Monday, December 28, 2015

Which Gospel Reading?

You might think that it's a good thing when there are three gospel lessons to choose from, but I think that is a sign of failure. Particularly this Sunday, when we have choices that are duplicates of other important days, choices like that suggest that we are failing as a church to get the story of Jesus Christ to people. 

The first option for Sunday is the story of Herod's slaughter of the innocents. But the Feast of the Holy Innocents has its own observance, which this year, because of how the calendar fell, has been transferred to tomorrow. The third option is the familiar story of the three wise men. Properly called the Epiphany, this reading belongs in one of the principal celebrations of the life of our church, which is supposed to be marked on January 6. Only the second option, the story of Jesus's parents looking for him after leaving him behind in the Jerusalem Temple, has no particular place in our cycle of feasts. If I had to choose one for Sunday, I think I would choose this one but only because I dream of the day when people get to hear the other two standing by themselves.

The more important question, therefore, would be to ask what I, as a minister of the gospel, I've done about that. What have I done to get the story of Jesus to people? Yes, we will transfer the feast of the holy innocents to our Wednesday midweek Eucharist. Yes, this year Epiphany falls on a Wednesday, so we will observe it both at the midweek Eucharist and also at our yearly celebration of the burning of the greens. But, judging from the average weekly attendance at that midweek service, the issue still persists: what will it take to really get the story of Jesus, the exciting, interesting, provocative narrative of God's son into a world that barely isn't very good at listening?

Maybe I'm biased, but I think these few stories surrounding Jesus's birth are interesting stories. Even apart from the proclamation in the pulpit, the narratives themselves are fascinating. And I wonder whether a secular society might hear these ancient tales, these larger-than-life stories, as something worth listening to. But we need to get that word to them without requiring them to come to church.

When was the last time you went to a Blockbuster Video to check out a movie? Redbox has replaced that phenomenon, and it succeeds largely by allowing you to check out a DVD in Memphis and return it in Birmingham and do so in places that you are already trafficking like grocery stores and drugstores. In other words, convenience is key. Freedom trumps. But streaming videos one services like Netflix and Amazon and Hulu or quickly replacing even the low-cost Redbox option. Why would you want to leave the house if you didn't need to? If we have good news to share but we are waiting on people to come to us, we might as well open a Blockbuster Video and wait for people to come in to check out the message of Jesus.

Actually, I don't think there's anything wrong with our lectionary choices this week. The preacher should choose whichever lesson she or he enjoys the most. And then, after we've written Sunday's sermon, we should wonder to ourselves how we might carry the message of the gospel beyond the walls of our churches. Maybe it's interesting narratives or questions or videos or interactive engagements through media like Facebook or websites or YouTube. Maybe it's an afterschool tutoring program where we invest in the lives of children as much as God has invested in us by being born as a child. Those gospel conversations can only arise when a relationship exists. And we have to pursue relationships rather than wait for people to come to us. 

I don't have the answer. I don't think anyone has the single answer, but I'm willing to try something new. I'm willing to try something that doesn't work. I willing to reach out, to go out, and see if something will work. But I believe that we have a good story to tell. We have good news to share--news that the world wants to hear. Sunday's choices of gospel lessons is a sign that we don't need to worry about changing our message. We need to focus on the means through which that message is conveyed.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

What Happens When Christians Abandon the Incarnation?

December 27, 2015 – The First Sunday after Christmas Day
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
The message of Christmas is a radical message. It’s more than just a story of God choosing to come and live among us. In Christmas, we are asked to believe that God would stop the usual order of things and break through in a real, meaningful, history-altering, earth-shattering sort of way. Christmas is the story of the immutable God uniting himself to humankind so that humanity might be forever changed. It’s a moment from the past, but it’s a moment that is still real here in the present and that calls us into a new and different future—one that we cannot take for granted. Christmas is dangerous, and I don’t want it to come and go without urging you to take it seriously.

Every year, as I prepare a Christmas Eve sermon, my belly turns yellow, my feet get cold, and I chicken out. I read those profound lessons of the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom and Paul’s clear word to Titus of how Jesus Christ came to “redeem us…and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.” I watch as Mary and Joseph huddle in a lowly stable where, of all places, God chooses to show up and enact his transformation of the world. And, emboldened by those words, I want to climb into the pulpit and say that we cannot let Christmas go by without allowing our hearts to be caught on fire with the passion that God has for the poor and weak and downtrodden and those who advocate for peace and justice and tolerance. But then I remember that half of the congregation we see on Christmas Eve is unfamiliar to us. They come to church just one time each year, and they yearn for a message of hope and comfort and peace—not the fiery words of an impatient prophet. And I give in and chicken out.

But guess what! Christmas isn’t over yet. And today, just two days after we all tore open our presents and warmed our hearts with good cheer and filled our stomachs with good food and good wine, the only people who come to church are the die-hard faithful. Pat yourselves on the back. You’re here; well done. And you might appreciate that affirmation in a few minutes because this is going to be a Christmas sermon that doesn’t hold anything back.

We live in a broken world. We live in a world where children are starving while the rest of us indulge our appetites for excess. We snuggle on the couch and watch the Christmas special while, on another channel, unseen images of violence unfold in a far-away place. We inhabit a society that abhors mass shootings but refuses to do anything about it. We sleep comfortably in our homes while refugees are being turned away in droves. And what have we done about it? What have you done about it?

I think that most Christians have forgotten to take the Incarnation seriously. We’ve fallen into the trap of failing to distinguish between the doctrines of our faith and the wisdom of the secular world. Jesus has become to us a great teacher and a wise leader and a holy example. We teach our children to “be more like Jesus.” And even though the phenomenon has faded—and thank God it has—we still navigate our lives with the false moral compass of “What would Jesus do?” But Jesus isn’t your eighth-grade history teacher or your grandmother or your Cub Scout leader. Jesus did not come to earth to teach you a better way to live. He came to earth to show us who God is and what God’s dream for the world is really like. And, until we remember what it means to worship the God-become-Flesh, the precepts of Christianity will continue to be “wise words” that sound like a good idea but never get any traction in our lives or in the world…because, let’s be honest, what does it matter if we disappoint our Cub Scout leader or ignore our grandmother’s good advice? Until we stop thinking of Jesus as a moralistic teacher and recognize him as the Incarnate Son of God, we’ll continue to shrug our shoulders and think, “Oh well, maybe things will get better tomorrow.”

As John wrote with no small sense of irony, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” Two-thousand years ago, when Jesus was a walking, talking, breathing, preaching missionary, very few people wanted to hear his message. Those who did were those who had already been rejected by people in positions of power and authority—the poor, the outcast, the downtrodden. Jesus taught that God’s way was to take the weakness of the world and raise it to strength while scattering the haughty and pulling the lofty down from their seats. And, if you’re sitting on a high-perched throne, that’s not good news. So, as John wrote of Jesus, “He came to his own, but his own people did not accept him.” To the people of his day, Jesus was just a radical with a radical message. He was a threat to the status quo, so the religious authorities did what anyone with power would do when that power was threatened by an illegitimate upstart like Jesus. They got rid of him. They rejected him and his words and got rid of him once and for all by executing him on the cross.

But Jesus wasn’t an illegitimate upstart. He was God in the flesh. He was and is the Incarnate Son of God. And God cannot be defeated—not even by the tragedy of the cross. In response, God showed forth his true power by reversing the tide and raising the dead and thus revealing to us that Jesus is more than a preacher worth listening to. He is God. And his vision for the world is God’s vision for the world. And those who reject it or ignore it or shrug their shoulders and brush it aside are not only dismissing the wisdom of a sage but are turning our backs on God himself. And that is precisely what we as the religious establishment have done. Our apathy when it comes to making the kingdom of God a reality in this world is our indictment. My cowardice, when it comes to preaching the prophetic message of the gospel, is my own. In our inaction, we are no different from those who nailed Jesus to a cross two thousand years ago.

And we’ve done so for the exact same reasons: because we don’t like what Jesus has to say and don’t think it really matters. We think that, if we just ignore the parts of the gospel we don’t like and water down the rest, we can still call ourselves Christians. But we cannot pick and choose when it is God himself who is speaking to us! By letting go of the fullness of the Incarnation, we’ve stopped being Christians. Instead, we’ve become Jesus-minded moralistic deists—those who think that God exists and that Jesus of Nazareth taught us some important things about how God wants us to live. We have abandoned the Incarnation. We have given up on Christmas. We have stopped believing that who Jesus was—what he taught and how he lived and died—is more than just a godly example worth learning about; it is who God is and what God wills for our lives and for the world…without exception.
So what will we do about it, you and me? What will we do about gun violence and poverty and addiction and war and disease and police brutality and pollution and greed? What will we do? Will we accept that Jesus Christ—the Word-become-Flesh—is the fullest revelation of who God is and what God desires? Will we acknowledge that we cannot ignore God who is with us as if he were merely the teacher du jour? If we believe that Christmas is worth celebrating, we must allow the Incarnation to grab ahold of us and change us. We must see that who Jesus is is who we must become. He is the light that shines in the darkness. Our hope, as Queen Elizabeth said in her Christmas Day speech, is found in our ability to see that the darkness has not overcome it. Will we walk in the light, or will we stumble in darkness? What will we do? For my part, I have decided to start allowing the sharp edge of the gospel to come through in my sermons—even on Christmas Eve. What about you? What will you do to make Jesus the Incarnate word the light of your life?

Saturday, December 26, 2015

God Is Not Deterred!

December 24, 2015 – Christmas I
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. (Note that, near the end of the sermon, I misspoke and said "unbroken" when I meant to say "broken.")
Jim wasn’t much of a cook, but he wanted to impress his girlfriend. They had been dating for a while, and he wanted to do something special—something that would convey to her that he was taking this relationship seriously—that he was willing to take some risks for her—and cooking dinner for his beloved seemed to be a good way to get that across. But Jim had almost no idea what to do. So he called his mother. “Mom,” he said, “I want to cook dinner for Margaret.” Silence. “Mom? Are you there?” “Yes, Dear. I’m sorry. I was just so…surprised. You don’t know how to cook.” “I know that, Mom,” he responded. “That’s why I’m calling you. I need your help.”
Jim was under the impression that one of Margaret’s favorite dishes was chicken Alfredo. He’d heard her say that her mom had made it for their family when she was a child and that it was something she always looked forward to when she went back home. Jim explained to his mother that he had already found a recipe on the Internet (uh-oh), but he needed some help pulling it off. They talked through the basics: how to sauté onions and peppers and when to add the garlic, how to make sure the chicken was fully cooked, how to boil water and cook the pasta. The hardest part, of course, would be the sauce. “Cream sauces can be tricky,” Jim’s mother warned. “You want to thicken it without burning or breaking the sauce. If you don’t stir it frequently, it can all fall apart.” “Don’t worry, Mom,” Jim reassured her. “This is really important to me. I won’t screw it up.”

On the appointed evening, Jim had asked Margaret to meet him at his apartment where he had a surprise for her. Curious and a little bit nervous, Margaret pulled up right before 6:30pm. When Jim opened the apartment door, she was floored. “What’s that wonderful smell?” she asked, hardly believing her nose. “I thought we were going out for dinner.” “I wanted to surprise you,” he replied. “Come and keep me company.” She followed him into the tiny efficiency kitchen with the two-burner stove. (Why would he need more than that, he had explained to the facility manager when he took the tour, since he doesn’t cook?) “May I help?” Margaret asked. “No, thank you,” Jim said, trying to be cool. “I’ve got it.”

Slowly and somewhat haltingly, the meal took shape. First, the chicken was browned. (Margaret laughed to herself while Jim turned it every 45 seconds because he was afraid it would burn.) Then, the vegetables were cooked and the salted pasta water had come to a boil. Jim hadn’t thought of a salad, but he did buy one of those pre-packaged garlic bread sticks in the freezer section, and it was heating up in the oven. Finally, Jim went to the fridge and pulled out the carton of whipping cream. He knew this was the hard part, but he felt like he was on track for a great evening—maybe even perfect.

It surprised him a little bit to find that the carton was puffed out as if someone had blown a bunch of air into it. He didn’t remember that when he got it at the grocery store, but he had never bought cream before, and he figured it was nothing. When he opened the carton, though, he immediately knew that something was wrong. A sour, sickly smell escaped the cardboard container carried on the puff of trapped air that escaped as it was opened. He brought it up to his nose for a good whiff and quickly recoiled from the evidently spoiled substance. “I just bought this,” he thought to himself, checking the date. “It’s not expired yet. What happened? Maybe this is how it’s supposed to smell. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t have left it in my car while I went to the gym.” “Is something wrong?” Margaret asked. “No, it’s nothing,” Jim said, not sure what to do. “Should I use it?” he wondered inside his head. “Surely not. But what should I do? Maybe it won’t make a difference. Maybe I can add some extra oregano to cover it up. Maybe she won’t notice. But maybe she will. This could be a disaster. I don’t want to call my mom in the middle of this. I’ll look like an idiot. What about this can of sweetened condensed milk left over from that time Margaret made key lime pie? Would that work?”

Except to the one cooking dinner, it’s funny how the perfect plan can all fall apart when one ingredient turns out to be bad.

Tonight is the holiest of nights. This is the festival of our savior’s birth. This is the night when God breaks through into human history to show us the fullness of his love. This is the moment when God’s perfect plan of salvation unfolds for the whole world to see and celebrate. And that makes tonight a truly perfect night…except that it isn’t.

Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem, but there is no room for them in the inn. A kind innkeeper takes pity on the expectant couple and gives them permission to bed down in the stable amidst the animals. But one unhappy accident follows another, and that very night the time comes for Mary to deliver her child. Instead of having the protection of her home or, at the very least, a room in the inn, she gives birth to the baby Jesus in the same stall where the horses usually give birth to their foals. With no crib or baby clothes, Mary wraps her infant son in some spare strips of cloth and places him in the empty manger, the feeding trough where in the morning the animals will expect to be fed.

Despite these apparent setbacks, God is not deterred. Through an angel, accompanied by the multitude of the heavenly host, God announces the good news of the savior’s birth to the only audience who is still awake to hear it—some shepherds living in the fields with their flock. When the angels depart, and the lowly shepherds race into the city to see this remarkable thing, making these illiterate, smelly, unmannered onlookers the only ones to come and greet God’s own son. This is the long-awaited savior, Emmanuel, God with us, and he is born, of all places, in a barn and adored, of all people, by shepherds. And still God is not deterred.

But the greatest and most confounding mystery and miracle of all is that God would come among us not as he is and always has been but that God would take upon himself the fullness of human nature and be born as one of us. Surely that is where the plan goes wrong. Surely things will fall apart now because, in the birth of Jesus, God who is holy and perfect is joined together with the imperfect, unholy, broken nature that is within all of us. And we know human nature. We know the pain and turmoil that it has brought into our lives and into the world. And we know what happens when you mix a bad, spoiled ingredient into an otherwise perfect recipe. But, this night, that isn’t what happens. In the birth of Jesus, instead of our imperfection spoiling the whole thing, we discover that God’s perfect love has the power to transform us and restore us into the unblemished people God created us to be. This is exactly what God has in mind. This is precisely his perfect plan.

This is God’s dream for the world—not that a perfect people would receive his perfect gift on a perfect night but that God’s perfect love would transform all of our imperfection and finally make all things the way God created them to be. The beauty of God’s plan is that it hinges upon our imperfection. Only a broken vessel can receive the transformative love that God brings into the world this night. Unlike the love that we have for one another—a love that overlooks the mistakes that we make and celebrates even when a recipe goes wrong—God’s love has the power to take those mistakes and make them right—to take our imperfection and make us perfect. That is the good news of this holy night. That is the hope of God’s perfect plan. You are not perfect, but God is. This world is not perfect, but God’s love is. In the birth of Jesus, our savior, God shows us that he has the power to take even the most imperfect of circumstances and make them shine with the holiness of God’s perfect love.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Message of John 1

About this time, a little more than 36 hours before preaching a Christmas Eve sermon, I remember that I also have a sermon to preach on December 27, the First Sunday after Christmas Day. In the Episcopal Church, those lessons include John 1:1-18, which, after writing a sermon on Luke 2:1-20, I find hard to dig into. That spirit of reticence is not helped by the fact that the usual website that I use to view the lessons,, is currently down. Of course, there are other media through which I can find the NRSV text of John's prologue, but, looking for something a little different and seizing upon the opportunity that the broken website has provided, I went to, where I can read the text according to The Message.

Let's be clear: I don't like The Message--at least not as a biblical text for proclamation during public worship. It's not a translation but a very rough paraphrase, which means that it doesn't attempt to convey what the ancient manuscripts of the biblical text actually say but what a committee thinks they are trying to convey at a more general level. As an exegetical tool, though, it can be useful since it has the potential to give the preacher a different way of hearing the familiar text, and that is certainly the case with John 1. The opening lines are wooden and difficult to read: "The Word was first, the Word present to God, God present to the Word. The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one." Sure, that's no substitute for a more traditional translation, which you can find in almost any modern version of the New Testament, but, later in the passage (vv. 9-14), things open up in a helpful way:
The Life-Light was the real thing:
    Every person entering Life
    he brings into Light.
He was in the world,
    the world was there through him,
    and yet the world didn’t even notice.
He came to his own people,
    but they didn’t want him.
But whoever did want him,
    who believed he was who he claimed
    and would do what he said,
He made to be their true selves,
    their child-of-God selves.
These are the God-begotten,
    not blood-begotten,
    not flesh-begotten,
    not sex-begotten.
The Word became flesh and blood,
    and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
    the one-of-a-kind glory,
    like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
    true from start to finish.
I love those words, "But whoever did want him, who believed he was who he claimed and would do what he said, He made to be their true selves, their child-of-God selves." I like how The Message makes it plain. It's a simple as that: those who believed that Jesus was who he said he was and would do what he said he would do have been given by him the power to become fully the children God made them to be. That strips away some of the familiar, distracting theological language and replaces it with good, straight-forward explanation and exhortation. This is what it means to be a Christian--to believe that Jesus is who Jesus said he was and did and will do what he promised to do.

It's easy during the Christmas season to get lost in the holiday and forget the simplicity of the Christmas message, which is, after all, the Christian message. Christmas is about Jesus--not about church. It's about the inauguration of something still to be completed--not a moment wrapped up in itself. I've found a new angle for John 1, and I'm grateful for it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Inseparable Story and Doctrine

The Feast of the Nativity is one of those liturgical moments for which I have a hard time crafting a sermon. In some ways, it's easier than usual. The congregation will include some once- or twice-a-year worshippers, making a simple, sweet, and short sermon ideal. Following the model my mentor set, I usually emphasize story and let the occasion itself say more than I attempt to say. On the other hand, though, the enormity of the event makes it difficult for me to figure out what to say and how to say it. This year, I feel acutely the challenge of letting the story of Jesus' birth stand alone and waiting until the First Sunday after Christmas Day to preach the Incarnation.

At least, that's what the gospel readings seem to suggest. Christmas Eve/Day is Luke 2:1-20--the story of Mary, Joseph, a stable, shepherds, sheep, and angels. The First Sunday after Christmas Day is John 1:1-18--the prologue of the preexistent Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Of course, it's impossible to separate the two. The birth of Jesus is the arrival of the Word-become-Flesh. The Incarnation is the feast we celebrate on December 25. But, for now, I think it's worth trying to let the storybook narrative and the theological treatise stand by themselves.

Whether it's the young families who come for the early service or the party-worn worshippers who show up for the "midnight mass," most of our Christmas Eve congregations will want a sermon that enlivens the crèche--not a doctrinal explanation of how God took human nature upon himself. And the kind of faithful parishioners who come to church on December 27 are probably willing to hear their preacher dive into difficult, complex theological issues rather than retell the Christmas story they heard three days earlier. So, yes, it makes sense to let Luke 2 and John 1 be different. The preacher would be wise to let each sermon make its own proclamation. But is that possible?

The beauty of the gospel (one complete and whole "good news" with four different accounts) is that the narrative of Christmas night is inseparable from the dense prologue of the following Sunday. The savior's birth is good news for humanity because it is the Word-become-Flesh. The nativity is worth celebrating because of the incarnation. People come to church at Christmas to hear more than a story about a birth from 2,000 years ago. They come to hear a message of hope. The challenge for the preacher--the challenge I face--is to tell a story that is more than a story. It's to share the magnitude of the incarnation through the simplicity of a nativity scene.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Bill Buckner, Steve Harvey, and St. Thomas

This morning, I heard Dan Le Batard compare Steve Harvey with Bill Buckner. Last night, at the Miss Universe pageant, the comedian, author, and television host let the equivalent of a routine ground ball slip between his legs and called out Miss Columbia as the winner of the Miss Universe crown. Seconds later, he interrupted the celebration to say, "I have to apologize." It turns out that he announced the wrong winner. To his credit, Harvey accepted responsibility for the mistake...before dropping the mic and running off stage. I didn't watch the Miss Universe pageant, but I did watch an agonizing replay of that moment, which you can see here.

What really grabbed my attention wasn't Steve Harvey's mistake but Dan LeBatard's comparison. "Does this make Steve Harvey a Bill Buckner?" he asked. In other words, will Steve Harvey forever be remembered for this gaff, or will his other accomplishments--and by that I mean hosting Family Feud and Live at the Apollo, writing countless books, creating a clothing line, and doing a host of other things I can't even imagine--eventually outweigh this terrible moment? I'm not sure. I tend to think so--mainly because most of Harvey's fans don't care as much about Miss Universe as Buckner's fans care about baseball. Regardless, wherever Steve Harvey is this morning, I am praying for him. And for Miss Columbia and her parents, too.

The bible is full of Bill Buckners--people who did remarkable things (like bat a career .289 while amassing over 2700 hits) but are only remembered for a momentous failure. Chief among them, perhaps, is St. Thomas. John tries his best to tell us that Thomas was known as "The Twin," but all of us know Thomas by his other eponym--Doubting Thomas. You, too, can be a "Doubting Thomas." That's how we refer to people who refuse to believe something that everyone else is willing to accept on faith. In no small way, therefore, Thomas the Apostle, whom we remember today, lives on because of his shortcoming rather than his accomplishments.

But a doubter wouldn't be worth celebrating if doubting was all he'd ever done. Thomas' story is one of transformation. He isn't just one who doubted. He's one whose encounter with the risen Lord triumphed over those doubts and replaced them with abiding, unwavering faith. In John 20:24-29, we read of that encounter, in which Jesus asked Thomas to place his finger in the marks of the nails and his hand in Jesus' spear-torn side. But the point of that passage isn't to shame Thomas for all eternity; it's to encourage you and me to have faith: "Jesus said to him, 'Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.'"

We don't get to see. Just like Thomas, we have doubts. The story of Jesus' resurrection is unbelievable. Why would anyone think that a dead body can rise from the grave on the third day? Why? Because God made it possible. And that's Thomas' story. He allows us to have our doubts because the gospel isn't threatened by them. Thomas is the one who invites us to bring our doubts to Jesus so that Jesus can defeat them.

Do not be afraid. Do not hide. Do not let your secret doubts consume you. Learn from Thomas. Bring your skepticism to Jesus, and ask the risen Lord to fill you with faith.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Shhh! I'm Pregnant

My wife and I have four children, and our youngest is five months old. With each pregnancy, like most expectant fathers, I have wanted to share that news as quickly as possible. When the test shows two pink lines instead of one, I want the world to know. This is life-changing. This is wonderful. This is a miracle-in-progress. I want to tell my family and friends. I want to begin celebrating this news as soon as possible. Their mother, however, knows better than that.

Things can go wrong. Things often go wrong, and, when they do, it's usually in the early days of pregnancy. Let's wait a little while, she says. I don't want people to know yet. It's too hard to share good news and then withdraw it a little later. There's a little superstition in there, of course. We all know it. We all recognize that when we are dealing with something largely beyond our control we find lots of pretend ways to influence the outcome--or, at least, prevent a negative influence from happening. In a few weeks, maybe a month or two, then we'll be ready to share.

In Luke 1:39-45, Mary comes to greet her elder cousin Elizabeth, who lived in the hill country. She carried in her womb a tiny, developing life, which had come upon her in a most mysterious and miraculous fashion. But Mary was young and unmarried, and her betrothed was not the father. These were early days. She may have been sick, but, other than that, Mary showed no evidence of her pregnancy. And she was thankful for that. Already, things were hard enough with Joseph, who needed to be assured by an angelic visit in a dream that he did not need to divorce his fiancée. His family, if they had heard, would be irate. So Mary kept her growing secret to herself. They wouldn't understand. No one would--no one except Elizabeth.

Upon entering the house, Mary is greeted by her cousin, who exclaims, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." We know the whole story. We've seen the angel come to visit Mary. We know that, in a few months, the birth will take place in Bethlehem. We know that in thirty years John the Baptist and Jesus will be united in ministry. But Elizabeth didn't know. She only knew her side of the story. And she knew what the baby inside her had done.

Zechariah, Elizabeth's husband, had been visited by an angel, who announced that he and his wife would have a son. That child was to "go before the Lord to prepare his ways." He was to be the forerunner of God's anointed one--the savior of the world. Elizabeth had her own challenges. Her husband had been struck mute by the angel because of his disbelief, so he had to explain this story with gestures and by writing it down. The house was quiet in those days, and Elizabeth had plenty of time to ponder the promises God was making--to wonder how they would be fulfilled.

And then, without any further explanation, Mary walks in, and Elizabeth's unborn child jumps for joy inside her belly, and Elizabeth knows. Like any mother who carries a child within her, she knows what no one else can know--that the cousin who has arrived is also carrying a child, the one on whom the world has been waiting. Elizabeth is right, and she hasn't even heard a word from Mary.

God is working in clear and decisive ways. God isn't just pulling a few odds and ends together so that we might make a loose connection. God isn't make broad generalizations or oblique references. No, God is fitting everything together in ways that cannot be missed or avoided or ignored. God's plan of salvation is breaking through into this world in paradigm-shattering ways. It isn't an accident. God doesn't leave it to chance. The story is too beautiful for that.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Home Away from Home

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

I don't usually write about a Psalm, but I can't get a verse from the Psalm for today's Morning Prayer out of my head: "Your statutes have been like songs to me / wherever I have lived as a stranger" (119:54). You can read the rest of the Psalm near the bottom of this page, but I really want to focus on that one particular verse as an Advent meditation. The poet prays to his God, the God of Israel, a prayer of thanksgiving and personal affirmation: I have used your laws as a song to sustain me while I was separated from your land. It is his way of declaring that God has been with him even in his alienation because he has had the law to keep him connected with all that really matters. It is a beautifully agonizing text that gives hope even to the hopeless.

To be cut off from one's homeland is painful. I have never been exiled, but, when I lived overseas, sometimes long stretches of months would pass without an opportunity to return home. I remember when I bought that first one-way ticket to England, signifying that my home had changed--that I would be planning roundtrips that began and ended in a land that is not my own. I remember what it felt like to go to class on Thanksgiving Day because, in England, it's just another Thursday. Although I fell in love with most things British, I missed the little things and would make long lists of ordinary activities and simple foods that I wanted to do and eat when I returned home. I tried to stay connected with my American identity. When I pined for my homeland, I ate at Subway, where I could order a sandwich just the way I like it (how very American, indeed,) and where I could fill up my cup with as much ice as I wanted, which is to say all the way to the brim.

Unlike the psalmist, of course, my "exile" was self-imposed and only as long as it took me to book the next flight home. Still, I can feel in my bones a part of what those hollow yet hopeful words declare: "Your statutes have been like songs to me / wherever I have lived as a stranger." For a faithful Israelite in the ancient world, one's national identity and religious identity were inseparable. During periods of exile, when many of God's people were carted off to foreign lands, they needed ways to stay connected with who they were. The Jerusalem temple and its centralized worship were unavailable (or perhaps destroyed), so other quintessentially Jewish practices became even more important. Circumcision was both a momentary ritual and lifelong reminder that a son belonged to Yahweh. Keeping kosher in a land where pork or other unclean foods were always on the table was both a challenge and an opportunity to remain faithful. Teaching the laws of Israel to the children of Israel was a way of insisting that the people of Israel, even separated from their Promised Land, still had a place in God's heart. And that is a connection worth singing about.

There are songs that remind us of home. Even ancient and primitive cultures knew song as a way of uniting a clan and distinguishing them from others. Song itself probably predated the spoken word. We hear a song on the radio, and we are transported back to our home. We tuck our children in at night and sing the same songs our mothers sang to us. We come together with our fellow expats and sing a quirky ballad that keeps us tied to our homeland. Songs belong to a people, and, for God's people, the story of God's relationship with them, which for a Jewish person is the Law of Moses, is a song worth singing. For Christians, God's story of salvation has a different verse.

As the name of this blog implies, we are all a long way from home. We belong to God. We belong in his kingdom. Yet we are here, waiting and watching and dreaming about hour home. What ties us to it? What is our song?

Luke's Advent

This Sunday is the last Sunday of Advent, which means that Christmas is coming soon. Although Advent's lessons change on the three-year cycle, Christmas is always the same. Despite the lectionary's set options for Christmas Day, I don't know many preachers or churches that choose John 1 over Luke 2:1-20. And it's no surprise. Luke is the only gospel account that includes a birth narrative. His is the Christmas story our congregations know. That means that this year is special. It excites me that this year's Advent--Lectionary Year C--is also based in Luke.

Think about the gospel lessons we've heard during Advent this year: Luke's mini-apocalypse (21:25-36), the inauguration of John the Baptist's ministry (Luke 3:1-6), his message of repentance (Luke 3:7-18), and now Mary's visit with her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-55). Think also about the Lucan canticles that have gone with them: Zechariah's song at the birth of his son and Mary's song--a duplicate from Sunday's gospel lesson. Perhaps it goes without saying, but there's a remarkably Lucan focus this year in Advent. All of those lessons and canticles have had his peculiar theological approach in them. John's repentance as sharing coats and food and conducting one's self honorably. Mary's vision of the weak becoming strong and the powerful being brought down from their lofty places. Zechariah's prediction of those who dwell in darkness receiving a great light. If you're going to read the Christmas story, it helps to have read all of these in preparation.

Of course, the Christmas story doesn't need any background. The miracle of the incarnation stands alone. But Luke's telling of that story--in a stable and witnessed by shepherds--is the natural conclusion of all the time we've spent in Luke this Advent. This has been Luke's Advent. Christmas always belongs to Luke, but this year, to me, it will feel particularly rich because of the time we've spent preparing for it Luke's way. This Sunday is a chance to bring all of that together--to pull our Advent journey toward God's upside-down reordering of the world to its near conclusion. Then, we'll be ready to go to Bethlehem.

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Total Reversal

My first real exposure to Mary's song, which is found in Luke 1:46-55, was in seminary, when I regularly took part in the service of Evensong. Called the Magnificat, her words along with Simeon's Nunc dimittis are the two canticles of the great evening office. Hundreds of composers have set those words to music, and, for two years at St. John's College in Cambridge, I heard a great many of them sung as beautifully as they have ever been sung on this earth. Initially, it was the ascetics of the moment that drew me in--the music, the choir, the chapel, the pomp and perfection of the whole experience. But, in ways I did not realize until after I had left, Mary's song had begin to sink deeply into my bones and take residence in my soul, changing my heart in substantial ways.

I cannot say when it happened--maybe it was at a Jonathan Daniels pilgrimage, when we remembered the martyr's love of those words, or maybe it was one Advent, when we heard that song during our journey toward the Incarnation--but, at some point in my formation as a Christian, the reordering of the world that Mary foretells became my life's central hope. It is the gospel manifested in the world. It is the story of salvation shone through a lens and focused on that one moment of jubilant song. It is all the dreams of all of God's people--in fact, even the dream of God himself--breaking into reality. And, as Luke portrays the good news of Jesus Christ, it is the only context we have for understanding who Jesus is and what he represents to the world.

This is Mary's song. That God chose her to be the God-bearer is the ultimate sign that God has completely flipped the order of the world on its head and replaced it with God's own priority. "My soul magnifies the Lord," she proclaims, confirming that her deepest sense of identity is itself a explanation of who God is. Her lowliness captures God's own heart in a way that reveals not only her own life's story but the story of God's relationship with humanity. God's tender love for her is actually how God works at the universal level. This moment is evidence that God is "scatter[ing] the proud in the imagination of their hearts" and "[bringing] down the powerful from their thrones" so that the lowly might be lifted up. In this moment of God's true entrance into the world, God is satisfying the deepest hunger of his starving people and doing so by sending the rich away empty-handed.

This isn't just the moment Mary has been waiting for. The song she sings declares to all people that this is the moment that all of humanity has been looking forward to for all of history. And, in her song, the action that God is taking is not a prediction of the future but a testament to the past. Even before the savior is born, God's salvation has been accomplished within Mary. Like any mother who feels the kicks and stirring of her unborn child, Mary needs no one to tell her what has already happened. For her, it is already here. For her, the time to sing is now.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Repentance: Seeking a Kingdom Life

December 13, 2015 – Advent 3C
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
When I was growing up, this week of the year always felt stressful. There was an urgency in our house to get ready that left all of us in fear. We weren’t worried about decorations or shopping or the big family meal, nor were we anxious about the predicted second-coming of Jesus and the end of the world that we heard about in church every Sunday during Advent. No, we were worried about an arrival of a different sort: the advent of my grandparents who might show up at any minute.

Days before their predicted arrival were busy enough. Rooms had to be cleaned. Floors had to be swept and mopped. Toys had to be put away. But, on the morning when they were supposed to show up, my mother’s commands rose to a feverish pitch, and I remember scurrying around the house, picking up stray items left out of place, while she screamed, “They’ll be here any minute! They’ll be here any minute!”

You see, my father’s father liked to wake up early—very early. If they were not in the car and on the road from Birmingham before 6:00 a.m., he would be sorely disappointed. So around 9:00, things got really hectic at our house. Mom would bark out one order after another, “Go put your dirty clothes in the laundry room! Quick, wipe down the kitchen counter!” My dad retreated to the relative tranquility of the lawn mower, while the kids pretended to look busy in case mom walked into the room where the television was on. Eventually, of course, the grandparents would pull into the driveway and one chaos would be replaced by another. We were never completely ready, but, for that last hour or two, we gave it a pretty good go.

There’s a similar tenor in John the Baptist’s preaching, which we hear in today’s gospel lesson. “Even now,” he proclaimed, “the ax is lying at the root of the trees. If you don’t bear good fruit, you’ll be cut down and thrown into the fire.” That was two-thousand years ago, and his words have lost some of their urgency, but we haven’t forgotten them. And, this season of Advent, when we prepare not only for the season of Christmas but also for the day when Christ will return and judge the world, I wonder what it might look like if we took John’s words just as seriously as the crowd who gathered on the banks of the Jordan River. What would it mean for us to believe as fully as we proclaim that one day soon Jesus will come back? What might become of us if we took repentance seriously?

Repentance is a curious thing. Most of the preachers who cry out, “Repent!” are the same ones who are likely to shake a bible in your face and try to scare the hell right out of you. I think it’s a good thing that our tradition has, for the most part, left the scariness of religion to the fundamentalists. But some of us, who preach in the Episcopal Church, are so worried that we might be compared with a fire-and-brimstone preacher that we’ve forgotten how important repentance is. You can’t get to heaven without it. You can’t be a part of what God is doing in the world unless you repent. We cannot hear the good news of Jesus Christ unless we embrace the message of John the Baptist, the forerunner. And that leaves me asking the same question that the crowd asked the great prophet: “What should I do?”

As someone who has dedicated his life to the spreading of the gospel of Jesus Christ but who also believes that the gospel cannot be a message of fear, what should I do? How can I call upon this congregation to repent without turning them away with a harsh message that no one wants to hear? How can I get you to listen long enough to hear me say that repentance is actually good news? How can all of us understand that the invitation to repentance isn’t threatening or fear-mongering but actually an invitation to peace and security?

Well, thanks be to God that Luke takes care of that for me. All four gospel accounts start out with John the Baptist and his message of repentance. And two of them—Matthew and Luke—portray this exact moment when the crowds come out to be baptized by John in the Jordan. But only Luke tells us what the Baptizer said to the crowds when they asked him what they should do: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To the tax collectors, he said, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” And to the soldiers, he said, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” Share. Don’t steal or extort. Be satisfied. Do that and you will be ready when the Lord comes. That doesn’t sound very threatening, does it?

That’s because repentance isn’t about perfection. It’s about living a life that reflects God’s priorities for the world. Think about the people to whom John the Baptist was speaking. Among them were tax collectors and soldiers—the most hated people in society. Their occupations represented everything that stood in the way of God’s kingdom, but John didn’t tell them to quit their jobs and become religious zealots. He merely asked them to do their jobs with dignity and honesty. We don’t have very many prostitutes, drug dealers, and loan sharks in our parish, but God’s message to them is the same as it is to the rest of us: you don’t have to be perfect; just stop living for yourself and start living for God’s kingdom.

Jesus Christ is coming. And, when he comes, he will judge the earth. And it’s up to us to be ready. But getting ready doesn’t mean being perfect. If perfection were what God requires, we’d be lost and without hope, and this message would be one of fear and desperation. We prepare for the coming of Christ through repentance. And repentance is as easy—and as challenging—as living a life that belongs in God’s kingdom. It’s as simple as sharing your coat and your food and conducting yourself honorably, and it’s as difficult as letting God’s ways become your ways.

Repent! Hear the good news! The kingdom of God is near. And, because of God’s mercies, it is within your reach. You don’t have to become Mother Teresa in order to partake in God’s kingdom, but you must yearn for a life that belongs to God as thoroughly as hers did. As John the Baptist declared, we cannot afford to wait. We must live that kingdom life now. And we do so not because we are afraid that Jesus could show up at any moment and catch us unprepared. We live that kingdom life because we know that Jesus will come back and the only way we can get ready to embrace his coming is to live as if he were already here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Repentance Fruit

Yesterday afternoon, a package of wonderful fruit arrived at our house--an early Christmas present from a thoughtful parishioner. These days, one can find just about any fruit from any climate in the local supermarket. Not too long ago, you would have had three varieties of apple from which to choose: red, green, or yellow. Now, there are more than a dozen. Still, the pears that the postman brings to my door are a little sweeter than any I can find in the store, and the oranges are just a little juicier. Perhaps it's just the gold box and the tissue paper surrounding each one, but it seems like these fruits are worthy of something special (even if I am not).

"You brood of vipers!" John the Baptist cries out, shaking his finger at the crowd of sinners who came out to be baptized by him. "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance." Yesterday in staff meeting, Seth chuckled at the thought of "bear fruits." He mused, "I wonder what a bear fruit looks like." It's funny, but it leads me to an important point. What do fruits worthy of repentance look like? What does it mean to bear those fruits? Why not simply say, "Repent!" Why take it that extra step and envision something productive? What is John the Baptist talking about here?

I find it interesting that Luke's is the only gospel account to explain what those fruits look like. Matthew places those same words on John's lips, but he fails to explain what it means to bear that kind of fruit. It's as if Matthew assumes that we'll understand what "fruits worthy of repentance" look like. Luke doesn't leave it up to us. He lets us know exactly what it means. And now that we're in Lectionary Year C, which focuses primarily on Luke as the gospel lesson, we should probably get used to things like this because Luke, more than any other gospel writer, wants us to know what it means to live a life worthy of the kingdom.

Moved by his call to repent, the crowd looks at John the Baptist and asks, "What then should we do?" And the Baptizer replies, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." To the tax collectors, he said, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you." And to the soldiers, he said, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages." That's what repentance fruit looks like--sharing, caring, doing one's job, staying within the rails, keeping things above board, remaining satisfied with what we've got. Funny, that sounds pretty ordinary to me.

Fruits worthy of repentance aren't all that spectacular. They're the kinds of ordinary things just about any of us would find reasonable. And that makes me wonder...why in the world would we need to be reminded of something so simple as that? And then I remember something about all life's lessons being taught in kindergarten yet most of us forgetting them by the fourth grade. In other words, human nature gets in the way.

Stir-Up Sunday used to be the Sunday before Advent, but another liturgical innovation got in the way. I give thanks, however, to God that the collect for Stir-Up Sunday was preserved by transferring it to the Third Sunday of Advent. The effect has been to ameliorate the rejoicing of Gaudete Sunday, which I wrote about yesterday (as a comparison, see the 1928 BCP propers for 3 Advent and particularly the gospel lesson therein appointed), but the collect that we will pray this Sunday seems to fit with bearing simple, ordinary repentance fruit: "Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us..."

Again, it's simple, but it says it all. We are hindered by our sins. We need God's help to bear fruits worthy of repentance--even if they're pretty ordinary. Why? Because ordinarily our lives are a mess. Hear John the Baptist calling you to repent. Hear him inviting you to bear fruits worthy of repentance. Hear him explain how simple that is. And pray that God will give you strength to do the same.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Pink Candle

This Sunday, many churches around the world will mark the third Sunday of Advent by lighting a pink candle on their Advent wreaths. The rest of the candles are usually either purple or blue—begging a distinctly Anglican yet thoroughly pointless argument for another day—but one alone stands as pink. Why is there a pink candle on the Advent wreath? What is its significance? And why is it the third candle?

Historically, this Sunday is called “Gaudete Sunday” because, in the Latin mass, the first word of the first prayer sung or said as the clergy enter the church and approach the altar was “Gaudete,” which means “Rejoice!” And, if you have been paying attention in church these last two weeks, you might be ready for a joyful message. The lessons for the First Sunday of Advent were all about the end of the world, and last week’s readings featured the prophets, who call us to repent. This Sunday is a refreshment of sorts—a break or lightening in the somewhat somber liturgical mood typical of a season in which the altar is bedecked in purple.

Advent, though not as deliberate a season of penitence as Lent, still carries some penitential tones. In fact, this season of preparation was originally marked by black vestments and a forty-day fast that stretched from the Feast of St. Martin (November 12) until Christmas, earning it the nickname “The Lent of St. Martin.” (Thank goodness for liturgical innovation as surely one Lent is enough!) Although repentance is good for the soul, human beings need a break every now and then, and pausing in the middle of a penitential season for a breath of fresh and jubilant air can be restorative. On the Sundays that fall in the middle of both Advent and Lent, the church pauses in its desert journey, stopping to drink from the springs of an oasis of joy.

The faithful who entered the church on that day would see that the purple hangings had been removed and replaced by pink ones. Technically, the liturgical color is “rose,” which to our eyes represents a mixture of red and violet. Although physicists now question whether pink is actually a color or just a trick within our brains, the effect is the same: pink is a lighter shade of serious. It reminds us that this break is only momentary and that, next Sunday, we will return to the purple of preparation. But, for now, as long as the clergy are wearing pink stoles and the altar is draped like a rose, we can relax a little bit. We can pause long enough to find joy.

This Sunday at St. John’s, we will not change the hangings to pink—a practice largely eschewed by Protestant churches and also the reason we do not include a pink candle in our Advent wreath—but we will hear Godcalling us to rejoice. We will “sing aloud,” with God’s Daughter Zion. We will join Daughter Jerusalem and “rejoice and exult” with all our heart. We will celebrate with the prophet Zephaniah, who declares that God has “taken away the judgements against [us]” and encourages us to “fear disaster no more.” We will “sing the praises of the Lord,” who “has done great things” for us. We will listen as the apostle Paul tells us to “rejoice in the Lord always,” and then, again, he will tell us to rejoice some more. The effect is astounding, and, as I read all the lessons in succession in preparation for this Sunday’s sermon, I find myself dancing a little bit at my desk, unable to contain the joy called for in scripture.
But then I read the gospel lesson, in which John the Baptist calls out to the “brood of vipers” and urges them to “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” And the flickering flame of that joyful pink candle threatens to go out under the prophetic breath of the Baptizer. Still, though, the flame burns, and I cling to it on this Gaudete Sunday. On a day of rejoicing, I feel that my task as the preacher is to figure out how the last line of the gospel lesson, in which Luke describes the preaching of John the Baptist as “good news [for] the people,” is true even (and perhaps especially) within a message of repentance. Indeed, the invitation to repentance is good news—even joyful news—and my prayer is that the Holy Spirit will guide my words and all our hearts to hear it. As I look forward to Sunday, I know that I am ready for some good news, and I hope you are, too.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Advent Preparations

Today, for the third year in a row, I will give part of "the Christmas message" at our local Rotary Club. Of course, Rotary is not a Christian organization. In fact, even here in the bible belt, we have multiple members who are not Christians. But we have no clergy from other religions, so, today, three Christian pastors will share the duty of delivering the message of the holidays. Last year, you may remember, dear reader, that I spoke about Hanukkah. Again, the season is right for that, but I think I can do better. Two years ago, I spoke about the importance of interfaith dialogue in a club like ours--a heartwarming message for a Christmas program. Essentially, I've been trying to avoid the assignment, hoping they'd ask someone else to do it, but it hasn't worked. This year, I'm trying a different approach. I'm tackling Christmas head-on.

It's kind of funny to me, as a clergyperson who typically fights the secularization of Christmas, that instead I would fight the inappropriate religiosity of a secular "Christmas" program. Maybe I can do a better job. Maybe I can stay true to my Christian roots and still find a way to invite our secular civic organization to hold on to the spirit of the season--with only a touch of the sacred and plenty of the profane (by that I mean the opposite of sacred...not four-letter wordedness).

Christmas is coming. Every year, it falls on December 25. Despite complaining about "not being ready yet," none of us will be caught off guard. But what does it mean to get ready? How are we preparing ourselves for the holiday season?

For most of us, getting ready means decorating, shopping, cooking, and wrapping. It means long lines at the grocery story and at the post office. It means sending out invitations and Christmas cards. It means finding a babysitter and finding a dress to wear to the office party. As I preacher, I fall into the same trap, though in a slightly different genre. Greenery and Christmas kitsch will be sparse in our house because I'll be consumed by another kind of preparation. I will allow service bulletins and sermons and schedules and hymns and flowers and acolytes and ushers to occupy my mind and heart these next few weeks. My family's Christmas plans usually come last, when Elizabeth wakes me up after the Christmas morning service and says, "Can we put up the tree yet?" It's the hazard of the job. How else should I be preparing for one of the two biggest days (nights, actually) in our church year?

In the Christian tradition, the kind of holiday preparations of which we are all guilty is pretty much antithetical to the spirit of the season. Think about the story--not the habitual ways we (and I mean organized religion, too) observe and retell the story but the actual story itself. Two love-struck kids (remember that Mary was probably a young teenager) make their way through Palestine. She is pregnant, and he is unprepared. The reach their destination, where they have no family with which to lodge, and they are forced to bed down in the stable behind the inn. And God uses those lowly circumstances to do a remarkable thing. It is, in fact, the inadequacy of the whole situation that provides the perfect setting for God to show up.

Christians are supposed to look for God's message of hope in obscure, untidy, improvised places. Yet we welcome this season by doing the exact opposite. And every light we hang--every tree we decorate--makes it harder for us to see where Christmas really takes places. If you want to see Christmas, our holiday parties and churches aren't the right places to go. The Salvation Army or the CCC get closer to it, but, really, it's even further away from civilization than that. Take a look in the woods behind Kroger, where homeless people hide from our sight. There's a community out there--a village of people whom we don't want to see. And I think that's where we would find Mary and Joseph on Christmas Eve night.

But how in the world will we ever get there? And I don't mean literally walking into the woods behind Kroger. In this season of excess, how will our hearts ever be ready to find hope in those places where we least expect to find it? By acknowledging our own inadequacy and embracing it as the means through which God's message of hope will come. Instead of preparing our houses, we should prepare our hearts.

In our church, the word most closely associated with Advent is "repent." This Sunday, we will hear John the Baptist cry out, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance." He's talking to us. We--every one of us--are that brood of vipers. And repentance is how we are supposed to get ready for Christmas. That is how all of us--regardless of our faith tradition--align our hearts with what God is doing in the world. It's how we acknowledge that we've been barking up the wrong (Christmas) tree. It's how we recognize that our preparations, though lavish and intentional, have missed the point. It's how we leave behind those misguided attempts to get ready and return to God's agenda.

Stop thinking about your shopping list long enough to ask yourself how you are preparing your heart for Christmas. If the holiday season will come and go and leave you no closer to the woods behind Kroger, you're wasting your time. If getting ready for Christmas is more about spending time with friends and family and less about looking for God's presence amidst the poor, the homeless, the oppressed, the prisoners, and the refugees of this world, you're not celebrating the right holiday. If you're looking for a mid-December secular celebration with fine foods and nice music and good friends, keep it up. But don't call it Christmas. That isn't Christmas. Christmas happens in a stable. Christmas happens where those who have no party invitations and no holiday table gather. It happens away from the brightness of our holiday lights. And the only way we're going to see it is if we take as much time preparing ourselves on the inside as we do preparing everything else on the outside.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Nearness of the Word

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Nearing his death, Moses addressed the people of Israel in the wilderness, encouraging them to remain faithful to God: "Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away...No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe" (Deut. 30:11-14). What a beautifully strange way of describing God's commandment. It's near to you, not far away. It's easy to grasp. It's within your reach. You can do this, Moses tells the people. Don't be discouraged.

On a daily basis, we play that same scenario out in our house. Just this morning, during the getting-ready-for-school routine, Elizabeth came downstairs and said, "Where is Sam?" I gave her a guilty look. "I don't know." When she found him, she said, "Sam, what did I tell you to come downstairs to do? What did I ask you to do? Do you remember? Did you forget?" He hadn't forgotten. As he put down the toy and scampered toward the back door, where his book bag is kept, Elizabeth called out, "That's not too difficult, is it? You can do that, right?" Daily basis.

Imagine, if you will, that God's greatest hope for you was right in front of your face--that you could reach out and grab it without any trouble at all. Right there! That close! Why wouldn't you grab it? What could possibly get between you and salvation if it were only two feet in front of you?

The problem with a farewell speech is that the one making the speech isn't going to hang around for very long. And the problem with sending a three-year-old downstairs to do a simple task is that a lot of distractions come up in the 45 seconds it takes to get to the back door. And the problem with just reaching out and grabbing the salvation that is right in front of your face is that it's easy to forget about it and leave it behind as you go on through life. We need some sort of reminder--some sort of string around the finger or chain around the neck or blazing neon sign that keeps us focused on just how close God's salvation always is.

Enter Jesus, stage left. Walking by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers, Andrew and Simon, fishing in a boat. "Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of people." And immediately they left their nets and their boat and followed him. The same happens with James and John, who were mending their nets when Jesus came calling. Upon hearing his invitation, immediately they put down their nets and followed him. Salvation came to meet them, and they got up and went.

And still there was much learning and reminding and cajoling and reprimanding and discipling to do. And that's the point. Jesus didn't say, "Accept the good news and go back to your normal life." No, he said, "Come and follow me." Faith is a journey. Obedience is a lifetime. Discipleship is a pursuit. We follow Jesus. Jesus came to bring salvation all the way to us--not up in heaven or across the sea but right to us wherever we are. But he gives us more than a farewell speech or a simple instruction. He invites us to follow him--to discover the nearness of the word and then pursue it for the rest of our lives. Yes, it's near to you--right in front of your face--but you still need to follow it every day of your life.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Jesus Movement

This article first appeared in our parish newsletter. To read the rest of The View and learn about what's happening at St. John's, Decatur, click here.
A few years ago, I stopped using a manuscript when I preach. It felt risky at first. What happens if I climb into the pulpit and forget everything? What if I say something that I did not mean or forget something that I meant to say? Well, all of those things have already happened, and, of course, the Holy Spirit was faithful even when I failed. I still write out a text each week, which you can read online, but I leave that text in my office and, more or less, preach from memory the sermon that I worked on during the week. I do not memorize the exact words that I have written, but most of them come through anyway. Occasionally, however, something substantial pops out of my mouth that I did not expect to say. Sometimes I am delighted at the unanticipated proclamation, but other times I am quite disappointed in myself.

One of those discouraging moments occurred a month ago, when I preached on Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead. In short, I proclaimed that, by calling his friend back from the grave, Jesus showed us that he came to earth to save us from death itself. To make that point through contrast, somewhere in the middle of that sermon, I rattled off a list of things that Jesus did not come to earth to accomplish, like making you happy or rich or healthy. I recall that at that moment I felt great energy and momentum, and my list of things too small for Jesus’ to have accomplished grew until I said aloud that “Jesus did not come to earth so that you would have a place to go on Sunday mornings.”

Uh oh. I did not mean that. I had not written it. I had not even considered it. It just popped out. By the time I got to, “Jesus did not come to earth so that you would have a place…” I knew that I was in trouble. And, in the unrehearsed moment, I finished the statement in the best way I could think of, but “…to go on Sunday mornings” was not what I meant to say. As the rest of the sermon tumbled out of my mouth, a part of my mind replayed those unexpected words, and I considered on the fly what I could do about it. Did I really say that? Do I believe that? Is that right? If not, can I stop now and go back and undo it? Since by that point I was in the middle of my last paragraph, I left it unresolved, deciding not to retrace my steps and hoping, perhaps, that no one noticed.

But people did notice—at least one of them did. After church, someone told me that that particular line was her favorite part of the whole sermon. (Of course it was!) I had not intended to preach a sermon about the unravelling of our Sunday-morning traditions, but that seemed to be the sermon that she had heard. It was too late. I nodded and said thank you and tried to move on to another conversation lest anyone else ask me about my careless theology.

And now, a month later, if I had to do it all over again, I would, without a doubt, put those exact words back into the sermon and let them ring in our ears and in our hearts because, indeed, I do believe that Jesus Christ did not come to earth so that we would have a place to go on Sunday mornings. Jesus’ birth and life and death and resurrection are about something far more important than going to church. As Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, has said more times than any of us can count, Jesus did not come to start a church; he came to start a movement. And, if we think that the focus of Christianity is what takes place within the four walls that surround us during our weekly worship, we dishonor not only the gospel of Jesus Christ but also the innumerable witnesses to the gospel’s power who lived and died believing that that good news has the power to transform the world and, in fact, bring the dead to life.

Why does St. John’s exist? Why do we show up? Why do we pledge our money and offer our time? Why do we have a budget? Why do we employ a rector and a curate and the rest of our staff? If the only reason we could think of is to have a place to go on Sunday mornings, our congregation would have shuttered its doors a long time ago. Instead, we come to church—we are a church—because the gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to bring life to this world. Our time together on Sunday mornings is a statement of our desire to a part of that Jesus movement both as a congregation and as individuals, and, if we have lost touch with that truth, we must reclaim it with urgency.
Everything we do must be about the gospel. Everything we say must be gospel truth. Every penny we spend on programs and personnel and power bills must be for the sharing of God’s good news with the world. That must be true for St. John’s, and it must also be true for each of us. We are all evangelists. We have good news to share, and Jesus is calling us to share it. Do not let your faith be contained within an hour or two on Sunday mornings. If Jesus has the power to bring you from death into life, that transformation cannot be limited to a weekly appointment. It must consume your whole identity. It must become your way of life. That means that, as a Christian, you must become a part of the Jesus Movement and not just someone who shows up on Sundays.