical ways to recognize the event without hijacking the lessons completely.

So what to do this Sunday? There's a post out there somewhere that I haven't read yet about the vanity of changing one's Facebook profile picture in solidarity with Paris without doing anything else. Is it a mistake to incorporate our collective sense of vulnerability, anger, anxiety, and confusion over Parish into this week's Christ the King sermon? The lessons are begging me to preach on Paris. Or is that just a preacher trying to project his own issues onto the lessons? Regardless, I've got some important listening to do this week.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Newfangeled Resurrection

Recently, in a weekly men's bible study, I've been exploring the differences in the Old and New Testaments. Actually, I've been surveying a range of theological topics and attempting to demonstrate that any internal inconsistencies within the bible are not as simple as Old Testament vs. New Testament. For example, on the subject of women, we read misogynistic passages from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and egalitarian passages from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. When the bible is inconsistent with itself, the solution isn't to tear the Old Testament out and focus on the New. It's more complicated than that.

Another subject we discussed was the resurrection. The Christian hope is absolutely, unequivocally focused on life after death. That is the basis of our belief: Jesus was raised so that we, too, may be raised from the dead. Without the resurrection, there is no Christian faith. The Hebrew scriptures, though, don't have quite as much to say about it.

In the Jewish tradition, God promises to keep his covenant with Abraham and his descendants. He promises to bring God's people into a particular land. He promises to protect them and dwell with them. He promises to set the captives free and shelter the oppressed. He promises to turn their struggle into prosperity. He promises to punish the wicked and defeat the enemies of God's people. But, even though those promises are made in the one-day, some-day sense of time, the hope that lies within them is not to be achieved in some paradisial afterlife but here on earth when God finally completes his promises.

There is, in short, almost no mention of resurrection or afterlife or heaven or hell in the Old Testament. In the latter half of the Book of Daniel--the most recently written part of the Old Testament--we finally get a glimpse of resurrection, and we read about that in Sunday's Track 2 lesson: "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever." And that's it.

What a remarkable theological innovation! Imagine writing those words. Imagine having that realization. Imagine making that intellectual leap. For thousands of years, your people have been continuing in the hope that one day their descendants will experience the fulfillment of God's promises, and you suddenly see that those promises may be experienced even by those who have already died--that the good and the bad will be brought back from the dust of the earth to dwell in eternal bliss or agony. What a huge moment! Where in the world did that realization come from? Why in the world did it take so long?

On Sunday, we will pray my favorite collect in the church year: "Blessed Lord, who hast cause all holy scriptures to be written for our learning..." There's a particular majesty to those words. God has caused the writing of these sacred texts--not written them himself but caused human beings to write them. And they aren't written for God's sake but for ours. We are to learn from them--not worship them but study them. Just as we are to grow and develop in our study of scripture, so, too, did scripture itself grow and develop through the centuries of writing. The experiences of God's people--like the exposure of the Jews to the belief in the resurrection during the Babylonian exile--become the basis for sacred writings. We learn as we grow and develop.

No, the resurrection wasn't a part of the hope of God's people for most of their existence. As the arguments between Sadducees and Pharisees in Jesus' day demonstrate, there was not and is not an agreement among God's people about what happens when we die. The Christian scriptures, however, take this tiny sliver of theological truth and build an entire religion upon it. Imagine what else we might learn about God and God's plan for the world in the next 2,000 years.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Soldier of Christ

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

I forget that St. Martin of Tours shares his feast day with Veterans Day. I forget that our church doesn't have propers for Veterans Day or for Armistice Day. But then I remember why Martin is the perfect way for us to remember those who have served in our armed forces.

Martin was a soldier in the Roman cavalry. Against his wishes, he was sent to a Christian school by his non-believing parents because it was thought to be an up and coming avenue for social elites. He became a catechumen and continued his study of the Christian faith after he had been drafted into the army. During his service as a soldier, legend has it that Martin came upon a beggar who had no coat on a cold day. Using his military sword, Martin cut his own cloak in half and gave part to the beggar. That night, he dreamt that Jesus himself was wearing the half of the cloak he had given away. According to his haigiographer, Severus, in the dream, Martin heard Jesus say to the angels in heaven, "Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe." The dream was all the confirmation Martin needed, and he continued in the faith until he was finally baptized at the age of 18. (Information courtesy of Wikipedia)

The legend of the cloak is why we hear from Matthew 25 today: "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." But that isn't the legend I want to remember today--at least not primarily. There's another story about Martin that seems perfect for Veterans Day. It's the story of his conscientious objection.

One day, before a battle, Martin reported to his commanding officers that he could fight no more, saying, "I am a soldier of Christ. I cannot fight." Martin was jailed for cowardice, but, in refutation of the charge, he agreed to stand before the enemy unarmed. Apparently, his superiors were planning to take him up on his offer, but the enemy made terms for peace, and he was released from prison and military service. (Information courtesy of Wikipedia)

Eventually, after starting the oldest monastery in Europe and teaching others in the way of the true faith, Martin was made a bishop. During his episcopal ministry, Martin was firmly against pagan practices and heretical teachings, but he chose not to use violent means to punish the heterodox. Other bishops resented his passive approach, but Martin held true to his identity as a soldier of Christ and, thus, one who would not fight even in the name of the faith.

Those who fight to protect our freedoms do a hard job. They risk not only their lives for the sake of others, but they risk the conflict of conscious that people like me--ministers in comfy offices--have the luxury of avoiding. Being a soldier or an airman or a sailor or a marine means going places they don't want to go and doing things they don't want to do. I am grateful for their service. They fight so that I can choose not to fight. That is, to me, a gift.

Martin is a patron saint of soldiers--particularly those in the infantry. Why? Not because he defeated an enemy or fought off the invaders but because he had courage of a different kind. He brings humanity to war. He reminds us that those who fight in far away places have hearts and minds and souls as vulnerable as ours. We must be like Christ to them. We must give them a cup of water when they are thirsty and a piece of bread when they have nothing to eat. We must cut our cloak in half so that they can be warm. We must not only fund the work of the VA but also care for them ourselves. They are Christ's own, and we serve them because he first served us.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Mistake is When

This morning I e-mailed my parents an article from NPR that caught my attention: "It's Never Too Soon To Plan Your 'Driving Retirement.'" Using the story of a 94-year-old woman who decided to give up driving on her 90th birthday, the article explores this one particular challenge of getting older. In sending it to my parents (who are in their mid 60s), I was mostly joking. Still, though, there's a little bit of interest--though not at all concern yet--behind my sharing that article with them.

All things come to an end. Everything. Although that's a tough lesson to learn, the good news is that it's going to happen no matter what, so, whether we're willing to learn it or not, it's out of our control.

Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 13:1-8) contains two distinct but related teachings. First, Jesus reminds us what we already know: everything will come to an end. One of his disciples points out the "large stones" and "large buildings" there on the Jerusalem temple mount, and Jesus responds rather forebodingly, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."

Thanks a lot, Jesus. Thanks for the unpleasant reality check. That's like walking into an art museum, staring at a great masterpiece, and having someone come behind you and say, "You know, over time the paint oxidizes, leaving a less vibrant painting. Eventually, there will be nothing there." We don't like that reminder. We like pretending that this moment will last forever. Somewhere deep down, we know that it won't. And Jesus wants to awaken that reality within us.

Why? Because it's tempting to get lost in our own limited perspective and lose sight of God's time. "All flesh is grass," the prophet says. We are fleeting. Only God abides. (Sorry, Lebowski). And the kingdom of God demands singular focus. It requires us to keep God's perspective. Our time is short. The kingdom is coming. There's an urgency about it. Even the seemingly permanent structures of society will crumble away in the blink of an eye. What are we going to do about it?

But the second teaching in Sunday's gospel reading holds that perspective in check. "When will it be?" the disciples ask. "When will it all be accomplished?" Jesus responds with a clear warning: "Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name...and they will lead many astray...this must take place, but the end is still to come." There is remarkable emphasis on that last phrase: "the end is still to come." The earthquakes and tempests and wars and rumors of wars that seem to shake our existence to its very foundation are coming, but the end is still to come. There's a danger in mistaking the urgency of the coming kingdom for something that you can predict.

Jesus is telling us to get ready but don't rush. He's asking us to hurry up and wait. He's predicting the imminent destruction of the world and telling us it's still somewhere ahead of us. He's asking us to look for signs and be ready to act upon them but also not to mistake those signs for the end itself. And that leaves us in a tough place.

It's hard to live with urgency, and it's hard not to let urgency define us. What does it mean to be in between? What does it mean to keep that kind of perspective--the God's coming but not yet perspective? There's a graciousness to accepting it and building one's life around it but not letting it dominate us. To me, that seems like a message of hope.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Where Will We Find God?

November 8, 2015 – Proper 27B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
A few weeks ago, someone who has helped out several times with Wednesday-night dinners mentioned to me that she had never seen inside our church. I smiled. “Let’s go,” I said, “right now.” One of the privileges of working and worshipping at St. John’s is that I get to show people how beautiful our church is. I like to bring them into this space when it is almost dark and then watch their faces brighten and their jaws drop as I turn on the lights and they begin to soak in the beauty of this place. That evening was no different. Standing there, spinning around in all directions, she kept whispering to herself, “Wow! It’s amazing! My goodness!” It wasn’t long before we needed to head back into the kitchen, but I could tell that all of this had left a lasting impression on her. I invited her to come back when she would have more time to walk around and look at the windows and sit in a pew and just be in God’s presence.

This is a remarkable church. This is a holy place. And other people seem to notice. Over the past week and a half, St. John’s has been featured in the Decatur Daily several times. First, there was the picture of the staff dressed up as the Addams Family—no mistake for holiness there. But then it was an image of two of our windows, one of St. John and one of St. Stephen, two of the saints whom we celebrated on All Saints’ Day. I knew in advance that those pictures would run, but there was another one that I didn’t expect to see. Gary Cosby’s “Behind the Lens” feature showcased a photograph of a window from our chapel—a clear-glass, cruciform window with the open lectern bible beneath it.

As the photographer explained in his description of the picture, he didn’t expect to find the subject for his last ever feature in the Daily there, but, when he “stumbled across it,” he knew it was the image that captured his feeling that God had “opened a door” for him to come here twenty-one years ago and was opening a new door as he prepared to leave. What a remarkable sentiment! Although I see that spot in our church several times every week, it still surprised me to see it in the paper. I wasn’t expecting it. I wasn’t expecting to see such a clear and perfectly composed expression of holiness in a spot I see (and take for granted) all of the time. It’s funny, isn’t it, how God shows up even where we don’t expect to see him.

What about you: where do you see God? Where do you see him at work? Where do you look for him? Where do you expect to find him? And where is it that he surprises you when he shows up?

Today’s gospel lesson is all about God showing up in surprising places. It’s about seeing God at work in surprising ways. It’s about finding God where you least expect him, and learning to look for him when he is hiding in plain sight.

A scribe and a widow. Try to see them through the lens of ancient history. One is dressed in finest linen, and the other is covered in a tatter shroud. One walks about smiling and waving and nodding his head when others say hello, and the other keeps to herself, with her head bowed, shuffling her feet as she goes. One is figure of power and control, and the other is an emblem of helplessness and hopelessness. One is rich, and the other is poor. One knows that his future is secure, and the other just hopes to make it until tomorrow. One gives the appearance of success, and the other is a symbol of failure. One is respected—even revered—by his peers, and the other is avoided as a reminder of what life could be like if everything went wrong. One enjoys a life of blessing, and the other lives a life of daily struggle and suffering. One teaches God’s precepts in the temple, and the other is the definition of one from whom God’s blessing has been withdrawn. Looking through the eyes of one of Jesus’ contemporaries, where would you expect to see holiness? Or what about using your modern sight? If these two characters were found in downtown Decatur, whom would you expect to be an example of how God is working in the world?

All of us are familiar enough with the Christian story to know the “right” answer. We know that God loves the underdog. We know that God delights in the poor and the oppressed, the widow and the orphan. We know that Jesus teaches us, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God; blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted; blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” We know all that. We know that, in the gospel, rich and powerful and religious is almost always a recipe for criticism. So why, then, are we still surprised when God shows up where we least expect it?

Where should we look for God? Who among us is the real symbol of holiness? Is it not the single mother who works two jobs so that her children can have a decent place to live? What about the alcoholic who has been sober for three days and wants the world to know how thankful he is to be alive? And don’t forget about the curmudgeonly ninety-year-old woman at the nursing home who smells funny and isn’t very nice and always wants tells you the same story about how much she loved her husband before he died. If you stopped long enough to listen—if you took enough time to look below the surface—isn’t that where you would find God at work—in the tough, hard places where hope is the only thing left for people to cling to?

Do not look for God in people or in places where holiness is only skin-deep. God is not at work when an image of godliness is only projected for its own sake. In fact, as the example of the scribes teaches us, the pretense of holiness can actually work against God and what God wants for the world. No matter how beautiful this place is, God will not be at work here unless we care more about the poor than about ourselves. No matter how diligent we are in going to church and saying our prayers, we will not be holy until our hearts belong first and foremost to those who cling to hope.

Look around. Look at this place. Look at us. Look at what we’re wearing. Listen to our long prayers. Like it or not, we are the scribes. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t searching for holiness. Where will we find it? If God is with the widow and the orphan, the addict and the prisoner, we will not find him until we learn to look through the eyes of those who have given up everything. We will not find holiness until we learn to let go of everything that we have and join those who live where our Lord is to be found. May everything we do and everything we give be about the work of the gospel. May all our offerings be devoted to the work of Jesus.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Profiting Off the Backs of Widows

Although I avoid long prayers at all costs, I do wear a pretty long robe on Sunday mornings. I don't always get the best seats at dinner parties, but I do have a reserved spot in church. And I can't deny that I enjoy a respectful greeting in the grocery story...if by "respectful greeting" that means "a quick hello and not a 15-minute counseling session in the produce aisle." In short, as Jesus describes it in Mark 12, I am a scribe of whom you should beware.

Early this week, I wondered just how close I would get to the "devouring widow's houses" in my writing and preaching. My compensation comes directly from the money that people put into the offering plate. Some of them are widows. Some of them give a remarkable amount. Am I living off the backs of the poor? I still don't know a lot about what sort of contributions were expected of people in Jesus' day. Was the synagogue system unbalanced? Were poor people contributing too much? Were the religious elites profiting from the draconian demands on widows? Am I propagating the same system in the 21st century? Is Jesus talking about me?

I do take stewardship education seriously. I do think that God is calling all of us to make a sacrificial gift. We are supposed to discover more deeply what it means to depend on God through our giving. I talk a lot about the tithe as the normative practice for Christians--that we are called to give at least the first 10% of our income away to support God's work in the world. A poor widow's tithe is a lot smaller than Warren Buffett's, but I'm serious about that call being universal. I hear from lots of people who are living on a fixed income. "I don't have very much. I can't give very much." That's true. You can't. You can't give as great an amount now as you could a few years ago. But Jesus' celebration of the widow's two copper coins as more than anyone else had contributed suggests that it's not an amount that matters but the proportion. And I don't just mean the percentage. By "proportion" I mean both the percentage of your income and the share of your heart and life that it represents.

Elizabeth and I give 13% of our gross income to St. John's. On top of that, we also support the diocese and other local and national charities. I don't say that to suggest that you should measure your giving in comparison with ours. I say it to make it clear that I practice what I preach. Is 13% enough? No. We're still looking for ways to grow in our giving until, hopefully, one day we will have sold all that we own and have given it to the poor.

But, when it comes to living off the backs of widows, I am still guilty as charged. Why? Because I live in a state where regressive taxes are among the highest in the nation. In the State of Alabama, we all participate in an economic system that ensures the scribes will continue to wear their long robes and the widows will continue to give all that they have and more to support it. Take a look at this screenshot from

I don't know much about They claim to be an non-profit, non-partisan group that does research on tax policy. I'm not vouching for them or their work. But those percentages seem about right to me ("right" as in "accurate" not as in "just"). Why do I think those are accurate? Because we tax groceries. That means the same carton of milk that our family uses in a week costs my family less as a percentage of our income than a low-income worker who makes too much for food stamps. In Alabama, we have low ad valorem property taxes and high sales taxes. We have high fees for things like licenses and car tags and court costs--things which everyone needs regardless of their income. As a result, we are forcing--not asking--widows to put in everything that they have while the scribes continue to enjoy the best seats at the local charity banquet. Am I guilty? Yes. And so are many of us.

I don't plan to preach on regressive taxes this week, but my friend Jack Alvey and I were talking about Sunday's lessons, and he reminded me that this is an important issue. We are guilty--not only as clergypeople but as citizens of this state. I haven't been able to let it go. Alabama isn't alone in this, but Alabama is where I live. And, given its current tax policy, Alabama is a long way from the kingdom of God.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Faith Comes from Doing

It's hard to sit in a room and think your way into believing in something. Trust me: I tried.

When I was a child, I read and studied and prayed about being a Christian. I wanted more than anything to believe. I wanted to stop going to bed every night worried that, if I died, I wouldn't go to heaven. So I read and studied and prayed. I learned everything I could about Jesus, and I knew as much about him as any of my peers. But, still, I didn't know what it meant to believe--to trust--that God's love would take care of me no matter what. Something was missing. I needed an existential crisis.

Finally, in a rubber-meets-road moment, I was forced to acknowledge to my boss--someone who had hired me to be a counselor at a Christian camp--that I wasn't sure about my faith. I told him about my repeated prayers and my earnest pursuit of salvation. He chuckled gently and said, in effect, "Words don't make you a Christian. God does." He invited me to consider that me choosing God wouldn't ever be effective. Instead, God choosing me is what would make the difference. My pursuit wasn't to convince God to save me but to convince myself that God already had. Long story short: I discovered what it means to believe--a powerful realization that God's love is bigger than any choice I can ever make. It seems simple looking back, but it's the kind of thing I couldn't ever figure out on my own.

On Sunday, those of us who hear the Track 2 reading from 1 Kings 17 will encounter again the story of the widow of Zarephath. She's the one to whom God sent Elijah, saying, "Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you." The story is a beautiful tale of faithfulness. The prophet asks for some food, but the widow declares that she only has enough to feed herself and her son before they die. Elijah promises that God--specifically "the LORD," which is to say the God of Israel's proper name "Yahweh"--would provide. And the poor widow woman did what she was told.

We don't get to read the whole story on Sunday. You may recall that it ends with the widow's son dying after a sudden illness and Elijah praying to God, prostrating himself on top of the boy, and God bringing the boy back to life. The climactic end is the woman's declaration, "“Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.” In other words, the story ends with the woman (a Gentile) acknowledging the rightness of the LORD's prophet. It's a conversional moment. It's a confession of faith. And where did it start? With the woman's willingness to trust.

We have an opportunity to trust, but sitting in a room and reading and praying won't instill faith in our hearts. In other words, coming to church and listening to a sermon and saying our prayers won't make us believers. Yes, I know what Paul says in Romans 10:17, and I'm not trying to contradict that. Hearing comes first, but faith is action. Faith is trusting. Faith is putting it all on the line and saying, "Ok, God. Here it is. What's next?" If you suspect that sacrificial, proportional, first-fruits giving is one way to do that, you're right. But this isn't just about financial stewardship. It's about putting your life in God's hands. Money is one way to do that. What are the other ways? How can we encounter the existential crisis of needing a savior so that we can practice the art of yielding ourselves to salvation?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

What Do You See?

When you see the scribes walking through the marketplaces with their long, fancy robes, what do you see? When they bow to each other extravagantly and salute each other with unnecessary reverence, what do you see? When you see them occupying the best seats in the front of the synagogue and at the high table at the wedding feast, what do you see? When you see them nodding their heads as they pray a carefully crafted, perfectly patient prayer, what do you see?

When you catch sight of a widow slipping in and out of the crowd, making her way to the treasury, what do you see? When you see her lower her head in shame because she accidently brushed against someone important in the crowded square, what do you see? As she holds out her hand and silently moves her lips, begging God to help her find enough food to eat now that she's dropping her last two coins into the box, what do you see? When the sound of those thin coins clinks inside the offering box, hardly making enough noise to bother over, and the woman looks around to make sure no one noticed how little she had to give, what do you see?

Jesus sees what we cannot. We see a rich holy man whom God has blessed abundantly. He sees a hypocrite. We see a poor sinner whose sadness and meekness must somehow be deserved. He sees a pillar of faith. Sunday, we are asked to see what he sees. Can we see it?

Like it or not, we still associate rich with reward. Like it or not, we still associate poor with punishment. Who sits in the corner office? Who tops the list of Fortune 500 CEOs? Who sits on the street corner? Who stands in the welfare line? Success is earned. Wealth is acquired. Prominence is deserved. Struggle is earned. Poverty is acquired. Disgrace is deserved. At least that's what we see.

Sunday, we will hear the story of the scribes who "devour widows' houses" and the poor widow who places all she has in the treasury. If we close our eyes, we will see the scene unfold before us. But, in the gospel, the identity of the characters is reversed. Jesus embraces the latter and warns us of the former. Jesus celebrates the poverty and chastises the wealth. Jesus praises the widow and excoriates the scribe. Why? Because he sees what we cannot see. He sees as God sees. He sees as we are supposed to see. Can we see it?

Monday, November 2, 2015

Deceitful Appearances

There's something remarkably Southern about Sunday's gospel lesson (Mark 12:38-44): one group is criticized for going out of their way to appear religious while an outsider is celebrated for her quiet faithfulness. This is a story of life in the Bible Belt, where Jesus still asks us to strip away all the pretense and reveal our true character before God.

In the opening scene, Jesus is teaching in the temple, where he excoriates the religious lawyers, saying, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers." It's the classic prophetic combination of doing all right things for all the wrong reasons--namely, to hide their misdeeds. Long robes, long prayers, best seats--all signs of religiosity. Those are outward signs of faithfulness. Long robes cost money, and those who spend what they have on such garments are showing the rest of the world that they are willing to make a sacrifice for the faith. The same is true for the best seats in synagogues--spots reserved for those who contribute liberally to the community's causes. And, as any captive guest at a charity banquet can attest, long prayers are the guest preacher's way of saying, "I'm holy."

All that faith, however, is built on a lie. In fact, it's built on the destruction of widow's houses, which is to say that these religious authorities are making their extravagantly religious living on the mandatory, exploitative offerings of people like the poor widow, who becomes the focus of the second half of the gospel lesson.

Jesus takes a seat across from the treasury--the place where these offerings were collected. Amidst a crowd of individuals who deposit their offering is a widow. If Jesus does not notice her and single her out, no one would have seen her. Quickly, Jesus calls the disciples together and uses her example to teach them about deep faithfulness: "This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

I need to do some more exegetical work to learn what sort of offering was expected, what it means that she put in everything she had, and how those offerings would have been used. At this point, though, it seems to be no accident that those who "devour widows' houses" are placed opposite "this poor widow." This is an opportunity to preach not only on sacrificial giving but integrity. This is a chance for the preacher to use the subject of money to peel back layers of pretense and expose our true selves.

I live in the South, where the second question one is asked (after "How's your family doin'?") is "How are things at your church?" We wear religion on our sleeve...and on our T-shirts and our bumper stickers. But what's going on underneath? Do we care about those things Jesus cares about, or do we use the pretense of religion to further our own cause? It's only Monday, and I'm already looking forward to what the Spirit will say to me and all of us this week.

We Need a Savior

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. A collection of sermons from St. John's, Decatur, can be found here.

November 1, 2015 – All Saints’ Day, Year B
Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
If you could ask Jesus for anything, what would it be? Remember: this is the guy who can heal the sick and feed the hungry and still the storms of life. He can give sight to the blind and open the ears of the deaf. He can make the lame leap like a deer and has the power to set the captives free. This is Jesus. He can do anything. If you had the chance to ask him to do anything for you, what would it be?

In a few minutes, we are going to baptize my fourth child, Emily Mae Garner, and today, as much as on any day, I find myself thinking about all the many things that I hope for her. And I wonder, if I could ask Jesus to do anything for her, what would it be?

I want her to be happy. I want her to grow up knowing that she is loved by her parents, by her siblings, by her friends, and, of course, by God. I want her to sense that her life has purpose and meaning—that, in this unfathomably huge universe, she still matters. I want her to have the opportunity to pursue her dreams. I want her to be confident enough to try new things and to take risks. I want her to know that even when she screws up and falls flat on her face she will always be loved. I want her to find someone whom she can love with all of her heart. I want her to know the joy and security of sharing a life with someone. I want her to know what it means to care as much about another human being as I care about her. I want all of those things for my daughter and, indeed, for all of my children, but, if I had the chance to ask Jesus for just one thing, I wouldn’t ask him for any of that. Why? Because my daughter doesn’t need any of those things as much as she needs a savior.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus comes upon a great tragedy. His dear friend Lazarus has died. The dead man’s sisters are overwhelmed with grief. The whole community has gathered at the family home to offer words of comfort and signs of support, but it seems that sadness has overtaken everyone. When Jesus finally arrives, four full days after Lazarus’ death, he is met by a host of weeping mourners. Even Jesus himself is caught up in the emotional loss, and he begins to weep for his dead friend.

Mary, when she comes out to meet him, falls at Jesus’ feet and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Those are the same words her sister had uttered only a few verses earlier in John 11. And I can’t tell what meaning those words carry. Are the sisters blaming Jesus because he did not make it in time to save their brother? Or are they simply acknowledging a painful truth—that his healing powers could have—would have—saved Lazarus had Jesus arrived before it was too late. Or might it be a quiet statement of unwaivering faith even in the midst of a deep loss? Regardless, those words ring in our ears as a devastating reminder of what might have been. Even the crowd picks up on the terrible irony, murmuring to themselves, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” If only…If only Jesus had gotten there sooner…If only he hadn’t been delayed…If only he had left as soon as he got word that his friend was sick…then Lazarus might still be alive.

But it is too small a thing for Jesus to have saved Lazarus from the brink of death. This story is bigger than that. There is a God-given purpose behind Jesus’ delay, which is, as Jesus himself explained, so that we might see the glory of God and believe. It was no mistake that Lazarus died before Jesus got there. His death became the opportunity for Jesus to invite the world to believe that he is more than a healer—that he has powers that are greater than even the most skilled physician on earth. In the raising of Lazarus, Jesus invites us to believe that he has the power even to save us after we are dead.

Defying the stench of death that lingered in the tomb, Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Confronting the darkness that held his friend, Jesus cried, “Lazarus, come out!” Confirming the miracle that had brought the dead man back to life, Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go.” And those who saw this great moment unfold knew that they had witnessed something that had never been seen before. This Jesus was more than a healer. He had power over life and death. Even the absolute darkness of the grave was no match for him.

That is the sort of savior in whom Jesus is inviting you to believe. It is everlasting life that he can give you. Why would you settle for anything less? Every day we are surrounded by offers that promise to improve our life: newfangled diets, exercise equipment, an assortment of pills, financial opportunities, vacation property, undergarments that hide fat bellies or fat thighs, things that grow hair and things that remove it. We are inundated by ads and commercials and e-mails that promise to give the life that we seek. But where can we get the power of life that never ends?

Jesus did not come to earth and die on the cross and rise from the dead so that you might have a better life now. Jesus did not come so that you could start all over and try again. Jesus was not born in Bethlehem to heal you or comfort you or make you happy. The Word did not become flesh and dwell among us so that your life might have meaning. God did not send his only begotten son so that those who believe in him might live out their days in peace and prosperity. God sent his son to save us from the power of death itself. Jesus came and lived and breathed and died and was raised from the dead so that we, too, might escape the clutches of death. It is too small of a thing for us to hope that Jesus might give us a good life—the kind of life we want for our children. Jesus came to save us, and salvation is what we need.
Today is the feast of All Saints, all those holy people of God who knew that Jesus has the power to save them from death. We celebrate his victory and claim it for our own. We put our faith, not in someone who can give us a helping hand, but in the only one who can deliver us from the grave. There is only one reason to baptize someone: to proclaim that Jesus’ death and resurrection have the power to save her. Today, as we baptize the newest saint in God’s holy church, we remember our own baptism as a sign that we belong to the one who came to save us. We are desperate for salvation, and salvation is what he gives.