Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Slaughter of Innocents

The gospel writers love to make connections between Jesus and the Hebrew Bible. This time of year we're accustomed to hearing about the connections that are associated with Jesus' birth. For example, both Matthew and Luke go out of their way to tell us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Seven hundred years earlier, Micah had prophesied that Israel's ruler would come from Bethlehem (5:2), and it made sense to Matthew and Luke that Jesus should be born there. Mark and John, on the other hand, were not concerned with that detail and left it out of their gospel accounts, but Matthew and Luke cared enough to make the connection for us.

During the season of Lent, as we approach the story of Jesus' death, we look to the gospel writers to make other connections for us--usually with the suffering servant of Isaiah. For example, Jesus' silence before his accusers is linked to Isaiah 53:7, where God's anointed servant is described as "oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth." Each time they link a detail from Jesus' life with a passage from the Hebrew scriptures, they help make a case for him as the one foretold by the prophets. They are links that make me smile, that make me feel like I understand Jesus a little bit better. But the prophetic fulfillment that we celebrate today not only wipes that smile off of my face; it also leaves me wondering whether I can believe in a God who draws clear straight lines from Old Testament predictions to their terrible fulfillment in Jesus.

"When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men" (see Matthew 2:13-18). Some translations render that "male children," and I suppose it does make a difference, but we're still talking about a terrible atrocity. All the [male] babies two years and under in and around Bethlehem were taken from their mothers and fathers and executed because one of them might grow up to be a rival king. Let the significance of that indiscriminate killing of children sink in. Let the blood of that genocide flow in your mind. And then hear what Matthew says about it: "Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 'A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.'"

This was the fulfillment of a prophecy? This baby-killing murderous rage was because several centuries earlier Jeremiah had described the suffering of God's people as "Rachel weeping for her children?" Are you kidding me? What sort of sick and twisted truth is this? If the slaughter of the innocents that was the result of Jesus' death is understood to be the fulfillment of a divine prophecy, does that mean that the blood of that genocide stains our hands as well? Do we really believe in a God who sent his Son so that the world might be saved even if that meant that innocent babies would be slaughtered as a result? Sure, you can't make a cake without breaking some eggs, but these are children. These are babies. They were loved and cared for. They had lives that stretched out in front of them. And they were taken, slaughtered, snuffed out, extinguished as a part of God's plan? Even if God didn't cause it to happen, when we make the connection between this slaughter and the prophecy, we are aligning these deaths with God's plan, and that leaves me confused and hurting and wounded.

Does it help if we know that there is no other historical account of Herod's massacre of the innocents except in Matthew's gospel account? Not only is it not mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament, but it is also missing from every historical account from that day. Does that matter? Does it make it better for us to know that Matthew may have made the whole thing up just to make the connection? Is that even worse? Does it worry us more to think that this horrific puzzle piece was manufactured by Matthew to help explain the story of Jesus? What does that say about Matthew? About Jesus? About God? About us?

Does it help if we know that there were probably around 1000 people living in the Bethlehem area at that time, which means we're likely talking about twenty dead babies? Does that help put it in perspective? Does it assuage our anger, guilt, or confusion to know that only two dozen or so toddlers and infants and babies were taken from their parents' hands and killed before their eyes? Can we measure and compare the magnitude of a tragedy in terms of body count? What if it was only ten children? Five children? Is that an acceptable number of innocent fatalities in order for the savior of the world to come?

Does it bother us that none of the other fathers in Bethlehem got a message in their dreams to flee to Egypt? Does it bother us that God could have simply hidden the star from the wise men? Or caused Herod to choke on a chicken bone before he had a chance to kill the innocent children?

This lesson--this story, this prophecy--leaves me with far more questions than answers, and I resent any attempt to make the connection between Jeremiah's prophecy and the deaths of innocents neat and tidy. I don't actually believe that's what Matthew is trying to do. It's easy for me to point the twenty-first-century finger of exegetical criticism at Matthew and tell him he got it wrong. I don't think Matthew is asking us to believe that innocent deaths are a part of God's plan. I believe he's asking us to remember that innocent deaths are a part of reality, and God's plan is to transform that reality through his Son Jesus.

Estimates of the death toll in the Syrian Civil War, which began in 2011, are between 300,000 and 500,000 people. That's half of a million people. UNICEF estimates that by February 2012, 500 children had been killed and over 400 had been arrested and tortured in Syrian prisons. Two years later, the United Nations estimated that a total of 8,800 children had been killed. Although given by an opposition activist group (the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights), the current estimate of children killed in the conflict is almost 16,000 (see Wikipedia). That's almost twice as many students as are enrolled in Decatur City Schools (see DCS website). Imagine that: every child in Decatur, Alabama, murdered...twice! Can we even fathom a massacre of that scale? How do we make sense of it? How do we make sense of a God who looks on and lets that happen?

We don't. We don't make sense of it, and we don't attempt to justify it as a part of God's plan. We see and know that the murder of innocent lives is antithetical to God's plan, so we commit ourselves and our money and our voices and our actions and our prayers to ending the massacre of children. As followers of Jesus, we refuse to ignore the tragedies around us. We refuse to hide behind the insulation of the Atlantic Ocean or our gated neighborhoods. We must look deeply into the suffering of this world and ask ourselves, "Is this the way God wants the world to be?" And, if the answer is no, we must say to ourselves, "Then what will we do about it?" If we shrug our shoulders, then those children died for nothing. If we refuse to act, then the babies of Bethlehem were just another tragedy, and Jesus' birth has no power for them. We believe it does. We believe that we must act. Do not rest until the world is the kingdom God created it to be.

I donated to UNICEF's work in Syria. That's not enough, but it's a start, and I invite you to make a start, too. Find a way to support efforts to protect the lives of innocents in Syria or elsewhere in the world.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

What God Reveals to Us

Audio of this sermon is available here.

Try explaining heaven to a six-year-old whose grandmother has just died. Try telling a heart-sick teenager what it really means to love someone. Try describing nuclear fusion to an elementary school science class. When we try to tell someone something new and complicated, we use a certain kind of logic to get our point across--a mixture of analogy and rationalization that fills in the picture but often fails to convey the whole truth. Sometimes, like in the case of nuclear fusion in an elementary school classroom, that's because our audience isn't able to understand the fullness of what we're trying to tell them. In other cases, like telling anyone about heaven, it's because we ourselves don't really know what it is that we're trying to convey. And, still, in other cases, like trying to tell a teenager about love, we might know what we're talking about, and our audience might be up for the lesson, but, even though we've experienced it first-hand, it's hard to put something like true love into words.

The Bible is full of its own kind of logic--a mixture of analogies and extrapolations and rationalizations and projections that are our attempt and God's attempt to communicate God's word in human words. We use human words and human images and human stories to paint a picture of who God is. We trust that individuals and communities are inspired by God's Spirit as they discover those particular images and stories, but there's still a particular human logic behind it all. If an image or a story isn't consistent with the rest of what we know about God, then it doesn't stick. It gets cast aside as "heresy" or simply as a bad story not worth repeating. If it seems to illuminate further what we already know about God, then it gets recorded and propagated and enshrined as a meet and right description of the Almighty.

We see some of that logic at play in Exodus 33:18-23, when Moses asks to see God's glory. This comes near the end of Moses' life. Remember that Moses had a special relationship with God. He went in and spoke with God face to face, and then he came out and conveyed what God had said to the people of Israel. If ever there was someone who got close to God, it was Moses. And still, as we read about in Exodus 33, there are limits even to Moses' access.

Moses said to God, "Show me your glory, I pray." And God responded, "I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, `The Lord'; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live." This was an amazing offer. God was willing to let all of his goodness pass before Moses. God was even willing to proclaim God's own ineffable name "The Lord" or YHWH to Moses. Think back to the Lord's encounter with Jacob as they wrestled at the Jabbok. To grant to another one's name was a concession of remarkable access, and God was willing to give this to his beloved servant Moses. But Moses was not allowed to see God's face. No one can see God's face and live. "But," God said, "if you hide in the cleft of the rock, I will place my hand over the cleft until after I have passed by you, and then you can look upon my backside--the remnant, the reflection, the afterglow of my glory."

What a strange story! Why was it written like this? What does it tell us about God? What does it tell us about Moses? That God would allow Moses to see his hind parts but not his face is a remarkable description of God's glory--a fullness and magnificence that cannot be apprehended by mere mortals like us--even someone like Moses. There are certain impassable limits to what we can see and know about God.

And then there's Jesus, God's incarnate Son, the Word-Become-Flesh, who dwelt among us and showed us the Father's glory. John the Apostle and Evangelist, whose feast we celebrate today, seemed to understand better than any of the other gospel writers that Jesus was not only God's anointed Son, the savior sent to redeem the world. John understood that Jesus was the fullness of God's ineffable glory spoken, translated, conveyed to humanity in flesh. That which no one could see and live has come to live with us as one of us. As we read at the end of his gospel account, John was a young man who lived long enough for the Holy Sprit to put some of these remarkable pieces together. It took a while for the followers of Jesus to recognize that in him the fullness of God had come to dwell. But, once they saw it, people like John wrote and taught and preached the good news of salvation in a whole new way.

We still believe that God's glory is too much for human beings to see and contemplate. God is infinite, and we are finite. Yet we see in Jesus that contradictory yet life-giving truth that that which is infinite comes to be circumscribed in the womb of Mary, comes to live and breathe in the person of Jesus, comes to die and rise again in the cross and empty tomb. Through it all, we're still just human beings using human logic and human wisdom and human language to make sense of a God we cannot comprehend. Yet, through it all, God reveals himself to us over and over again--most fully and completely in the person of Jesus. God does not wait for us to figure it out. God comes to us and shows himself to us, hind parts and all.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

God Is For Us

December 25, 2016 – Christmas III

© 2016 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here.
How do you catch a duck? When 30,000 people are watching you, and your boss tells you not to hurt it, how do you catch a duck?

I don’t remember what day it was or who the Cubs were playing, but I remember that at some point in the latter innings of a game at Wrigley Field, a duck flew in and landed on the warning track at the base of the ivy-covered brick wall. It was a distraction—for the players as well as the fans—and the ground crew supervisor asked for a volunteer to go and get the duck. “I ain’t scared of no duck,” I thought to myself, as I raised my hand to volunteer. “Alright,” he said to me, “go get it.”

It was in between innings, of course, and the door that the ground crew used was right in the left-field corner of the stadium. When the door opened, I could see that the duck was already on its way toward center field, waddling away from me. I started out the door in a hurried trot, and I thought I heard my boss call out to me, “Don’t run!” It turns out that he was saying, “Don’t hurt it,” because he didn’t want an animal-rights protest to erupt because some knuckle-headed college kid had injured a duck in front of a stadium full of people. I slowed down and approached the duck carefully, and then, as the duck looked over its shoulder at me and bolted in the opposite direction, it hit me: how in the world am I supposed to catch a duck?

There was no place for me to corner it. It was certainly faster than I was. And, as I lumbered toward the bird with outstretched arms, there was no way for me to assure the duck that I was actually there to help it—that I wanted to get it off the field and on its way back to Lake Michigan before it got stepped on by Gary Matthews, Jr., or Sammy Sosa. The closer I got to the duck the faster it ran away. At one point, I think I may have been within four or five feet of the intruding waterfowl, but the start of the next inning came up before I could get any closer.

How do you convince a duck that you’re not going to hurt it—that you want to be its friend? Similarly, how does God convince us that he isn’t out to get us—that he’s really on our side?

He could send someone into the world to teach us about his love. Someone patient and kind and wise. Someone people looked up to. But how would we know? If he came as a little child and grew up knowing more about God than anyone else on earth. If he led an exemplary life and lived as a model for all of us. If he never had an unkind word or a selfish thought. If he never thought of himself before thinking of others. Do you think we would believe him, or would we brush him aside as another pretender with skeletons in the closet that we just haven’t found yet?

What if God sent someone who risked everything he had to demonstrate the power of love? Would that make a difference? If he risked society’s shame by associating with outcasts and sinners. If he ate with prostitutes and tax collectors. If he reached out a hand of concern to touch the lepers whom no one else would dare approach. Would we see in him a sign that God loved us like that, too? Or would we label him a wide-eyed optimist whose ideas would never take hold?

What if God’s anointed servant went ever further than that? What if he accepted the rejection and punishment that of all humanity deserved, asking nothing in return? Would that get through to us and show us once and for all that God is on our side? If he was innocent but willingly walked the path toward execution? If he remained silent in front of his accusers and let them have their way with him? If he accepted rejection and defeat, refusing to struggle or fight back? If he suffered in an excruciating and humiliating way but still only prayed that God would have mercy on us, then would we believe him? Or would we wonder whether the God to whom he prayed would have mercy only on the righteous few? Would his gift of sacrificial love be so great that we would question whether we deserved it? Would we still wonder whether God was really on our side or still out to get those people who did not live a life worthy of that sacrifice?

The Incarnation Window decorated by
the Flower Guild of St. John's, Decatur

We believe in Jesus. We believed that he was born and grew up living a perfect, sinless life. We saw how he welcomed everyone in God’s name. We witnessed in horror how he was rejected by his own people, suffered, and died because his way of love was too much for the world to bear. And all of that is an amazing story of love, but it isn’t good enough. Even the most beautiful story of sacrificial love isn’t enough to convince us that God is forever for us—that God is always on our side. Because even when our loving God is running after us and chasing us down with that love, there’s always a part of us that’s still convinced that he’s chasing us down to punish us, to hurt us, and to reject us. We can’t help it. We’re human beings. And he’s God. And how is the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-holy God ever going to convince a world full of puny, limited, sinful people that he is really on our side?

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being...And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” In God’s perfect way, instead of running after us, trying to convince us of his love, God became one of us. The Word became flesh. God, who for all time and all space, who even before time and space existed, loves so perfectly and completely that that love is reflected in and throughout all of creation. We are created because of that love and within that love. And that love is so perfectly complete—so unreservedly outwardly focused—that it cannot not be contained within God. It always spills out and spills over. That the Word would become flesh—that God would be incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ—was always the outpouring of that love.

God cannot run us down because we would always run away. So God not only comes and meets us, but, in the incarnation, God takes us into himself. It is a two-way sharing. God becomes man so that we would forever belong to him. God is not merely showing us his love. His love becomes us. And we—our human nature—become a part of God. God is so always and totally and completely on our side that he becomes us and invites us into himself.

On Christmas Day, we celebrate the birth of our savior. We rejoice that God’s love and hope and forgiveness have come into the world. But it’s more than that. This isn’t just God’s servant who tells us about God and who shows us how to live and who dies for the sake of God’s love. We look at Jesus Christ and see both God and ourselves—that the two have come together inseparably. This is God’s great love for the world. This is the bridge between heaven and earth. This is God always and forever and unbreakably for us. This is the miracle of the incarnation.

Hope Is Found in a Little Child

December 24, 2016 – Christmas I
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
Into a broken, chaotic, conflicted world, a child makes his appearance. The world around him is full of pain and suffering, but he rests in a small, safe place. In the beginning, he is no one of consequence—just a boy whose life is caught up with the worldly powers that seek to rule him and his people. At first, only a handful of onlookers notice him, but over time his story grows and spreads. The image of that child on that night becomes a touchstone for millions of people. The contrast between his innocence and gentleness and the harsh reality of life that surrounds him and surrounds us all becomes too much for anyone to bear. Meek and mild, he reveals the real suffering of the world to anyone who looks into his eyes. He reminds us of the importance of hope. His silence demands a change within us and within the world. As a weak and vulnerable child who captures the hearts and minds and imaginations of the whole world, he shows us that things don’t have to be this way. He allows us to dare to dream of a different sort of world—one where pain and suffering and death are no more, where God’s peace and justice are real for everyone.

That child’s name is Omran Daqneesh, but you might know him better as the Syrian boy whose face “became a symbol of Aleppo’s suffering.”[1] Although video of that night shows a boy who sits alone in an ambulance and who seems overwhelmed by his circumstances, wiping his bloodied face and then not knowing what to do with his blood-stained hand, it was the still images of that boy, staring straight ahead as if to look right through us, that tore my heart in two. As Anne Barnard reported in the New York Times, Omran was one of twelve victims under the age of fifteen treated in Aleppo that Wednesday—“not a particularly unusual figure”—but this one boy felt different.[2] As his photograph spread across the Internet and newspapers and the nightly news, the world seemed to notice again what it had conveniently forgotten: that there is indiscriminate suffering and death taking place in the world right now and that the world is desperate for a change.

Of course, two thousand years earlier another child was born in that same region—one who not only reminded us how to have hope but who was and is hope itself. His picture did not make it into the newspaper, but his story grabbed the hearts and minds of millions of people. Luke set that story amidst the powers of his day—Emperor Augustus and Quirinius, who was governor of Syria at that time—but this child’s path was different from theirs because the hope he brought was different. At long last, God had come to his people to give them the peace and prosperity that they had dreamt of for generations. This was the moment when God’s gracious rule was to be established through Jesus, who was and is the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. But, because this hope and this peace came from God himself, they had to be different—the kind of true and lasting hope and peace that only God himself could bring.

Emperor Augustus decreed that the whole world would be registered, counted, and taxed, but God used that decree to bring Joseph and his fiancée Mary to Bethlehem, the city of David, where the prophet Micah had foretold that God’s anointed ruler would be born. The political and religious rulers of the day would never have permitted a rival king to grow up in their midst, so God revealed this majestic birth not to the authorities but to some lowly shepherds in a nearby field. Earthly kings were born in palaces, but God’s Messiah was born in the lowliest of circumstances to an unwed teenage mother and her working-class carpenter husband, who wrapped their newborn in some spare rags and placed him in a feeding trough because there was not even room for them in the inn. These were not accidents. This was and is God’s plan. This weakness, this poverty, this vulnerability—this is how God comes among us and establishes his everlasting reign. This is God’s way. This is the hope that God gives us.

Aleppo reminds us that we cannot defeat violence with violence. History shows us that we cannot triumph over hatred with force. Our own neighborhoods prove that we cannot cure poverty with money. Our own lives tell us that we cannot overcome sadness by trying harder to be happy. The world needs a different kind of hope. The world is desperate for a hope that has the power to take hold of our hearts and minds and imaginations and to show us that it doesn’t have to be this way. We yearn for a hope that can take on all that is broken in this world and in our lives and finally make that brokenness whole. Tonight, we see again that that hope is born in Jesus.

God does not defeat weakness. God becomes weakness in order that weakness might be transformed. God does not conquer poverty. God becomes poverty in order that poverty might be redeemed. God does not cast out brokenness. God becomes brokenness in order that brokenness itself might be made whole. That is the miracle of this night. That is our true hope. In the baby Jesus, God takes upon himself all that is wrong with this world in order to make it right by showing that God is inseparable from our suffering. In that Bethlehem stable, God’s light shines in the darkness—a gentle, warm, glowing light that beckons us into the very life of God, that brings our deepest hurts into God so that they might be healed.

This is the hope that transcends every struggle. This is the light that overcomes every darkness. Come again to the stable and see God’s gift of himself to the world—not a king that sits high above us on an unapproachable throne but the king who comes down to us and meets us right in the very midst of our struggle. This is our savior. This is our hope. God is with us, and, because of Jesus, we are with God, and there is nothing that can ever take that away from us.

[1] Barnard, Anne. “How Omran Daqneesh, 5, Became a Symbol of Aleppo’s Suffering.” New York Times. 18 August 2006.
[2] Ibid.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Perfect Belief, Never-Wanting Faith

Audio for this sermon is available here.

In the collect for the penultimate Sunday after Pentecost, we ask God, "who has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning," to "grant that we may in such wise hear them..." In other words, we pray that God would help us see that the stories of the Bible were written so that we might learn something from them. And every once in a while God answers that prayer in a way that makes me absolutely certain that a particular bible passage was written just for me.

Since the second Sunday of Easter is often an opportunity for the curate to preach, it was early in my ordained career when I tackled John 20:24-29 for the first time, and I remember discovering what you have probably known for your whole lives--that Doubting Thomas was written so that you and me would understand that it is perfectly reasonable for a person to doubt that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and that there's still good reason to believe it anyway.

On the first day of the week, the same day that he was raised from the dead, Jesus appeared to his disciples and said, "Peace be with you." He came and met them where they were--hiding behind locked doors out of fear. In the execution of Jesus, they thought that everything they had hoped for had been taken from them. Just when it seemed certain that God's anointed would take the throne of his ancestor David and lead a victorious rebellion against the evil Roman oppressors, that same anointed one accepted betrayal, arrest, torture, and death. Death, of course, was the end--the end of Jesus' life and the end of his followers' hopes that finally God was doing something new and different and lasting.

But, of course, death wasn't the end. Jesus was raised on the third day and came back to his disciples and said, "Peace be with you." But Thomas wasn't with them. I don't know where he was--maybe hiding in a different attic, maybe stuck at a nephew's birthday party--but he wasn't there. And, when his companions found him and told him the good news, Thomas said exactly what any of us would say, "Until I see it for myself, until I feel it for myself, I will not believe."

We're so used to "on the third day, he rose again" that we forget how preposterous that is. Thomas reminds us that anyone and everyone would say, "No way. Didn't happen. Not possible." Because it wasn't possible. Things like that never happened. Until they did. Thomas is us. His objections are history's objections. He allows us to say to the first disciples, "How are we supposed to believe that unless we get to see him for ourselves and touch him for ourselves?" Thomas is the one who invites us to believe because, like him, we discover that in Christ even our doubts are defeated by the resurrection. Jesus did not wait for Thomas to accept the truth of the empty tomb before finding him, meeting him, speaking to him, and offering him hope. And that is what Jesus does for each of us.

Jesus meets us where we are. He comes and sits in our hand and runs across our lips as we receive him in the bread and wine. He joins us when we gather in his name. He meets us in the dark when we sit alone with only him. He does not wait for us to put our hand in his side. He does not insist that we believe before he will reveal himself to us. Instead, we believe because he reveals himself to us. When we hear him say, "Peace be with you." When we hear him say, "I forgive you." When we hear him say, "I am with you always." When we hear him say, "I will love you no matter what." Like Thomas, we experience the resurrected Christ even before we are able to believe it because Jesus doesn't wait for us.

In the collect for the Feast of St. Thomas, we pray, "Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight." We ask for faith. We ask God to give us that which we seek--perfect faith. We do not bring that with us when we pray. We seek it through Jesus Christ. We ask that our faith may never be found wanting in Jesus--that, in his eyes, our faith will be complete. May that be our prayer and our life's focus. May we look to the risen one and see that he is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith--that, in him and through him and because of him, we, too, can believe.

Holiday Pressure

This post is also an article in this week's parish newsletter for St. John's, Decatur. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.

Yesterday I overhead a conversation about getting ready for Christmas. A woman asked, “Have you finished all of your Christmas shopping?” Without hesitation, the man replied, “No,” to which I chuckled and interjected, “You didn’t leave any room for doubt on that!” Then, after a moment or two, the man added, “My sister does all of my shopping for me,” and I laughed even harder. As I face the annual Christmas crunch, the thought of passing that burden on to someone else is appealing.

The holidays can be stressful: presents to buy, houses to decorate, meals to plan and cook, parties to attend, and family members to tolerate. Sometimes, the holidays can be disappointing: waiting too late to order that gift, dropping and breaking a favorite ornament, burning the sugar cookies, sitting at home alone, getting into an argument at the dinner table. I wonder whether the pressure we feel and the disappointment we experience are related.

As a preacher, I too easily fall into the trap of believing that the Christmas Eve sermon needs to be one of the best I will preach all year. Not only will our regular parishioners be there, expecting something special, but those who only come once or twice a year will also be in the pews, and this is a rare opportunity for me to share the gospel with them. I worry that, if I miss the mark, those Christmas-and-Easter Christians will walk out the door, thinking to themselves, “No wonder I only come twice a year.” Of course, that misguided self-importance obscures the fact that people come to church for an encounter with God, and, although a decent sermon may play a small part in helping them find it, my words will not make or break anyone’s experience of the miracle of Christmas except my own.

Maybe the biggest fallacy behind all of our holiday stress is the belief that we and our best efforts are what make Christmas special. For a moment, set aside all of the work that you put into celebrating the birth of our savior and, instead, consider the story that we celebrate at this time of year. God comes down at Christmas in the form of a baby. He arrives completely vulnerable and at the mercy of a teenage first-time mother and her rough-handed carpenter husband. He is surrounded by barnyard animals and is laid down in a feeding trough. He is adored not by princes or priests but by shepherds. In every way, God is met with the plainest of circumstances and the most meager of offerings, yet that is exactly where God comes and meets us—right where we are, asking nothing of us and accepting exactly what we have to offer.

Christmas is God’s repudiation of the belief that we are responsible for our own joy. The Incarnation is God taking our nature upon himself—not because we are perfect but precisely because we are imperfect. It is our stress, our pressure, our anxiety, and our disappointments that God inhabits. Everything that is not the way we would want it to be is exactly what God assumes in the birth of Jesus. And he takes that brokenness upon himself in order that the meager, scarred, and sullied offering of our nature might be made perfect through that union. We do not make ourselves a vessel worthy of God; instead, God chooses us to be his vessel in order to make us worthy. Our joy, therefore, is complete because of God’s work and not because of our own.
This year, put down the pressure of the holiday season. No matter how hard you try, you cannot make Christmas perfect. Only God can do that, and God already has. Bring yourself to the stable just as you are. Come with your imperfections and let the baby Jesus receive them again. Look down into the manger and see that God has already come to meet you—not the you that you would want to project but the real you. The miracle of Christmas is not found in what we do to celebrate this season or what we do to get ready for the birth of Jesus. It is found when we discover that, in that miraculous birth, we have already been found by God.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Blogging The Week Before Christmas

This is a tough week for me to blog. Usually, this blog is about the upcoming lessons, and I spend the week exploring different themes as I either prepare to write a sermon or prepare to listen to one. The more I read and write and pray the easier it is for me to see what God is saying to me and to God's people. This week, though, I feel a reticence. I feel like I'm on a journey that leads to the stable in Bethlehem, but I won't be ready to get there until Saturday evening. I'm still stuck in Advent, but it's time for me to look far enough down the road to see what is waiting for us at the end of the journey.

Part of my reticence comes from the false belief that I'll only find one good thing to say about Christmas. We preach on the exact same lessons every year. Although there are three options for Christmas Day, I don't know anyone who leaves Luke 2:1-14 out. It may not be a liturgical, rubrical necessity, but all of us need the manger and the swaddling cloths and the shepherds and the angels. Unlike the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, when hardly anyone other than the preacher comes to church knowing what miracle or parable or controversial encounter will be featured in the lessons, on Christmas Eve everyone knows what story will be read. Everyone. What might the preacher say that hasn't been said?

Of course, there's a reason we celebrate the birth of Jesus every year. Like the other principle feasts of the church (Easter, Ascension Day, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, All Saints' Day, and the Epiphany), Christmas--the Incarnation--is the sort of theological show-stopper that never loses its meaning or power. We don't need to find other ways to say it. We don't need to be creative or else it will lose its pizazz. Christmas never gets old--no matter how many years the same preacher has climbed into the pulpit to preach more or less the same sermon.

This week as much as any, I'm looking to get out of the way. People will come to church on Christmas Eve because they want to make their way to the manger. They want to Mary and Joseph huddled around the manger. They want to look at the newborn king and encounter all of the hope they have ever held all wrapped up in one night. It does not matter to them that they've done it before. They don't care whether this year's sermon is better than last year's. Although the sermon is an important part of our yearly pilgrimage, no one comes to church just to hear it--not even the preacher himself.

Later this week, I'll write about the many different ways that the Incarnation can speak to a congregation--how the message is not static but reflects the various and particular needs that we bring with us to the stable. But to start, I want to focus on the big picture and remember my role in our Christmas celebration--a supporting character in a much bigger show.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Say Yes to God

December 18, 2016 – The 4th Sunday of Advent, Year A
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
When I meet with couples for premarital counseling, one of the questions that I ask them is what they would do if they got pregnant right away. Even if their plan is to wait a few years or even not have children at all, still I ask them, “What would you do if you woke up tomorrow and found out a baby was on the way?” Although I’m moderately interested in how they would handle an unplanned pregnancy, I’m more interested in hearing them discuss how they would work together to restructure their lives around a challenging bundle of joy. As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said in his Christmas message this year, babies take control of your life; it’s what babies do. I don’t expect the lovebirds on the couch in front of me to know exactly how they would handle it, but I want to watch them talk about tradeoffs and setbacks—how they would reconfigure their career plans, how they would adapt their social lives, whether they would keep living in that tiny apartment, trying to save money for a house, and what their marriage would be like with suddenly scrutinizing parents and in-laws. As the priest who is helping them prepare for a life together, I want them to begin to consider what happens when their carefully mapped out lives don’t go according to plan.

But one question that I don’t ask them is what would happen if the bride-to-be said to her fiancé, “I’m pregnant, but the baby isn’t yours.” Although not completely outside the realm of possibility, such a predicament is largely beyond our scope in premarital counseling. Despite seeking to turn over a number of difficult stones, we don’t plan for that particular possibility. No one does. That seems like the kind of drama that belongs on a soap opera instead of in the priest’s office. But that’s exactly what happened to Mary and Joseph. She was found to be with child, but that child did not belong to Joseph.

I think we that forget about Joseph’s struggle because we’re more familiar with Luke’s version of Jesus’ birth than with Matthew’s. Luke focuses on Mary’s story—how the Angel Gabriel caught her by surprise and told her that she would bear a son. Luke portrays her worries and uncertainty at this troubling news, and he recalls for us how she submitted to the Lord’s plan and declared, “Let it be to me according to your word.” But Luke never talks to us about Joseph’s struggle. For that, we must turn to Matthew and to today’s gospel lesson. Here we read about Joseph’s doubts and fears and how the angel came to him in a dream to convince him to say yes to God.

When I read this gospel passage, the word around which the whole thing turns is found in verse nineteen: “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” Joseph resolved to divorce her quietly. He made up his mind. He decided. He planned. He intended. It was a good plan—a godly plan. Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “righteous man,” a just man. Although it was his right as a betrayed man, he did not want to cause his beloved any unnecessary shame. But, as much as he loved her, he knew that he could not stay with her. She carried in her womb the child of another. All of his plans for their life together—all of his hopes that she would be the mother of his child, that together they would start a family—came crashing down when he discovered that she was pregnant. In the language and patriarchal culture of that day, she belonged to someone else. Righteous and caring though he was, he could not imagine staying with her. The child she would bear would be a lifetime reminder of her betrayal and his shame. And so Joseph decided to dismiss her—to put her away—quietly.

But, just when Joseph had resolved to do this, God came in and showed him another way. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” God himself set to work on his faithful servant Joseph in order to turn his life around. “Do not be afraid,” the angel said. “Put aside all of your worries and fears about what will happen. You cannot see what God can see. Taking Mary as your wife will not bring you shame but deep and lasting honor.”

“The child conceived in her is by the Holy Spirit,” the angel declared. “This is God’s child, a holy child. But you will name him Jesus. His name will come from you. You, Joseph, are the descendent of David through whom this child will claim the throne of his ancestor. He may be God’s Son, but he is also your child. You must take part in what God is doing through this great birth. Your role is essential, too. His name will be Jesus because he will save his people from their sins. The name Jesus or ‘Yeshua’ means ‘one who delivers’ or ‘one who rescues.’ This child will be God’s saving gift to God’s people, but you, Joseph, must accept him and his mother as your own. You must say yes in order for God’s great plan to be accomplished.”

Perhaps it is too bold a thing for me to say that God’s plan of salvation could not have been fulfilled without Joseph. Surely, when human beings fail, God still finds a way to save us. But this plan—Mary and Jesus, the Incarnation, the throne of his ancestor David, twelve disciples, King of Lings, Lord of Lords, live and die and rise again—it all hinged on Joseph’s willingness to forego his own plans and accept that God had a bigger plan for him and for the whole world.

Faith isn’t as simple as believing that God has a plan for us. It also means believing that our lives are a part of something bigger, and it means submitting ourselves, our lives, our hopes, and our dreams to God’s plan for the whole world. Faith means saying to God, “Okay, God, I believe that you know what’s best—for me and for those around me.” Can there ever be scarier words than those? It is no accident that when we make up our minds for ourselves that’s the moment when God shows up and says, “Actually, I have something else in mind.” Faith is being able to hear it. Faith is trusting that God’s plan is bigger than us—that it’s bigger than anything we can see and stranger than anything we could expect.

God’s plan includes taking an unmarried pregnant girl and an embarrassed but righteous fiancé and using them to bring salvation to the world. God’s plan involves taking that which is lowly and humble and raising it up to incomparable greatness. God’s plan is take that which is poor and forgotten and bring it to true joy and everlasting remembrance. God’s plan is to take death itself and transform it into new life. That is God’s plan for us—for each one of us and, through each one of us, for the whole world.

Can we see it? Can we see our part in it? Of course not—at least not all at once. But we do get marvelous glimpses of it when God shines his light upon us. Because of what God has shown us in the story of Jesus, God is asking us to say yes. God is inviting us to let go of our fears of the unknown and to trust that God’s plan is better than our own. God is asking us to trust him enough to set aside our own hopes and dreams and plans and accept his plan for our lives. God is asking us to believe that he has something truly spectacular in store for the whole world and that we are an integral part of that plan. Will we have faith like Joseph? Will we say yes to God? Don’t wait until you can see the whole picture. Instead, trust that you are a part of something great. Say yes to God, and watch his plan of salvation for the whole world unfold all around you.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Purify Our Conscience

Last night, we concluded an Advent Wednesday-night series that focused on collects and how that particular form of prayer (address + acknowledgment + petition + aspiration + pleading) has the power to transform our fears into hope. It was lively. It was personal. Individuals were invited to create their own collects in response to global, local, and personal concerns. Through it all, my appreciation for prayer, liturgy, and community were all deepened. Another happy consequence of that series is that I can't help but notice what we say when we pray the collect each week.

This Sunday, in a collect that does not conform to the five-part structure of traditional collects, we will ask God to "purify our conscience." Think about that for a second. We ask God not to purify our hearts, not to purify our minds, not to purify our lives, but to purify our consciences. To what end is that prayer uttered?

If repentance is a change of heart and change of life--a turning away from sin and back to God--then a purified conscience is the clear and receptive inner-being that results from that repentance and the forgiveness that is given. We repent. God forgives. And now we pray that our conscience would be pure.

The fruit of that repentance is not only forgiveness in God's eyes, which I would argue was already given in the first place, but also the pure, spotless, guilt-free conscience that is our receptivity to God and God's plan for our life. When we repent and when God forgives, that reality of being forgiven--the state of having been made righteous--is the pure conscience that we seek in this collect.

And notice how that purified conscience is given: by God's daily visitation. I don't believe in sanctification (a conversation for another post), but I do believe that the power and reality and transformation that the gospel has had in our lives takes time to take hold in our consciences. We doubt that love. We doubt that grace. We doubt that forgiveness. Of course we do! How could we ever accept at face value that God loves us without any regard for our failures? And, as we pray in this week's collect, that purification of our consciences happens as God comes and visits us and lives with us every day.

When our consciences are purified of guilt and fear, we are the mansion prepared for Jesus Christ at his coming. We cannot be ready to receive Jesus until our consciences are pure, and our consciences are pure when God comes and visits us daily, and we notice God coming to visit us daily when we repent and are forgiven. Repent. Be forgiven. See God coming every day. Be purified. Receive Jesus. That's what we believe. That's what we pray. We're close to the end of Advent but not so close that we skip over this part. We've heard the call to repent in preparation for the coming of Christ. Linger in this collect long enough to hear the call to be purified of guilt so that we may be ready to receive him.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

How Do We Handle The Virgin?

One of the parent volunteers who is helping with this year's Christmas pageant pulled me aside to ask me a question. "Um, what do we do if the kids want to know what a virgin is?" And the way she asked the question let me know that the "if" was more of a "when." Perhaps some of the looks and giggles among the older children have already tipped off the volunteers that they will have a sex-ed opportunity thrust upon them in the days ahead.

What do we do with the virgin? In several ways, the church is defined as the place where the immodesty of society is held at the door. Even adults blush when we speak of Mary's' virginity. How will we ever explain to the four-year-old sheep what their nine-year-old shepherds have encouraged them to ask? Thinking that anxiety and discomfort will only add to the drama, I encouraged her to relax. "I'm not worried," I said. "Just do your best. In the biblical sense, a virgin is another name for a young woman because it was assumed that all young women or 'maidens' were virgins. Maybe the best thing to say to the kids is that she was a young girl who had not been married yet and had not had the opportunity to make a baby with her husband." The volunteer pretended to be encouraged.

I don't think the pulpit is the place to debate Mary's virginity, but the lessons for Sunday almost beg us to do so. In this short lesson, Matthew finds six different ways to stress her virginal conception. She was engaged, but not married. Before they lived together, she was with child from the Holy Spirit. Matthew then quotes Isaiah 7 before reminding us one more time that Joseph had no marital relations with Mary until after the birth. Ok, Matthew, we get it. She was really, really a virgin.

This flies in the face of logic, biology, and modern sensibilities. I can hear the hypothetical agnostic objector: "You expect me to believe that?" I've heard seminary classes debate the necessity of the doctrine of the virginal conception. I've even said to Sunday school classes that, although I believe that Mary conceived Jesus as a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit, that's not how I begin a conversation with a seeker about the Christian faith. In that NT Wright sort of way, let's start with the empty tomb. If we can accept the literal, bodily resurrection, we can get past any objections about walking on water, turning water into wine, feeding the multitudes, and even the virginal conception.

(Perhaps it's worth stopping for a moment to mention that many Christians believe not only in the virginal conception of Jesus but also in his virginal birth and the perpetual virginity of Mary, which is to say that, through God's intervention, the baby passed through Mary's hymen without breaking it and that Joseph lived as the faithful husband of one with whom he never had sexual relations. Seriously, I'm not making this up. You can read about it here. So, when I use the term "virginal conception," I'm drawing a line--albeit a faint one--in the sand there.)

What brought this to my mind, however, wasn't Matthews exhaustive insistence on Mary's virginity. It was Isaiah's use of the word, or, more precisely, the NRSV's refusal to translate the word as "virgin" despite using the word "virgin" in Matthew's quotation of Isaiah. This is baffling to me! As I mentioned above, the word "virgin" and the word "young woman" are interchangeable in the biblical sense. Yes, presumptions about the integrity of young women is what gets mothers and fathers bent out of shape when their teenage daughters bring them news of an unexpected pregnancy, but, in the biblical sense, they are the same thing. But notice how the NRSV renders Isaiah 7:14: "Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel." The KJV, NIV, CEV, ASV, ESV, and even the TLB all give us a "virgin." Of the dozen or so translations I checked, the NRSV, the RSV, and the CEB give us a "young woman." Maybe I'm making a mountain out of a molehill, but I worry that our reasonable concern about making too clear a connection between Old Testament prophecy and New Testament fulfillment causes us to ignore what, for Matthew, was an important resonance between them. Isaiah spoke of a virgin conceiving a son. That's what we believe about Mary. No, the former isn't exclusively fulfilled in the latter, but, starting from the position of the latter, it's important to see where those roots come from.

I'm not arguing that we should retranslate Isaiah 7:14 in our worship. Thankfully, the NRSV leaves Matthew's quotation as "virgin." But, as I prepare to preach, I'm trying to hear the story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in the context of first-century Palestinian Judaism. What did this mean to them? Surely I cannot get there unless I see the miraculous nature not only of Mary's conception of Jesus but also the virgin named by the prophet, who conceived and bore a son. I don't need to bind Isaiah in the cords of Christianity in order to appreciate the connection. Our hope is Israel's hope. God is renewing the earth through the miraculous birth of a child. That's true in every age.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Being Available to God

If you die during supper, I apologize, but I will be unable to take your call.

A few months ago, Professor Sherry Turkle came to Decatur as the speaker for the 2016 Writers Conference at Calhoun Community College. A professor at MIT who is known for her TED Talk and several books on how technology is shaping our relationships with each other, Professor Turkle did more than encourage her audience to put their phones away; she warned us that technology was destroying our ability to be intimate with one another. Although her presentation was not in any way religious, I heard profound implications for my relationships within the Christian community and for my relationship with God.
When I attend a forum like that one, I hope to take away one good piece of learning----some profound insight that will shape my life in response. On that night, I heard at least three. First, Professor Turkle explained that experimental data have shown that couples who leave their cell phones off and upside-down on the table where they are eating have shorter and measurably less intimate conversations with each other. Even when turned off, that device has the power to restrict my dialogue with the people I love. Second, Professor Turkle cited studies of workplace environments where employees reported a greater sense of collaboration and effectiveness when unstructured, device-free gatherings were encouraged. In other words, when we limit our use of e-mail, text messages, and phone calls in order to facilitate casual, non-directed conversation, we work better together. Third, Professor Turkle concluded her remarks by addressing a would-be objector who would willingly accept that devices interfere with interpersonal relationships but who would question the value of turning off that device when he or she is all alone. "When I am by myself, doesn't my cell phone help me stay connected with others?" one might ask. No, she replied, it does not----at least not in a lasting way. In order to be intimate with others, Turkle argued, we must first be intimate with ourselves. Until we can handle being alone, we cannot really know what it means to be in a real, mutual, intimate relationship with another.
I was floored. I walked back to my car, eager to call Elizabeth and tell her what I had heard but unwilling to pull out my cell phone to make that phone call until hidden from view. According to Professor Turkle's criteria, I have a problem with intimacy. If I am behind the wheel for more than three minutes, I yearn to dial my spouse or mother or father or sibling or anyone who will keep me company during the drive. In that way, I have confused connection for relationship. I mistake instantaneous and pervasive reachability for deep and lasting availability. I realized that I have defined success in my job as a priest as always being ready to answer the phone when a parishioner calls instead of always looking for ways to develop loving and caring relationships with them. Those might be similar, and a willingness to receive and make some calls does foster those deep relationships, but always having my phone by my side is not the same thing as being available as a priest.
On Sunday, we will read Matthew1:18-25 and hear the story of an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream. Two weeks ago, in our service of Lessons and Carols, we read Luke 1:26-38, in which the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her that she will bear God's son. In both cases, God revealed his purpose by speaking to those who were available to him----one asleep but open to God's inspiration and the other a virgin who had found favor with God. By saying yes, both of them displayed the kind of deep faith that stems from a deep and intimate relationship with God.
If technology has made it difficult for us to really listen to what our loved ones are saying to us, how have they affected our availability to God? If we cannot be silent and solitary and relish time all by ourselves, how will we ever hear God's still, small voice whispered faintly on a gentle breeze? How will we nurture our confidence in God's abiding presence in our lives if we constantly fill our lives with other things to stave off those dreaded moments of aloneness----of oneness with God?
Since Professor Turkle's talk, we have made the kitchen table in our house a device-free zone. Not only have we stopped answering texts or phone calls when they come in during a meal, but we have begun putting our phones away----in a drawer, out of sight, where we cannot even hear them. After the Writers' Conference, I recognized that there was only one moment each week when my phone was not in my pocket or beside my bed----when I am leading worship. Foolishly, I have assumed that a parishioner or someone else I care for might need to reach me at any other time. But, if I have unintentionally defined my relationship with others by the possibility of a ten-minute phone call, in so doing, have I not necessarily undermined the possibility of a thirty-minute chat over coffee or an hour-long conversation over a meal? Likewise, if I restrict my availability to God to those prescribed moments of worship each week, should I be surprised if I never hear God speaking to me at other times?
What about you? How are you closing off the voice of others and the voice of God by making yourself exceedingly available to a phone call or a text message or an e-mail?
For the rest of this Advent season, I invite you to observe regular moments of technological silence. At meals, while you are driving in your car, for the first hour of your day, for thirty minutes every afternoon, or when you walk in the door in the evening, unplug. Turn off the television. Power down your computer. Place your phone in a drawer. Make yourself deeply available to the people you love. Make yourself silently available to your own inner voice. In so doing, make yourself available to God. Listen without any distraction to what is being said to you. Share the unencumbered, undiluted, uninterrupted words of your heart. Between now and Christmas and beyond, wait and watch for the coming of Christ as Mary did and as Joseph did----as those who tune the whole world out in order to hear what is right in front of them.
This post originally appeared as an article in today's newsletter from St. John's in Decatur, Alabama. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn more about what God is doing at and through St. John's, click here.

Parable of Two Sons and the Elf on Our Shelf

In Matthew 21:28-32, Jesus tells us a parable of a father with two sons. One refused to go and help out in the vineyard later changed his mind, and the other promised to go and help but failed to keep his promise, and the other . Which one did the will of his father? The first, that's right. Everyone knows that. But don't forget that both of them are still their father's sons.

At the end of the parable, Jesus warns the religious leaders who had questioned his authority that they were missing what God was doing in the world. "John [the Baptist] came to you in the way of righteousness, but you did not believe him. The tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him, but, even when you saw it, you still didn't change your mind." Anyone who could get the notorious sinners of the day to repent and return to the Lord was surely a prophet. Yet even when the chief priests and elders saw evidence of John's prophetic power, they refused to change their mind and accept him as someone God had sent to God's people. And still these heart-hardened skeptics belong in the kingdom of God. The tax collectors and prophets may go in ahead of them, but eventually even these recalcitrant goody-goodies will find their way into God's fold.

I wonder what's more shocking to us as twenty-first century disciples of Jesus: that the tax collectors and prostitutes get first dibs on God's kingdom or that the chief opponents of Jesus get their share, too. In this season of "making a list and checking it twice," I wonder what's more surprising to us: that the naughty but apologetic kids among us get the biggest presents under the tree or that judgmental , self-righteous hypocrites like us get anything at all.

Jesus tells this parable as a response to those who question his authority as a God-sent teacher and prophet. "By what authority are you doing these things?" the religious leaders ask him. But Jesus refuses to answer them directly. Instead, he poses his own question to them: "Was the baptism of John from heaven or of human origin?" Of course, we see how those things are linked. Those who see that John the Baptist's message of repentance and preparation was pointing to the one who came after him, Jesus the Christ, do not doubt Jesus' authority. But the chief priests and elders refused to answer Jesus because they were afraid of what the people, who admired John, would think. But Jesus wasn't finished yet. He told them the parable of the two sons--one who appeared to reject his father but who did what was asked of him, and the other who appeared to accept his father's instructions but refused to comply. The implied question, of course, is whether we look like those who belong to God or act like those who belong to God. For me, however, the real possibility for a deeper relationship with God opens up when I remember that both belong to God; it's just that one looks the part but doesn't behave like it while the other acts appropriately but doesn't look like it. But both belong to God.

There's something fundamentally damning about putting God on a shelf and saying, "If you're good, God will see it and will reward you, but, if you're bad, God will see it and will not reward you." Spoiler alert: By substituting a elf for themselves, parents are hiding the fact that they are declaring to their children, "If you are good, I will love you more, but, if you are bad, I will love you less." We may not follow through with that, but, still, it's what we're communicating to them. In other words, even if the Elf on the Shelf sees our children's wicked behavior, we may still pile presents for them under the tree, but we've nevertheless conditioned our love upon their actions. (In that case, perhaps our parenting strategy needs as much attention as our theology.)

On the other hand, imagine what it does to a child to hear his or her parent say, "No matter how good or bad you are, I will always love you just the same." Imagine what it does to a child of God to hear his or her heavenly Father say, "No matter whether you look the part or act it, you will always be my beloved child." Does that not open up new possibilities for a lasting change in our behavior? Isn't that the only thing that gives us any hope of acting like the children of God we really are? Isn't knowing that we are loved the first step to acting like beloved children of God?

Whether you're just pretending or are hiding your faithfulness below a gruff, presumably sinful exterior, you still belong to God. Ideally, we would live and look according to our true identity as God's beloved children. But the only way that's possible is when we begin by hearing God declare his unconditional love in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Let that love take hold of your heart. Let it shape you in to the child of God whom God has created you to be. And let that love--that grace--shape the way you love others, including your children. Do everyone a favor and throw the Elf on the Shelf into the fireplace and say to your children, "I will always love you no matter what," and watch how that love grows in your heart and in your home.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

You Decide

After eleven years of marriage, I look back fondly on those moments from early in our relationship when we struggled to choose a place to eat because we cared so much about what the other person wanted. "No, you decide!" was the phrase passed back and forth between us. Now, there's hardly any discussion. "Where can the six of us go and leave the smallest destructive path in our wake?" When I read Jesus' words to John's disciples who come to ask if this messiah is the one upon whom God's people are waiting, I hear him saying, "You decide."

When we read Matthew 11:2-11 on Sunday, John the Baptist will be in jail. During his imprisonment, Jesus has grown in popularity. Even from his cell, John has heard about the exploits of this itinerant preacher and prophet. But John wants to know. Before he dies, John wants to know if, indeed, Jesus is the messiah that he and the rest of Israel have been looking for. So he sends his disciples to go and ask Jesus, but Jesus doesn't give them the straight reply that John (or we) might be looking for.

Jesus said to them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." It's not exactly a "yes," but it gets pretty close. This is Jesus' own messianic understanding. He is the one whom the prophets foretold as bringing sight, healing, liberty, inclusion, and hope to God's people in distress. He's not the military leader. He's not the royal authority. He's not the priestly figure. He's not the Moses-like prophet. (Well, I suppose in some ways he's those things, too, but that's not what he had in mind.) He's the healer--physical, emotional, economic, and social. He never says it quite like this, but Jesus seems to imply, "Is that what you're looking for? If so, I'm your man. If not, that's on you."

We all know what the answer is. Matthew lets us know by using the term "Messiah" in the introduction to this passage (see Monday's post). As Matthew reconstructs the story, the purpose of John's question isn't to let us know that Jesus is the Messiah, it's to show us what sort of messiah he is. Thus, Jesus is saying to us, "I'm the healer. I'm the reconciler. I'm hope for those in distress. Am I your messiah? Am I the one on whom you've been waiting? You decide."

Are we waiting for a king who will wear a crown of gold and sit upon the throne of his ancestor David, or are we waiting for the one who will wear the crown of thorns and be lifted up upon the cross so that those who suffer, those who dwell in the darkness of sin and death, can be healed? Jesus isn't who we want him to be. He is not an idol for us to fashion in our own image--in the image of what we want the world's hopes to be. He is who he is. Go and tell the world what you see: Jesus came to heal the brokenness of the world. Is that what you've been waiting for?

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Any Time Now

December 7, 2016 - Ambrose, Bishop of Milan

The great thing about working on the ground crew for the Chicago Cubs is that you get to spend every game day at Wrigley Field, raking the infield dirt, walking up and down the concourse, feeling the energy of the fans. The hard part is that it doesn't pay very well. Actually, as a union job, it pays just fine, but the hours are limited. The game day ground crew (there is more than one ground crew) has to get to the field a few hours before the game to get ready for the start of play, and they have to stay a half of an hour or so after the game to sweep out the dugouts and take out the trash and do whatever is needed to make sure the field will be ready the next day. All told, with a good rain delay or extra innings, it could be six or seven hours, but usually it was closer to four. And that's only on game day.

When it's not game day, most of the ground crew goes to their "real" job--the one that pays the bills. There are a handful of full-time members who work throughout the season, taking care of the field in between home stands, and, of them, there are three or four who work full-time year-round to take care of the park and oversee any improvements that are made over the off-season, but most of us only work when the Cubs are in town. Except when there's some extra work to do on the side.

When the head of the ground crew knows that there's important work to be done whenever the Cubs are not playing, he will ask a few of the part-timers to come in for a few hours and get that work done. It could be replacing some of the sod where the outfielders have worn it out during a long homestand. It could be helping apply fertilizer or fungicide to the grass to keep Wrigley Field lush and green. Or it could be doing any number of maintenance chores in and around the park.

One day, Roger asked me and a few guys to come in to help do some work out in one of the remote parking lots. Weeds had grown up in the cracks in the asphalt, and, along the sidewalk, the grass had begun to spill over its appointed place. We were to take some shovels and get it all under control, but our supervisor encouraged us to take our time.  I needed the hours, and I wanted the boss to continue to ask me to come in for those special jobs, so I went to work with some focus and determination. Most of the other guys worked slowly, chatting and enjoying a day in the sun. "Why are you busting it so hard?" a senior member of our work detail asked. "You heard what he said: 'Take your time.'" I ignored him and kept working.

Now, a Chicago summer is nothing like an Alabama summer, but it still get's pretty hot. After a period of intense work, I stopped to catch my breath, leaning on my shovel and watching while all of the rest of the crew piddled around in the dirt. I wasn't paying attention when one of them whispered to the rest of the crew, and, by the time I turned around to see what was going on, the boss had walked up to see everyone else hard at work except me. I was thoroughly embarrassed. I hung my head and went back to work, sure that I had been caught and labeled a "slacker."

Jesus said, "Be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes." Of course, Jesus doesn't mean, "Look busy in case I show up when you don't expect it." He means, "Stay focused; don't give up; honor the work the master has given you by remaining alert until he comes."

Advent is a season of keeping watch for Jesus. There are seventeen more days until Christmas. Presents must be bought. Meals must be planned. Travel arrangements must be made. But this is not only a season of preparing for December 25 but also for the coming of our savior, whose return is not inked in on the calendar. That's a harder watch to keep. Some would scare us with the prospect of our savior's return. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" becomes "Turn or burn!" on the lips of an angry preacher. Fictional stories of the end times portray the coming of Jesus as a zombie apocalypse for which we must all be prepared. The Book of Revelation, which was originally written to encourage the persecuted followers of Jesus, has become its own source of fear for twenty-first-century Christians. But that's not what this gospel lesson--this passage of good news--is supposed to tell us.

We are called to wait on Jesus the way that servants wait for their master to return from a wedding feast. That's kind of like a babysitter waits on the parents to come home after a party. She or he knows that they will arrive at any minute. Even if they're delayed, the babysitter doesn't leave the kids unattended. She doesn't invite her friends over for a party. She may fall asleep on the couch, but she's ready to spring up as soon as the sound of the garage door is heard. We are called to do our job as followers of Jesus--to wait and watch and hope even when there has been a delay. Jesus isn't inviting us into fear. He's asking us to trust that he'll come and save us at any minute. Our salvation is not far away. It's right around the corner. And we wait and watch for it in hope.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Thy Kingdom Come!

Today's post is also part of this week's newsletter for St. John's, Decatur. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.

I have no doubt that you are familiar with the phrase, “If you give a man a fish, you will feed him for a day, but, if you teach a man to fish, you will feed him for a lifetime.” That’s nice, but what happens if someone is starving? Can a hungry person really concentrate long enough to learn how to fish? And, even if someone learns how to fish, who is going to buy the tackle? And, even if all of the necessary equipment is procured, what happens if the fishing pond is off-limits to those who do not own the land? Or what happens if the only available fishing hole is polluted by a factory upstream? On second thought, maybe we should just hand out fish to hungry people after all.

Ministry is messy, and it gets messier and messier the more meaningful and transformative it becomes. When someone walks into my office seeking financial assistance, it is much easier for me to write a check than it is for me to take time to hear her story. And spending a half an hour listening to someone tell me about the ups and downs of her life is a lot easier than investing in her circumstances by helping her work through a budget and find the job training she needs and line up the childcare necessary for her to start a job. Yet helping someone find those resources is still easier than sitting down with our elected officials to talk about Medicaid reform and organizing the rally that calls for an end to sales taxes on groceries and leading the campaign to educate the public about the need for reforms in state-funded mental health services. And none of that compares with the cost of selling all that I have and giving it to the poor so that, as a disciple of Jesus, I can know a little bit better the poverty that he inhabited so that all might be made rich.

As followers of Jesus, we need to give people fish; we need to teach people how to fish; we need to tear down the walls that keep hungry people from fishing; and we need to sit down and fish together. That is the kingdom of God—all of us gathered around a pond, fishing and talking and laughing and praying and eating together.

We live in a world where people are hungry and where those hungry people are willing to do almost anything to fix their circumstances and feed themselves and their families, yet the structures of our society make it difficult if not impossible for them to do anything about it. Our criminal justice system, which is better at locking up drug offenders than treating them, seems better suited for perpetuating crime than deterring it. Inequality in education, which is largely a reflection of the link between property taxes and education funding, reinforces the divide between rich and poor, black and white, urban and suburban, immigrant and citizen. But we know that God’s kingdom does not look like that. Paul reminds us what Jesus showed us: in God’s kingdom, there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female. We are all one in Christ Jesus. When will the world look like that? And what are we going to do about it?

Advent is a season of waiting and watching for the coming of Christ and his kingdom, but that sort of waiting is not a passive pursuit. We have kingdom work to do! The end of the year is traditionally a season of giving—giving presents to our loved ones, giving alms to the poor, giving money to our churches and our alma maters and our favorite charities. This year, instead of only giving things away, think bigger. Consider what you might do to make a lasting difference in the lives of others. Will you tutor a child so that he might have a better chance of graduating from high school? Will you spend an hour a week helping an immigrant learn English so that she can apply for a job? Will you call your local school foundation and see whether you might join the efforts to petition nearby companies to support pre-K education and after-school enrichment programs? Will you write to your local, state, and national officials and remind them that our health and success as a society depends upon the welfare of all people, including the poor and the undocumented among us? Will you go to the Salvation Army not only to prepare a holiday meal for the homeless but also to sit down and break bread with those who have no family?

Several people in our parish are participating in a ministry that seeks to empower lay leaders to make positive, lasting, and transformative differences in our community. The project is called the Missional Engagement Initiative, and it is being coordinated by the School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee. In its first iteration as Be the Change Alabama, this project helped bring an English as a Second Language (ESL) class to our church, but it has always been about more than that. We see this as kingdom work. By deepening a relationship with the people who live around our church, who attend the elementary school across the street, who call us neighbors, we have the opportunity to partner with them to make this corner of God’s kingdom look more like God’s kingdom. Maybe God is calling you to join in that work.

So far, most of what we do as a parish has been giving away fish. We provide much-needed food to students through the Backpacks for Food program. How might we advocate for greater nutrition programs in our community? We plant a community garden and share the produce with local agencies. How might we include more residents in the planting, maintenance, and administration of that garden so that it becomes as much theirs as ours? We tutor at-risk children in the Homework Helpers program. How might we raise up the issue of inequality in education until the whole community recognizes that it is dragging all of us down?

The church is uniquely positioned to be an agent of transformation because we believe that, in Jesus Christ, the differences and demographics that separate us disappear, and we hear Christ calling us to work in the world until they do. I dream of a church that measures its success not in terms of average Sunday attendance or the size of its budget or the beauty of its buildings but in the health and welfare of the community that surrounds it. Imagine what would happen to our neighborhood if our ministry was as much focused on those who live around the church as on those who walk through the door. That is our mission because that is God’s mission.

This year, be a part of what God is doing in the world. Think beyond the gifts that you will give, and be a part of the ministries we carry out in Jesus’ name. Whether in this church or through another organization, look for a way to be a part of God’s transformative work. Keep watch for the kingdom of God is at hand! Don’t let it pass you by.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Messiah Who?

A colleague of mine, Pam Payne, once told me that she avoids using the term "messiah" to refer to the Christian identification of Jesus. She was glad to use the tem "Christ," but "messiah," she argued, was reserved for an exclusively Jewish context. Of course, she understood that they are actually the same word--one Hebrew and the other Greek--but she still insisted on maintaining the distinction. It was a semi-provocative statement designed to convey a more subtle message: Christians have defined all messianic expectations in the person of Jesus to the exclusion of any Jewish understandings that may not be reflected in his life and witness.

Can we do that? Of course we can. Just like a preacher who "borrows" other people's stories and makes them fit his or her sermon, we can take the story of salvation history and view it exclusively through the lens of Jesus' narrative. But should we? That's another question--one more difficult to answer.

In Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 11:2-11), Matthew will identify Jesus as "Messiah" without any explanation or fanfare. He writes, "When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, 'Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?'" It's as if Matthew sees the term "Messiah" functioning as a part of or substitute for Jesus' name--much as "Christ" does when we refer to him as "Jesus Christ" or just "Christ." It surprises me a little bit that Matthew throws that label out there without bothering to build up to it. In the rest of the passage, we get to explore that messianic identity, but I wonder whether his readers would have found his use of the term provocative--as if it demanded a fuller explanation.

Unlike Mark, who waits until Peter's confession in Mark 8:29 to link Jesus with the title "Messiah," Matthew begins his gospel account by making that connection: "An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah..." (1:1). Five times in his first two chapters, Matthew uses that title to describe Jesus as he recalls his parents' preparation for his birth and the wise men's quest to find him. But then, with regard to "Messiah," Matthew goes quiet. He stops using the word as we read about Jesus' ministry. Perhaps following the example of Mark, Matthew waits until chapter 16, where Peter confesses Jesus' true identity, to use the term again with one big exception: chapter 11.

John the Baptist gets his own moment to make the connection between Jesus and the anointed one upon whom Israel waited, but Matthew doesn't wait long enough to let him (or us) figure it out. "When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing..." We aren't given the opportunity to doubt. We start the passage knowing what the answer will be. The narrator has told us how it will end. Jesus is the one we're looking for. He is the anointed one. He is the Messiah. But what does that mean? What sort of messiah is he talking about? Jesus said to John's disciples, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

On Sunday, when we hear this passage, I think we're supposed to marvel at the surprise-but-no-surprise nature of this revelation. Jesus is the Messiah. Like Matthew, we all take that for granted. But what does that mean? Do we really know what we're saying when we use that label? Jesus tells us that he is the one who restores sight to the blind, allows the lame to walk, cleanses the lepers, unstops the ears of the deaf, raises the dead, and brings good news to the poor. Do we remember that that's the Jesus of the gospel? Do we remember that that's the messianic identity he ascribes to himself?

There are lots of different messiahs upon whom the prophets of the Hebrew Bible wait. Some are like Jesus, but others are not. Similarly, there are lots of messianic expectations within the Christian tradition and within each of our hearts. Some of them are fulfilled by Jesus, but others are not. This Sunday, we have the chance to stop and think about what we mean when we talk of Jesus as the Messiah--what do we mean, what did Matthew mean, and what did Jesus mean? I suspect we'll leave church knowing what we already knew--that Jesus, indeed, is the Messiah--but I also think that if we pay attention we may leave with a clearer picture of what that means.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Reclaiming Repentance

December 4, 2016 – The 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year A
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Last Sunday, a friend of mine from New York reintroduced Rite I to his parish for the first time in decades. He is relatively new there as the rector and decided to try something different during the season of Advent. He was worried that it might be “too much change,” but he reported on Facebook that the ladies in his midweek Bible study are lobbying him to make it a permanent change. Imagine that: a congregation going back to the outdated, old-fashioned, thoroughly unmodern language and theology of the sixteenth century…by choice!

He isn’t going to make it a permanent change, and don’t worry: I’m not planning on doing anything like that at St. John’s. But I do think that it’s interesting to consider why anyone would want to stumble over the “thees” and “thous,” which many of us were thankful to leave behind when the “new” prayer book came out in the late 1970s, and why anyone would enjoy saying and hearing prayers that seem to reiterate how miserably sinful all of us are. As much as I like Rite I, I must admit that repentance is thoroughly unpopular. Although a few of us pine for the good old days, I’m more often met with eye-rolls and silly little coughing fits each week when we say the Prayer of Humble Access at the 8:00 service. “That’s not the future of the church,” some like to argue. “In a world that values individual accomplishment and eschews any sign of weakness, why would people be attracted to a church in which the whole congregation kneels whenever they pray?” Why, indeed?

John the Baptist wasn’t fashionable either. The camel hair he wore wasn’t bought at Nordstrom’s, and the locusts and wild honey he ate weren’t part of a Paleo Diet. He was straight-up weird. And still the people flocked to see him. “Repent,” he cried out, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Why would anyone bother to come all of the way out of the city to see and hear that? Because, despite what the fire-and-brimstone preachers we’re used to would have us think, repentance isn’t about feeling sorry for ourselves; it’s about discovering that we, too, belong to God. Those who wag their fingers and shake their Bibles at the world have hijacked repentance, and I think it’s time for us to take it back. As we read in this gospel lesson, repentance is the path that leads to Jesus—the path that lead us to what God is doing in the world.

There were two kinds of people that went out to see John the Baptist: the crowds of ordinary Jews, who went out to confess their sins and be baptized in the River Jordan, and the Pharisees and Sadducees, who went out to see what the big fuss was all about. Which one are you? The first group heard the message of repentance as an opportunity to start over, to begin again, to turn over a new leaf. They weren’t on the inside track. They didn’t have a reserved seat in the synagogue. The rabbi didn’t come to eat at their house. But John offered them a place in God’s kingdom. He was the only one who was inviting them to take part in what God was doing in the world—the upside-down, topsy-turvy redemption of the world that God was unfolding all around them. John was the first one who had ever told them that even ordinary people like them could receive the fire of the Holy Spirit, and he showed them that the way they could receive it and join in what God was doing in the world was through repentance.

But the Pharisees and Sadducees didn’t need that invitation—at least they didn’t think that they did. They already had a reserved seat. They already had a place at God’s table—a table that was set specifically for religious elites like them. No, they weren’t perfect, but, in the eyes of their society, they were pretty close to it. If God was going to do anything special in the world, it was assumed that God would ask them first. They were the keepers of the religion—the ones whose status in the eyes of the people mirrored their status in the eyes of God: preferred, elite, and powerful. They didn’t need John the Baptist’s invitation to be a part of God’s movement. If anything, he needed their permission in order to talk about it, but he wasn’t interested in what they had to say.

So which one are you? Are you the kind of person who needs to turn around and start all over before you can be a part of God’s counter-cultural kingdom, where the first shall be last and the last shall be first? Or are you the kind of person whom everyone presumes already has a first-row seat? Perhaps it’s easier to think of it this way: what sort of messiah are you waiting to meet—one who establishes God’s reign by turning the whole world upside-down, or one who comes and builds a kingdom that looks like all of the other kingdoms of the world, where the people who already have access get the best seats, where the rich and powerful make all the rules, and where the poor and oppressed are an afterthought? Because I can tell you what sort of kingdom God has in mind. The prophets have proclaimed loudly and clearly what sort of victory God’s anointed will achieve. And this morning John the Baptist invites us to see that the only way we can be a part of that kingdom is by turning around and giving up on the ways of the world and embracing the way God wants the world to be.

There’s a reason that more and more young people are being attracted to old-time religion. There’s a reason that Rite I is being received by many as a breath of fresh air. And it’s not because people want to be miserable. It’s because people want to know that there is something worth holding onto other than the rat race that says that only the strong survive, that only the powerful will thrive, that only the dominant will rise to the top. That’s the way the world works. That’s the way we are programmed to work. But that’s not how God’s kingdom works. It’s not simply Rite I, of course. It’s more than that. It’s about making a break with the ways of the world and clinging to the hope that God himself has given us. That’s repentance: not misery and sorrow but a turning around in order to see real hope.

Jesus came and lived and died a shameful death because in God’s kingdom weakness is made strong, poverty is the path to true riches, and defeat is the gate that leads to victory. The empty tomb shows us that death in this world leads to life in the next. That’s how God’s kingdom works, and, if we want to be a part of that, we must repent. We must change course. We must turn around and look for a new way—God’s way.

Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The great and wonderful thing that God is doing in the world is right here among is. It is manifest in the person of Jesus Christ. It is real to those who walk the path behind the crucified one. But we cannot meet him—we cannot be a part of his movement—if we are clinging to the ways of the world. We must let them go. We must repent. We must discover that we have a place in God’s kingdom—a place reserved just for us. And if we are going to get to that place—if we are going to see Jesus—then we must we turn around and embrace the life God has in store for us. We must bear fruit worthy of the kingdom—worthy of repentance. We must turn to God and live.