Thursday, January 28, 2016

Paul's Wedding Speech

I'm willing to bet that most of the people in our congregations this Sunday will be as familiar with 1 Corinthians 13 as they are with almost any other biblical text. It is, after all, the go-to reading for weddings. And, in all the years during which I have been paying attention at weddings, I have heard it read well only twice. But, as they say about fishing, golf, and other, um, pleasurable activities, a bad reading of 1 Corinthians 13 is still pretty good.

"Love is patient; love is kind." The biggest challenge for our congregations and their preachers, of course, is to ground this "love passage" in a context other than a wedding. Paul wasn't making a wedding speech. Paul wasn't writing to couples about their marital problems. Paul was writing to a church community that was struggling to hang together despite differences is ethnicity, class, culture, and post-Baptismal Spirit-led ministry. Last week's reading from 1 Corinthians 12 was Paul's use of the body image to explain how the members of the body--individual Christians--are inseparably bound together. It's a beautiful metaphor and one worth revisiting over and over until it truly becomes inescapable. But this week's lesson is how Paul sees the body image coming to fruition. Love, for Paul, is what makes it possible for an eye to say to a hand, "I really do need you," or for an conservative African Anglican to say to a progressive American Episcopalian, "We belong together."

In his post from yesterday, Steve Pankey reminds us of the transition from chapter 12 to 13, writing a beautiful and brief post on the half of a verse the lectionary left out last week: "I will show you a more excellent way" (1 Corinthians 12:31b). Go read his post. It will take less than five minutes and is totally worth it. As Pankey points out, this is a key verse. It's what helps us see that the "love passage" isn't a wedding speech; it's a recipe for the Christian life.

But I want to invite preachers to consider letting Paul's unintended wedding address be the foundation for a sermon on Christian love. Yes, I cringe every time a bridal couple tells me that their 13-year-old cousin will read 1 Corinthians 13 at their wedding. Yes, I think Paul would be unpleasantly surprised that this part of his letter is read primarily at weddings (shocked that it was read at all and baffled that it has become the go-to reading at weddings). But I think Paul (and the today's preacher) could use the familiar context for this chapter as a bridge into the call to be bound to one another in love.

Marriage is still among the most familiar images of a loving commitment that we have in contemporary society. The union of husband and wife is a testament to the same sort of deeper, non-sexual Christian love that Paul has in mind for the entire Christian community. As I tell couples during premarital counseling, when they are 65 and are still holding hands at the cinema, they will be an unspoken testament to the world of selfless, sacrificial love. No couple endures the ups and downs of marriage for 40 years without being committed to the union that ties them together. Sure, marriages fail, and church relationships fail, too. We are human after all. But we are called to enter those relationships with the same lifelong commitment, and we are called to maintain those relationships with the fuel of love that keeps them possible.

Without love, a marriage falls apart. It's just too hard to live with someone for that long unless you love her or him. There must be a commitment to the other that transcends one's priority of the self. The same is true in the Christian relationships. No matter how good the preaching is, no matter how powerful the miracles are, no matter how insightful the prophecy is, it's too hard to stay together without love. Love is what ties us together. Perhaps Paul's message for today's church is that we should take our Christian relationships as seriously as our marital relationships.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Expectations Undo Receivability

Last year, I went back to St. John's, Montgomery, where I had served as a curate for five years, as one of their Lenten speakers. It was an honor and a challenge. It had been almost four years since I'd left. I remembered my time there fondly and felt fondly remembered by the congregation. But they hadn't heard me preach in a while, and I wanted to do well. I wanted to make them proud that, during my time there, they had raised up a good clergyman who was doing good work for God's kingdom.

The text I chose for the sermon was the office reading for the day, and, although I don't recall it right now, I do remember very distinctly feeling led to preach a sermon with a prophetic edge. Don't hold me to it, but there may have been a line in the sermon about how "arrogant, rich people need the gospel, too." It went over about as well as you would expect. It was a pretty good sermon, and I certainly stand by it. If I had preached it in my regular congregation, I think it would have been well received. I gently chide them frequently, and they are accustomed to a little honest ribbing. But this congregation was excited to welcome me home. They were happy to see me. And, although some people offered positive comments after the sermon, most people were turned off by its sharp tenor. They were looking forward to reliving all the good times we had together, but the gospel is the gospel, and it isn't always warm and fuzzy.

To a much stronger degree, in Luke 4, Jesus was enthusiastically welcomed by his hometown congregation until his message took on a sharp and prophetic edge, at which point they turned so thoroughly against him that they tried to throw him off a cliff. How did it all fall apart so quickly? Why did Jesus seem to stir the pot instead of graciously accepting the people's compliments? Why couldn't he leave well enough alone? Why did he need to tell the provocative stories of Naaman the Syrian and the widow at Zarephath in order to summarily douse their enthusiasm?

The hinge around which this dramatic reversal turns is easy to overlook. Jesus wasn't just picking a fight with his hometown buddies. More than his provocative words, the fact that Jesus was from Nazareth became the stumbling block over which the congregation could not pass unimpeded. Take a closer look at how things unfold.

After marveling at Jesus' words, the congregation remarks, "Is not this Joseph's son?" That's true, of course, but it is only part of the truth. Jesus is God's son, and to identify him purely as Joseph's offspring is to miss the point of who he really is. In response, Jesus begins a short exposition on hometown prophets. "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" But why would they have quoted that proverb? It isn't in the bible, but it makes sense. One might say to a snake oil salesman, "If you're really able to heal other people's infirmities, then why can't you heal yourself?" It's a challenge to his authority. Jesus felt challenged. It may not be fair to say that he was worried that he could not live up to their expectations, but it seems clear that their expectations were misplaced.

The fact is that he couldn't do feats of power in his hometown. Luke doesn't make that as clear as Matthew and Mark. Consider Mark 6:3-6a, for example:

[3] Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. [4] And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” [5] And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. [6] And he marveled because of their unbelief. (ESV)

Although the premise is different (no quoting of Isaiah 61 here), it's a similar engagement, and the result is the same. Jesus was ineffective at home. He didn't do great deeds of power in his hometown. Although his teachings there were remarkable, the end result was empty. As Mark puts it, "He marveled because of their unbelief."
I like the way Luke says it: And [Jesus] said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown." I might be making more of this than I should, but the Greek word for "accepted" is in its root a word that means "receivable." Consider that connotation. A prophet cannot be received in his hometown. There's a connection between the familiarity and the expectations that accompany it and the audience's inability to receive the truth that the prophet brings. Why? Because expectations get in the way. To the residents of Nazareth, Jesus would always be Joseph's son, and Joseph's son didn't come to earth to save God's people; God's son did.

How are your expectations getting in the way? You might not have grown up in Jesus' hometown, but maybe you did grow up in his church. Have you become so accustomed to the way things were that you can't see what God is doing today? Expectations inhibit our ability to receive the gospel. They stand in the way of God's surprising work. What are your expectations? Can they be shaken off?

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Is He Speaking to Us?

This Sunday in the RCL, we read the second-half of Luke's two-sided story of Jesus' visit to his hometown synagogue (Luke 4:21-30). I label it "two-sided" because the same statement of salvation that Jesus declares from Isaiah 61is good news to some and bad news to others. The difference is whether we hear it with arms and hearts wide open or with hands and minds tightly closed.

Although we do not hear it in church this week (and a strong argument can be made for expanding the lesson and reading it anyway), the central passage behind Jesus' encounter with the angry congregation is Isaiah 61:1-2a, in which God's anointed one (i.e. "messiah") declares that God has sent him to bring good news to the poor, comfort to the brokenhearted, liberty to the captives, and freedom to the prisoners, thus declaring the year of the Lord's favor. Initially, the congregation is overjoyed. "What good news!" they said to one another. "This is it! This is what God's people have been waiting for!"

And then the other shoe drops. (Insert the second side of this gospel story here.)

Luke tells us that "all spoke well of [Jesus] and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth." Somehow, though, by the end of this short encounter, the congregation was enraged--angry enough to chase Jesus out of the synagogue, run out of town, and hurl him off a cliff. What happened? How did it all fall apart so quickly?

There's more to say about expectations and Jesus' unraveling of the hometown crowd's understanding of who he was and what God's messiah represented. For now, though, suffice it to say that Jesus' understanding of the good news of Isaiah 61 was radically different from that of the congregation, and the disjuncture was so violent that it almost got him killed.

As if pulling the rug out from underneath the people, Jesus tells two short and upsetting stories. First, he recalls the story of Elijah providing food for the widow at Zarephath even though "there were many [unfed] widows in Israel" at that time. His point? Salvation came to her house even though she was an outsider--a Gentile. Then, he tells the story of Naaman the Syrian, who was healed by Elisha the prophet even though "there were also many [uncleansed] lepers in Israel" at that time. His point? Salvation came to the general of the Gentile army. The message? Yes, the fulfillment of Isaiah 61 is good news, but Jesus shows them that they don't own it. It's bigger than them. It's bigger than us. And they didn't like that. And I don't blame them. I wouldn't like it either.

God's love is easy when it's intended for me and for other people I love. But when it belongs as much to another as it does to me, I am challenged. That's the two-sided nature of this story. When Jesus read from Isaiah 61 and declared, "Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing," he was ushering in a new era of salvation. And, yes, that salvation was for the congregation gathered in the synagogue, but it wasn't just for them. And, as long as they--or any of us--thinks it belongs only to us--it turns out that we never had it in the first place because we didn't understand how salvation works. Here's how I'd summarize it:

The good news of salvation is about you,
but it isn't only about you.
If you think it's only about you,
then it isn't for you after all.

That's good news for those whose arms and hearts are open, but it's terrible news for those whose hands and minds are closed.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Maybe Heaven is Overrated

I'll admit that blog post titles like that one are designed to grab your attention, but today I mean it. Today is the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, and, as I ponder his Damascene road reversal, I find myself wondering whether 20th-century Christianity became so obsessed with heaven that it set itself up for a 21st-century decline. Over the last hundred years, has the church communicated itself to the unchurched world so narrowly as to define the Way of Jesus as a path to the Pearly Gates that contemporary non-Christians are shrugging their collective shoulders and saying, "So what?"

Although it happened over a year ago, my Facebook news feed let me know (again) that Alex Malarkey, who wrote The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven as a memoir of his near-death journey to paradise, retracted his story, forcing the publisher of his book to pull it from store shelves. The NPR story quotes his open letter to the publisher, in which he makes a confession and bold plea for a return to scripture: "I did not die. I did not go to Heaven...I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention. When I made the claims that I did, I had never read the Bible. People have profited from lies, and continue to. They should read the Bible, which is enough. The Bible is the only source of truth."

Yes, it did get him attention. Yes, people are eager to read stories of kids who almost die and go to heaven. Yes, people are desperate for any "verifiable" confirmation that their belief in a paradisiacal afterlife is reasonable. Why? Because Christianity is a big enterprise. Millions of people have given their hearts and minds and souls and lives (not to mention wallets) to follow Jesus. It would be nice, many think, to get a clear and unmistakable verification that they are headed in the right direction. And by "right direction" I mean "one-way ticket to heaven."

But, if heaven is the only thing Christianity has to offer, I am not sure the world is interested. And if "heaven" is the church's way of describing that everlasting destination where only good people go, I know that I'm not interested. And neither is Paul.

The complete and total reversal that Saul/Paul experienced cannot be overstated. In Galatians 1, Paul wrote about his pre-Christian life: "You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors." He was as Jewish as any Jew. He was as accomplished and laudable as any faithful child of God, and his status was enshrined in his persecution of the way of Jesus. His resume was built upon his anti-Christian activities. And then, of course, he was struck blind. Jesus himself appeared to Paul. God himself recruited Paul away from his zealous Judaism and appointed him to be chief apostle to the Gentiles. And how did this happen? What made Paul reverse course? The answer wasn't heaven.

Before his conversion, Paul wasn't headed to hell. Paul was a faithful Jew, and God doesn't send his faithful people to eternal damnation. And Jesus didn't appear to Paul and say, "How would you like to spend eternity with me in paradise?" Paul would have shrugged his shoulders and said, "What's your point?" Paul had everything he needed. Paul was a Roman citizen. He was rich and powerful. He had connections. But what Paul didn't have was a knowledge of the fullness of God's grace and the peace that comes from it.

Before he met Jesus, Paul did everything right, but his quest would never be over. The gospel of Jesus offered Paul what he didn't even know he needed. Paul's life was turned upside-down by his introduction to the idea that God's choosing of him--God's preference, God's justification, God's complete approval--wasn't dependent upon what Paul did but upon what Jesus had done. The salvation that Paul found--the good news that inspired him to risk his life preaching the gospel across the known world--wasn't a happy destination when the work was finished but a freedom from the work itself. And that's what the church must reclaim if it will make sense in the 21st century.

Yes, I believe in heaven, but salvation isn't merely a ticket to everlasting life in paradise. It's much more than that. Over the centuries, heaven has been the way Christians have tried to describe what it means to rest in Jesus. But, in the language I hear from most contemporary Christian leaders, it has become a reward and not a promise. If the church continues to tell the world that heaven is what God has in store for those who love him, for those who believe the right things, for those who go to church, and for those who follow what the bible says, the church will only push the world further away. The world doesn't need more work. The world doesn't need that kind of heaven. The world needs grace. Like Paul, the world needs to be set free from its struggle. Heaven should be an afterthought. Grace is a gift for today.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sunday Sermon: God Puts Us Together

January 24, 2016 – The Third Sunday after the Epiphany
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
With four children under ten, our family spends more time watching cartoons than nature shows, but, every once in a while, something spectacular or dramatic on PBS grabs all of our attention, and we watch with interest as a special on an esoteric corner of creation unfolds on the screen. For me, my favorite moments feature those peculiar animals and plants that are unlike anything else but that have found their special place in the order of things. You know, those flowers with the exceedingly long stamen that rubs against the back of the one species of bird that comes to drink its nectar or the perfectly camouflaged insect that you would swear was a stick until it moves. Those bizarre attributes fascinate me—how over thousands or even millions of years nature has guided a species to a truly strange shape or function that helps it survive. And, taken out of context, I easily forget that a toucan’s bill is no accident—that the strangeness of creation is beautiful most of all in its purpose.

The same can be said for the human body. We are amazing machines. There is so much to admire in the way that our bodies work—how each piece and part fits into the whole so that it all works together in perfect harmony. But we are so accustomed to our bodies that we forget just how special they are. Think about how you got here today. Consider how much we all take for granted: that your hands and eyes and feet all work together to help you do such ordinary though incredibly complex things as eat a bowl of cereal, take a shower, and get dressed. We ignore all of that until our bodies stop working the way that they should. A hangnail reminds us how delicate each finger really is. A broken toe sends a special signal to our brain with every painful step. And those who are stricken with neurological disorders would give anything just to eat that bowl of cereal without having to concentrate on each bite. Most of us don’t think about it very often, but our bodies are perfectly designed for amazing things.

And the same is true of the Body of Christ, which is the church. Paul writes, “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” Paul wants us to see that the church is very much Christ’s body. Though many and varied, we are all one because we have all been united together by the Holy Spirit in the same baptism. To the Corinthians, Paul writes that it doesn’t matter whether you are Jew or Greek, slave or free, because you are a part of the same body—Christ’s body. And to us he would say that it doesn’t matter whether you are old or young, rich or poor, Democrat or Republican, Episcopalian or Southern Baptist; we are all one because together we are the Body of Christ. And our sometimes bizarre and often difficult togetherness is no accident. It is how God put us together. But, more often than not, it takes even more than a PBS special to remind me of that.

Sometimes in a difficult moment, when someone has disrupted the camaraderie of a group, a person will say, “Well, it takes all kinds,” implying that the world would not be complete if anyone were missing. In response, I remember my old boss saying, “I don’t know if it really takes all kinds, but we sure do have all kinds.” Wouldn’t it be easier if we were all the same? Wouldn’t it be simpler if we all liked the same hymns? Wouldn’t it be nice if we all preferred Rite One or Rite Two? Wouldn’t it be easier if we all agreed about the bible? Wouldn’t we be more Christ-like if all Christians thought the same thing about creation and evolution, about sex and marriage, and about the role of women in the church? Actually, no, we wouldn’t. And that is Paul’s point. We are the Body of Christ not because we are all the same but because together in our differences we are made one in Christ.

Hear what St. Paul says:

If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. (1 Cor. 12:15-18)

God has put the Body of Christ together. We are more than a thrown-together collection of misfits. Our composition is not an accident. We have been assembled by God himself in a beautiful and strange body that works together to accomplish his purposes. And how has God decided to arrange this body? According to God’s perfect, upside-down logic that is itself a reflection of how salvation works. Those members that seem to be weaker are actually indispensable, and those that are less respectable are treated with greater respect. And why has God given greater honor to the inferior members? So “that there may be no dissention within the body” and that “all members may have the same care for one another.” If one suffers, all suffer together. If one rejoices, all rejoice together. Thus, one member cannot say to another, “I have no need of you.” Together, we are the Body of Christ—all of us because, in Christ, we are all made one.

But when was the last time you looked across the whole of Christianity and thought, “It doesn’t matter how different we are; Christ really has made us one?” We have a hard enough time sticking together in the Episcopal Church. How will we ever overcome the prideful forces that continue to rip us apart? By seeing what St. Paul saw when he looked out across the church. We are the Body of Christ not by choice but by our nature. Our connectedness is not a matter of the will but the work of the Spirit that ties us inseparably together. It isn’t up to you. And it isn’t up to me. It is God’s work. It is God’s plan for us all to be together. And it’s your job to see that and mine, too, whether we like it or not. As the Body of Christ, it is our work to be together—not to make our togetherness a reality but to make the reality of our togetherness a witness to the world of God’s unifying power. What will you do? What will you do to ensure that, when the world looks upon us, they will see the unified body of Christ and not a collection of members barely able to tolerate one another? How will you live as a part of the one true Body of Christ and show that hope to the world?

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Body Politic

I had coffee with a clergy colleague yesterday, and we spent a few minutes celebrating the lessons for this coming Sunday. He and I both think that Luke 4:14-21 is a preacher's dream-passage about who Jesus is and what God's will is for the whole world. We also smiled and even snickered at next Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 4:21-30), which picks up as this week's lesson ends but carries it through to its nearly tragic conclusion, when the congregation attempts to throw Jesus off a cliff because of his challenging words. We enjoyed imagining together the two-week sermon series that, like Jesus' words, gets the whole congregation excited about good news and then frustrates them with the revelation that the good news is intended for someone else. Oh what fun we preachers have over a cup of coffee, right?

And then I confessed that I don't think I'm going to preach on Luke 4. Incredulous at my own conclusion, I asked my friend, "How can I have that as the gospel lesson and not preach on it?" Yet that's what I think I'm going to do. Why? Because even stronger than my love of Jesus' incorporation of Isaiah 61 as a self-definition for his ministry is my love of Paul's words to the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a.

Paul writes as much to the church of the 21st century as to that of the 1st, "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it." This is one of those moments where outdated English or a southern dialect come in handy because, when he writes "you are the body of Christ," Paul means "ye" or "y'all" as a you-plural. "Y'all are the body of Christ, and individually members of it." You don't need to know Greek or be from Alabama to know that. It's obvious if you read the rest of the lesson, in which Paul inseparably links foot and eye and hand. But the body image has become so familiar to me--perhaps even over-used--that I forget those obvious things and allow my mind to remain in the metaphor without forcing my brain to grasp the implications.

This is a bold passage. At our diocesan clergy day last week, we studied it as the Rev. Canon Stephanie Spellers presented an insightful and inspiring program on the stewardship of privilege. We read the passage several times and were led through a small-group discussion of the text. In that exploration, forced to linger in the text longer than I thought I needed, I saw new things. (Thanks, Canon Spellers.) Take another look at this passage from 1 Corinthians. And then take another look. And see if the Spirit says anything new to you.

Here's some of what I garnered from that study:
  1. "God arranged the members of the body, each one of them, as he chose." Because God himself has brought us together, each member must be understood as a gift and a part of God's plan for the whole body. Use evolutionary biology and the wonders of the natural world like the long-necked giraffe to reexamine the clear and important purposes of each body part (eye, foot, hand, mouth), and then return to the image of the church and allow each member to be distinct and important.
  2. "God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body." The ordering of the parts of the body is God's plan, and one of the purposes of that plan is to prevent dissention. There is no room for dissention in a body, so where do we seem to crave it in our church? A return to the fullness of the body image could reorder our thinking.
  3. "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you.'" That's obvious. And the danger of using an obvious image to convey a message is that people like me take it for granted. Of course the eye can't dismiss the hand as unnecessary. That's ridiculous. But don't brush the metaphor aside simply because it seems obvious. The church is the body of Christ, and it is made of many members, and none of those members is indispensable. What would happen if we really thought of our church that way?
I'm excited about the body of Christ. I'm excited about letting the physicality and clarity of that metaphor begin to influence my own understanding of our congregation and our denomination and the whole church. I'm looking forward to inviting others to do the same this Sunday.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Time for Luke

The Gospel according to Luke has its distinct features: the storybook birth narrative; the poetic songs of Zechariah, Mary, and Simeon; and the heart-warming parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. In this Sunday's lectionary reading (Luke 4:14-21), however, we get to the heart of the matter and hear what truly makes Luke distinct: a Jesus whose focus is salvation for those in need.

Only Luke gives us this encounter, in which Jesus chooses for himself a scripture passage that defines his ministry. In the evolution of the gospel, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each had their own hand in telling the story. Each presents for us a Jesus of his own understanding. Very rarely do we read a story in which Jesus defines himself. Sunday's gospel lesson gives us exactly that.

Of all the passages in the Hebrew scriptures, Jesus finds Isaiah 61: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Notice that Jesus didn't choose the scroll. Isaiah was the scroll that he was handed, so the hand of God was a part of this, too. But imagine for a second all the passages in Isaiah to which Jesus could have scrolled: the prophet's call, the judgment of Israel, the message of comfort, or the day of vengeance and recompense. Nope, out of all of them, Jesus chose to read about good news for the poor, sight given to the blind, release for the captives, freedom for the oppressed, and the proclamation of the year of the Lord's favor.

This is the moment when Luke's Jesus gets his real identity. All the rest of Luke's distinct theology pretty well revolves around this encounter. The Prodigal Son? The Good Samaritan? Mary's Song? Zechariah's Song? Simeon's Song? Although pulled from their own sources, they are tethered to Luke 4. After reading the passage from Isaiah 61, Jesus sits down. In response to all the eyes that are fixed on him, he declares, "Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." This is Jesus' way of letting the world know that his ministry is the fulfillment of this particular prophecy. This is his way of saying that everything else he will do and accomplish will be a reflection of this.

On Sunday, we have the chance to hear Jesus' words afresh and commit ourselves to the recognition that, indeed, that passage has been fulfilled in our hearing. There's a congregational response required of this passage. Those little words "in your hearing" are critical. Jesus could have left them out. He could have said, "I've done it all; you can rest easy," but he didn't. This scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing. May our ears be open and our blindness removed until we see the work that Jesus is all about--in his day and in ours.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

More Than Water Into Wine

January 18, 2016 – The Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 62:1-5; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Why bother getting married in the church? I always ask that question whenever I first meet with a couple for premarital counseling. Why bother getting married in the church? It’s a lot of hassle. We have rules about no photography during the service and where flowers can and can’t go. We tell you when you are allowed to show up and where you have to stand. No matter how new and unique your love feels, we don’t allow you to write your own vows. Perhaps worst of all, we make you meet with a priest at least four times to talk about who you are and how your marriage will come together. Really, it’s quite a pain to get married in the church.

And, if the church isn’t enough trouble, all the other details are just as bad. Brides and grooms quickly learn the “joy” of navigating parents and in-laws. There’s the guest list and the rehearsal dinner and the reception. What will the invitations look like? Is the wedding dress traditional enough? In preparing for a wedding, there is always a battle of wills. So I always tell couples that, at some point in the process, they will look at each other and wonder whether they should just elope. They think I’m kidding, but, by the time it’s all over, they look at me and smile and say, “Yeah, we thought about it.”

I say that to couples as a sort of warning—words of caution to let them know that, at times, they will wonder whether all of the work is really worth it. Of course, you will be just as married if you forge your union on the steps of the courthouse as if you exchange your vows in front of the altar. In the eyes of the state and the church and even God, the end result is exactly the same. But there’s a reason we go to all of that trouble, and I urge couples to keep that in mind. There’s a reason that, for all of human history, wedding haves been a pretty big deal. It’s because, when you’re standing there, promising to be with someone for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, for the rest of your life, it’s the kind of life-defining promise that you want to share with your family and four-hundred of your closest friends.

Weddings have always been a big deal. Even before human beings accepted that love has anything to do with it, we’ve always put a lot of effort and money into weddings. They are a showcase of wealth and a display of status because it is believed that the nature of the celebration will say something about the nature of the union. (Why else would we tell brides that rain on their wedding day is good luck except to convince them that it isn’t a bad omen?) It’s as true today as it was true back in Jesus’ time. And it was true all the way back when the Old Testament was being written. Marriage is a remarkable thing, and the ceremonies and celebrations that accompany it are similarly remarkable. That’s why God often chose the image of a marriage and the setting of a wedding feast to describe his relationship with his people.

“You shall be called My Delight Is in Her,” the prophet Isaiah wrote, “and your land Married…for the Lord delights in you…For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” To a people in need of redemption, God promises to take them as his bride. To a people wandering in exile, God promises to bring them home and rejoice over them just as a bridegroom delights in his bride. That shall happen, the Lord promises. On that day, God’s people “shall no more be termed Forsaken” because then God will finally take them in a bond that cannot be broken.

It’s a beautiful image and a beautiful promise. It’s one worth holding on to—worth incorporating into your own understanding of who God is and what God promises for you and the rest of his people. Today’s gospel lesson shows me that that image was at the center of John’s faith, and I believe that, in the story of Jesus, John saw those promises being fulfilled.

It is no accident that John locates Jesus’ first miracle at a wedding feast. Notice how he begins the story: “On the third day.” As Christians, we know that the third day is important. On the third day, God reveals something worth seeing. John wants to be sure that we recognize that the miracle in Cana is bigger than just water-into-wine. It’s a statement about who God is and what our hope should be.

At the wedding feast, Jesus’ mother pointed out that the wine had run out. It was a disaster. Not only did it mean that the party would come crashing to a halt, but it also meant that the marital union itself was in jeopardy. This was a terrible sign. It was a sign that their lives together would be plagued by want and inadequacy. Maybe they wouldn’t be able to have children. Maybe their crops would fail. Maybe they would be poor and destitute. No one knew, of course, but the lack of wine was a clear indication that trouble lay ahead.

So Mary asked Jesus do something. “Woman,” he said to her in words typical of that era, “what concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come.” In other words, this isn’t our business. Leave well enough alone. Sometimes the wine just runs out. But Mary was insistent. “Do whatever he tells you,” she said to the servants. Mary knew what her son was capable of, but Jesus was reluctant. And I think that Jesus was reluctant because he didn’t want people to think that he was in the wedding business. God had sent him to earth to do something truly amazing. Water into wine felt more like a party trick than a Messianic revelation. But maybe not. Maybe there was more in this opportunity than merely providing for a party.

“Fill those jars with water,” Jesus said to the servants, pointing to six stone jars, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. If we’re going to do this, let’s go all the way. That’s one hundred eighty gallons. It’s over nine-hundred bottles of wine. It’s enormous. It borders on unfathomable. It’s more wine than any ancient small-town Palestinian wedding party would ever need. Jesus wasn’t just making sure that the wine didn’t run out. He was revealing something about what God intended to do through his ministry. He was showing that, in himself, God’s provision would never run dry.

And it wasn’t just a tidal wave of cheap stuff. This was good wine—better wine than had first been served. Why? Because, at God’s great wedding banquet, only the very best will be provided. And, in Jesus Christ, God’s people find themselves at that ultimate banqueting table—where the provision is never exhausted and the blessings are never surpassed.

In this gospel story, we are supposed to see that Jesus was sent to earth to fulfill God’s long-awaited promises. God had promised centuries earlier that he would one day take his people as his bride—that someday they would no longer be known as “Forsaken” but instead would be called “My Delight is in Her.” But when would that happen? When would God finally come and claim his bride for himself? When would the Builder at last rejoice over his people as a bridegroom delights in his bride? Now. In Jesus, the answer is now. Because of him, we do not have to wait any longer. Our hour has come. The time when God will accept us as his beloved is upon us. Our journey of waiting and longing and hoping is complete. The time when God will bestow upon us his endless and unsurpassed blessings is now.

On the third day, God raised his son from the dead to reveal that his promise of unbreakable love was complete. On the third day, Jesus revealed his true glory at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. And, when the disciples saw it, they believed in him because, in the sign that Jesus performed, they saw what God was doing in the world. They saw more than a wedding gift. They saw fulfillment. Can you see it? You, too, are invited to the wedding feast. Can you see what Jesus has done? Can you see that God’s promise to love us forever is now complete?

Friday, January 15, 2016

Episcopal Church: In or Out?

What's going on with the Anglican Communion? In case you haven't noticed, the primates from each autonomous province of the Anglican Communion have been meeting in Canterbury at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury (ABoC) to discuss the future of our shared relationships. Provinces from the "global south" are upset that provinces like the Episcopal Church in the USA (TEC) have continued to advance the cause of LGBTQ equality despite requests to stop. Actually, it's more complicated than that. There's more to it than to say that we disagree about issues of human sexuality. That's true, of course, but the presenting issue that threatens to splinter the Anglican Communion is a disagreement on how we move forward despite those differences.

Previously, groups from across the Anglican Communion have met to try to hold us together. Called "Instruments of Unity," these different entities (ABoC, primates' meeting, Anglican Consultative Council, and Lambeth Conference) have "agreed" on the steps we can take to prevent schism. For example, the Windsor Report called on provinces to stop intervening in other provinces (e.g. African bishops' continued efforts to establish a presence in TEC) and called on provinces to stop ordaining non-celibate homosexual bishops and adopting liturgies for blessing same-sex marriages (e.g. TEC's actions ever since 2003). Like all complex international arrangements, what it actually means to agree is murky. Did TEC agree to stop all ordinations that would seem controversial to others in the Anglican Communion? Did provinces from the global south agree not to accept the requests for oversight from bishops, clergy, and dioceses in TEC? About that, no one seems to agree.

So here we are. Although it's been out of the news for several years, this controversy has been quietly escalating behind the scenes. TEC continues to promote the full-inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in the life of the church. African provinces continue to build strong ties to disaffected "Anglicans" in North America. In addition to pressure within his own church, which faces increased public disagreement over the role of non-celibate homosexuals in the life of the church, the ABoC feels the pressure from provinces across the Communion. "Fix this," we all seem to be saying. The failure of the poorly constructed Anglican Covenant process has brought the need for resolution back to the ABoC. And now he's doing something about it--or at least trying to. He's invited the primates to gather for what has been reported to be a last-ditch effort to hold us together. (To get a sense of just how difficult this will be, read Welby's comments about "schism a failure not a disaster" leading up to the primates meeting.)

So what's happening now? Early yesterday, I read a report from the Archbishop of Uganda that he had left the primates meeting frustrated that his proposal to censure TEC was going no where. That got my attention but didn't surprise me. He'd made his intention clear before the meeting started. His report suggested to me that the proposal for censure had been made but not voted on. A few hours later, news that TEC had actually been suspended leaked, and, ever since, my Facebook feed has been clogged with reports from the primates meeting. (Thank goodness my e-mail inbox hasn't been.)

What does the suspension mean? Take four minutes and read the actual report from the primates meeting. Because of "the change in [our] Canon on marriage," for three years TEC will no longer "represent [the Anglican Communion] on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity." That decision is based on the primates' collective (i.e. majority) assessment that the canonical change regarding marriage "represent[s] a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces on the doctrine of marriage" and that "such unilateral actions on a matter of doctrine without Catholic unity is considered by many of [the primates] as a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence implied through being in relationship with each other in the Anglican Communion." Those are big words. They are a big deal. And they should be. And, in them, I think that the primates have made a good, reasonable, and defensible decision.

The will of TEC, as expressed in the actions of the General Convention, is clear. We have adopted rites for the blessing of same-sex unions. We have made canonical changes to broaden the definition of marriage to a non-gender-specific understanding. Through our Standing Committees and Bishops, we have continued to consent to the ordination of non-celibate homosexual bishops. Within TEC, those are not universally accepted moves. There are many within our church that believe in the traditional understanding of marriage and sexual relationships. But it is the clear understanding of the majority of TEC as our polity expresses it. I would not, therefore, expect our primate, Michael Curry, to apologize or repent for it. It is who we are and who we as a church believe God is calling us to be.

Across the Anglican Communion, however, that is the minority position. It should not surprise us, therefore, that our decisions have impaired our relationships across the Communion. And I believe it makes sense for TEC to withdraw from interreligious and ecumenical bodies that represent the whole Communion. And I believe it makes sense for TEC to not participate in any Communion-wide decision-making process on doctrine or polity. We cannot expect to represent the Communion when our own doctrine doesn't.

When the minority feels that it is committed to justice in the face of a persecuting majority, it must both stand true to its belief AND accept the consequences of that steadfastness. Although unjust, the arrest, suspension, and/or censure of the demonstrators are the expectations of those who reject the majority position. They believe that time will prove them right. And an attitude of love and respect on their parts provides the only hope for reconciliation and triumph.

Should we still share our prophetic voice across the Communion and across the world? Absolutely. And should TEC listen to the words of the primates and continually examine and reexamine our doctrinal decisions? Of course we should. We all have much to learn from the stories of each other. And should the Anglican Communion find ways to include us in parallel conversations as other provinces discover their own path toward LGBTQ equality? Absolutely. And will they? I don't know why they wouldn't. We haven't been kicked out of the Anglican Communion. We are still in Communion with the See of Canterbury. We are still as Anglican as any province. We still embrace those relationships even if they are impaired. It's just time for us to reassess what participation in those relationships means.

I choose to see this as less of a punishment or suspension and more of a necessary and voluntary withdrawal. Are issues of human sexuality adiaphorous (i.e., not worth splitting over)? I think so, and I think our continued presence in the Communion suggests that others agree. Does our commitment to equality create a "huge strain" on the Communion? Clearly the answer is yes. In all relationships, however, clarity and communication draws us toward the best possible future. This decision by the primates makes that possible. We've all put our frustrations and commitments on the table. Although painful, we have a hopeful path ahead of us. Will this hurt members of TEC who yearn to be faithful? As Michael Curry said in his response to this decision, "For so many who are committed to following Jesus in the way of love and being a church that lives that love, this decision will bring real pain." I feel that pain, too. But I believe in the value of the Anglican Communion as the vehicle through which God can bring the good news of the gospel to the world, and I don't want our Communion to break apart. This decision might be the best hope of that that we've seen since 2003.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

First Stop: Cana

In the Daily Office, the gospel lesson appointed for today is John 1:43-51. It's the story of Jesus calling Philip and Nathaniel. It comes on the heels of the calling of Andrew and Simon, which immediately follows John the Baptist's announcement of Jesus as the one on whom "the Spirit descend[ed] from heaven like a dove" (1:32). Why does that matter? Well, John's gospel account opens with the famous prologue ("the Word became flesh and dwelt among us"), continues with the story of John the Baptist, tells about the calling of some disciples, and then immediately moves to the wedding in Cana of Galilee.

Sunday's gospel lesson is John 2:1-11. At this wedding feast in Cana, Jesus turns water into wine. It's a fabulous miracle of fine wine in flood-like proportions, but it's more than that. It's first. As John tells the good news, this is right at the beginning--the very beginning. Other than invite some people to follow him, this is the first thing that Jesus does. He's been baptized. He's being followed. And now he acts.

Before the scene is finished, John makes that point by telling us it was the "first of his signs." John likes that word "sign" instead of miracle, and I do, too. It reminds us that these remarkable feats were not an end in themselves but were disclosed in order to point us to something else. And this is the first one. This is how is starts. This is how things get moving.

Think about the last time you had a first day on the job. Think about the last time you preached a first sermon. Think about the last time you experienced a first kiss. How did things get started? Were you nervous? Did you consider that moment as inauguration? Could you tell that you were laying important groundwork that would shape the future of a relationship?

If you are married, think about the first date you had with your spouse. And think about how you would tell the story of that first date. When we tell the story of someone's life, how it starts often reflects how it will end. Consider the story of Esau and Jacob. Even from their birth--Esau coming out first and Jacob's born with his hand clutching his brother's heel--the conflict between the brothers was enshrined in family history. When we have the chance to retell the story of how everything got started, the way we tell that story reflects what we know about how the whole thing will work out.

News flash: John doesn't begin his gospel account with the miracle of water into wine simply because it was chronologically the first miracle Jesus ever performed. It was "the first of his signs" in a bigger sense than that. This miracle--this story of provision, abundance, and upgrade--is a reflection of what Jesus' entire ministry represents. He is the one who provides. He is the sign of God's abundance. He represents a transformation and enhancement of the world's understanding of who God is and how God works. Don't tell the story of the water turned into wine as if the miracle can be contained at a wedding feast. This is the hope of the gospel in miniature. This is the fullness of Jesus the Christ unfolding at a banquet.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Abundance not Embarrassment

Last Sunday we celebrated the gift of recovery and invited everyone in our congregation to embrace the 12-steps as a part of our liturgy and to hear the good news that there is no shame in addiction. This Sunday we will read the story of Jesus turning water into wine--a whole bunch of wine. Maybe we should have reversed the order of the weeks. So why all of that wine?

As Steve Pankey pointed out yesterday, Jesus provides the equivalent of 908.5 bottles of wine for the wedding feast. More than that, though, the wine Jesus gives them is first-rate. As the steward notes, the wine is even better than that originally offered to the guests. There's a quantitative and qualitative comparison being made, and both are important theological points for John as he describes Jesus' first sign at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.

I have read several times that the host of a wedding feast would risk significant embarrassment if he ran out of wine in the middle of the party. I don't deny that--it makes good sense and, to a lesser extent, is still true today--but I want to get past a reading of Jesus' miracle as a solution for an embarrassing situation. It's more than that.

As John puts it, "When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, 'They have no wine.'" There is no narrative detail to the actual exhaustion of the wine. John doesn't tell us that the steward looked and suddenly realized that the wine was gone. John doesn't tell us that the servants were scurrying about, trying to figure out what to do. Instead, he simply says, "When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, 'They have no wine.'" Would that have been embarrassing for the bridegroom? Sure. Would it have been understood as a foreshadowing of a difficult, perhaps fruitless marriage? Maybe. Although those thoughts are surely in the background, the scene as it unfolds has less to do with the consequence of the wine's exhaustion and more to do with the one who can provide.

This morning, as I read this gospel lesson again, I hear Mary's words not as a pleading or a nervous confession but as a simple, matter-of-fact statement. "They have no wine." Jesus' reply, often thought of as rude or irritated, is actually another matter-of-fact statement: "That's not really our concern--yours and mine--is it?" When Mary seems to force her son's hand by asking the stewards to do whatever he tells them, she isn't spoiling Jesus' master plan by making him act before he is ready, but she is drawing her son--God's son--into the moment. Rather, she is connecting her son's place at the wedding feast in Cana with God's presence among his people as the long-awaited bridegroom.

At God's wedding feast, the wine never runs out. And, at God's wedding feast, the wine is always of high quality. Of course the host is never embarrassed in front of his guests--he's God!--but that's almost inconsequential. More important is the nature of God's own feast. Jesus' miracle isn't salvation for the host of the banquet. His sign points us to God's great wedding banquet, where all shall be provided. Mary saw it. In the end, the disciples saw it, too. If you're preaching this week, don't miss it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Is Marriage Dead?

I was never a big fan of HBO's Sex in the City. For starters, I didn't have HBO, so I wasn't introduced to Carrie Bradshaw and her friends until the series was shown in syndication. There was a time, however, when SitC was on television even more than Seinfeld, which is to say that one had a tough time not watching these four women explore the ins and outs of sexual relationships. I did enjoy the episodes I watched, and it must be a credit to the writing in the series that I continue to cite the wisdom of that show in my writing and preaching.

I remember the episode in which Carrie Bradshaw was asked to take off her Manolo Blahniks when she went over to visit a friend. One does not normally deposit one's $500+ shoes in a NYC apartment hallway, but, despite Carrie's objections, that was the demand of the apartment tenant. Of course, the shoes go missing and, when asked to pay for the shoes, the friend refuses, citing Carrie's lavish lifestyle. I don't recall the exact exchange, but the argument included something about people being single not having the same financial obligations as married people--especially those with children--and that Carrie would need to take care of her own shoe habit if that was her priority. The episode explores the validity of being single--of not ever marrying. To get her shoes back, Carrie plans a ceremony to celebrate her singleness, completes a not-wedding registry that includes one--and only one--item, and invites her friend. There's something clever about getting the reluctant friend to spend a good deal of money on shoes and also making her embrace the fully acceptable, fully complete, fully satisfied life of a single woman.

Leaving the sex out of it for the moment, I'm curious whether the biblical images of hope and fulfillment that are tied to marriage are outdated. On Sunday, we will read from Isaiah 62, in which the prophet declares, "For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you." No matter how post-marriage our society has become, we still recognize those as words of hope and promise. For God to declare that he has betrothed himself to his people is a blessing. You don't need to buy into the fairy tale of white dresses for every girl in order to see that hope. But I wonder whether the power of that image is fading.

The only reason that episode of SitC was interesting is because we live in a culture that has begun to let go of the priority of marriage. In ancient times, marriage was more than a normalized sexual relationship. It was a source of security. Yes, the history/anthropology of marriage is tied up in questions of inheritance and property, but it was more than that. For a father of daughters, marriage was a hope for your children's lifelong safety. For men and women, marriage and the children who came from it were a retirement savings plan. When God promises to receive his people as his bride, it is God's ultimate expression of approval. It is the prophet's way of communicating a limitless, unbreakable love that God has for Israel. It is an invitation to a deep and abiding hope. Would we still use the image of marriage to convey that hope?

I ask not because I think that the words of the prophet Isaiah are outdated but because I think that the setting for the miracle in John 2 gets overlooked. It is no accident that, as we declare in the opening words of the marriage rite, Jesus "adorned this manner of life by his presence and first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee." But the writer of the fourth gospel account locates the story of Jesus' first sign at a wedding feast for reasons more important than to give the wedding officiant a poetic introduction. Jesus wasn't just saying that marriage is a jolly good thing. He was declaring that the image of the divine-human marriage covenant, which fills the texts of Hebrew scripture, was coming to fruit in his own ministry. This is the time. This, as the water is turned into wine, is the vehicle through which God is declaring to his people that the wedding banquet, which Israel has awaited for centuries, is now upon us.

Don't preach the miracle at the wedding in Cana as a miracle of transformation. Yes, water into wine is pretty impressive, but that's not the point. And don't preach this sign as an expression of abundance. That's closer to the heart of the passage, but it still only scratches the surface. The miracle at the wedding is about a wedding. It's about God declaring to his people that they are his forever. Jesus is God's way of saying that he is ready to complete the long-awaited union. Marriage isn't the same to us in the 21st century as it was to the authors of the Old Testament books or even the gospel accounts. But the image of a union that will not be broken still rings true. Don't miss it this Sunday.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Quite a Wedding Feast

Today, I give thanks. Among my thanksgivings is a word of gratitude for the readings for this coming Sunday. The Gospel lesson is John 2:1-11, which recounts Jesus' miracle at the wedding in Cana. The Old Testament lesson is Isaiah 62:1-5, which foretells the time when God will take his people as his bride and rename them "My Delight Is in Her." The Epistle lesson (1 Corinthians 12:1-11) explains how all the Spirit-activated gifts of Christians are enabled by the same Spirit--a beautifully unifying text. Even the Psalm (Psalm 36:5-10) is short but to the point, describing how God's people "feast upon the abundance of your house," where God lets them "drink from the river of [his] delights."

In lectionary years A & B, the gospel lessons for 2Epiphany also come from John, but they recall Jesus' encounter with John the Baptist and his calling of Philip and Nathaniel. Those are great stories which also underscore the theme for this week as articulated in the collect--"Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth"--but I'll take a wedding feast over an HR seminar any day.

All week, I will look for ways to write about the wedding feast. As with many of John's stories, there are many carefully constructed layers to peel back. To start things off, however, and to set the whole week's work in a particular mindset, I want to underscore today that the setting for Jesus' first "sign" is as important as the miracle itself. The wedding in Cana is more than just a big party where Jesus reveals his power. It is an image of God's long-promised banquet where Jesus reveals his true identity as the long-awaited bridegroom.

I won't explain it all now--that's what this week is for--but think about the different images in John's telling of the story:
  • "On the third day..." - The third day of when? The week? Given the full gospel story, it can be no accident that John introduces this miracle as a third-day revelation.
  • "When the wine gave out..." - Instead of underscoring the embarrassment this would have been to the host of the banquet, consider what it means on a larger scale for the supply to have failed. This isn't just a circumstance in which Jesus shall act; it's an indictment of the world.
  • "My hour has not yet come." - I usually think of Jesus' harsh words to his mother as a statement of his reluctance to act before his ministry becomes public. Today, I'm wondering whether his hesitation had more to do with this particular setting. Could Jesus have recognized what it would have meant for him to reveal himself at a wedding banquet? Might that have been too much theological significance too soon?
  • "...six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification..." - I love John's unnecessary but necessary details. This isn't an accident. This is a comment on who will use those jars in the fullest possible way.
  • "...each holding twenty or thirty gallons." - That's a lot of wine--a tremendous abundance of wine. That says less about the party that followed and more about the one providing it.
  • "But you have kept the good wine until now." - Again, John makes the same point by comparing the world's provision and that which Jesus provides.
  • "Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him." - This isn't just a demonstration of power. It's a sign. It's a revelation. It's an epiphany. And what happens? The disciples believe.
I've never thought that this was one of my favorite passages, but I'm starting to think it may be. There's a lot here--too much for a sermon but plenty to sort through until a single sermon comes out. I think it's going to be a good week.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

No More Shame: Recovery Sunday Sermon

January 10, 2016 – The First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
You’ve probably noticed that we’re using a different sort of bulletin this morning. Since we’ve put all of the words right there in your hands, you don’t have to do the usual “Episcopal juggle” of switching back and forth between two books, a bulletin, and some inserts. And you may be so excited about that that you haven’t noticed that we’ve added the twelve steps of recovery into the context of the service, putting each step in the part of our liturgy that roughly corresponds to that step. We aren’t saying them out loud, but, if you read them and think about them and hold them in your heart and mind while we worship God together, you may see how what we do on a Sunday morning is, in fact, a lot like a twelve-step program in miniature. It isn’t a perfect fit, but, each week in church, we admit our brokenness, turn to God for help, proclaim our hope for restoration, seek Communion with our creator, and ask God to help us take that good news into the world. To those who know the twelve steps frontwards and backwards, that sounds pretty familiar.

But why are doing this in church? Other than a nice, convenient parallel, why would we take a Sunday to talk about addiction and recovery? Well, for two reasons: first, without exception, all of us are affected by addiction, and, second, without equivocation, the hope of recovery is the hope of the gospel.

All of us are touched by the ravages of addiction. Some of us are addicts, which is to say that some of us know what it means for our lives to become unmanageable because of a compulsive, uncontrollable addiction to alcohol, narcotics, gambling, sex, or another life-destroying vice. Whether we’ve admitted it or not, whether we are in recovery or not, we know addiction firsthand. And others of us live with addicts. Maybe our spouse has a drinking problem. Or maybe it’s our parent. Or maybe it’s our child. Whether it’s right at home or a little further away, all of us know someone who is an addict. They are our families and our friends and our co-workers. They are people we know and love. Many of them are addicts even though we don’t realize it. Maybe they have found help in managing their addiction, or maybe we haven’t noticed it yet, or maybe we have turned a blind eye or simply learned to accept the chaos that their addiction brings. But all of us know addicts.

And, even though all of us know more addicts than we probably realize, a life plagued by addiction can be the loneliest existence imaginable. There is no lonelier place than sitting in your car at work, where you down a pint of vodka before walking through the door. There is no quieter place than an empty house, where even your family has deserted you. There is no colder place than the bathroom floor, which has become your bed yet again. There is no sadness deeper than turning down the Christmas party invitation or making an excuse for why your family cannot come and visit because your husband or wife is out of control. And why so lonely? Because addiction—whether yours or that of someone you love—comes with unbearable shame.

Shame is the real separator. It is the manmade wall that cuts us off from the land of the living—from those we love. Many of us believe wrongly that our compulsive drinking is something that we should be strong enough to control on our own or that our family member’s addiction is somehow our fault because we were not supportive enough or loving enough or patient enough. And, as long as we believe that—as long as we think that trying a little bit harder can get us out of this mess—we’ll never find sanity. Left up to us, we will always make the wrong choice. That’s because addiction is a disease. It is a part of who we are. And we cannot choose our way out of our addiction any more than a cancer patient can decide not to have cancer. But the world says try harder. And our deluded brains say try harder. Yet the harder we try, the more we will fail, and the deeper our shame becomes. That cycle of shame can only be broken when we surrender and admit that we need help.

And that’s the story of salvation. Hear what the prophet Isaiah says to God’s people when they needed God’s help the most:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
 and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
 and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
 the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (43:1-3)

Those words are spoken to a people whose lives are in ruins. Yet, to those who know what it means to be exiled from their homes, to be ostracized by those around them, to be lost and hopeless, God says, “You are mine. You belong to me. I have not forgotten you.” To those who are inundated by the crashing waves of life, God says, “I am with you in your struggle.” To those who have been subjected to the fires of tribulation, God says, “You will not be consumed. I am with you.” When everyone else has left you and you feel deserted and most alone, God says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I am the Lord your God. I am your savior.”

Notice that God does not promise to remove our sufferings. God does not tell us that he will wave his hand and make the way easy for us. The waters still crash down upon us, and the fires still threaten to burn us up. But God declares that he is with us even in our loneliest places. Even when we cannot feel that he is there, God is with us. Even when everyone else has left us—when no one else knows what we are enduring—God is there, present in our suffering, promising to bring us home. Even when we are too ashamed to look for him and ask him for help, God still calls us by name because, no matter what happens, we still belong to him.

And, as Christians, how do we know that? Because of the story of Jesus. God sent his Son into a world that rejected him and abandoned him and delivered him over to death, and still God was with him. We see that the tomb is empty, and, if we believe that God has raised his Son from the dead despite our deepest failures, we believe that God’s love for us is unbreakable. As Christians, it is the waters of baptism that crash upon our heads, and those waters, which we remember today, remind us that we, too, are buried with Christ so that God might raise us to new life. Our hope is not found in trying a little harder. Our sanity is not dependent upon the choices we make. We have hope because God has chosen us and refuses to let our brokenness separate us from his love. With Christ, we have been through the waters and fires of death, and God has been with us and will stay with us until he brings us home.

But that isn’t the end of the sermon. The story of salvation doesn’t end with God’s love for us because, if God loves the unlovable, we can, too. It is, in fact, God’s love that makes our love for others possible. If we can accept that God, who is holy and perfect, loves even the outcast and estranged, then, in him, we find the ability to love those who are otherwise unlovable. But I’ll even go one step further. God’s love doesn’t just make our love for the outcast possible; it demands it. If we believe that God loves us, we must love each other in the exact same way. We must love until our love becomes perfect. And that means no more shame, no more hiding, no more judgment. God’s love has set us free—every single one of us. That is the message of the gospel. And, if we are going to be children of the gospel, we must love as we have been loved—without condition and without reservation. No more shame. No more guilt. Only love.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Water and Fire

Regardless of whether I'm scheduled to preach, each day, I read the lessons for the upcoming Sunday. Usually on Monday, when I read them for the first time, I know right away which lesson I will focus on for a sermon. This week was no exception. We are celebrating Recovery Sunday at St. John's, and the reading from Isaiah 43 just made sense. I don't make those quick decisions on purpose; it's just how I'm wired as a human being. The danger in it, however, is that, by zeroing in on a future sermon after just one reading of the lessons, I easily miss some important connections that can only be discovered from a deeper reading of the text. As I so often am, I'm grateful to Steve Pankey for his post from yesterday on the text from Isaiah.

Since I have been focused on recovery this week, I've been listening to the prophet's words, "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you," as words of encouragement via God's companionship during the trials of his people. Remember that Isaiah is comforting God's people after a long exile (thought of as punishment). He is declaring that God has forgiven his people, that their ordeal was not meaningless nor godless, and that good days lie ahead. In these verses, God is declaring that God is with his people during their suffering: "I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine."

As I've read those verses and prepared to preach on them, I've had the rest of the celebration for the First Sunday after the Epiphany in mind. It's a baptism Sunday. We read about and recall Jesus' baptism. It's a huge moment in the life of the wider church--especially in the eastern tradition. This is the theophany, when all three persons of the Holy Trinity are made manifest to humanity in the Son's baptism, the Spirit's descent, and the Father's voice. But I admit that I've brushed some of that aside, choosing to allow the readings and other liturgical elements like the Renewal of Baptismal Vows, the Collect for the Day, and the Proper Preface say what the preacher doesn't have to say. But Steve, while emphasizing the beauty of Isaiah's words, brings me back to baptism in a way that needs to come through in Sunday's sermon--especially since we're talking about recovery.

In baptism, we are buried with Christ and raised with him to the new life of grace. We rarely immerse someone, but even in the sprinkling we are supposed to see an image of our own spiritual burial and resurrection. How is that possible? It's not the water nor is it the words of the priest nor is it the promises of the parents and godparents/sponsors that makes the power of baptism real. Our baptismal transformation is only possible because Jesus Christ died, was buried, and was raised on the third day as God's proclamation of unending, undefeatable love and power. Because Jesus walked to death and through death and because God was with him fully in that journey, we are invited into that movement--from death into life. Baptism is our way of declaring the truth of God's resurrection love-power in our own lives. For some, that comes in the story of alcohol or drug addiction and recovery. For all, it comes it the story of sin addiction and recovery. At the end of his post, Steve said it better than I will, so I'll close with his words here:

Couple that with the promise of God in Isaiah 43, and we are reminded on this the First Sunday after the Epiphany *colon* The Baptism of our Lord, that just as God stood with Jesus in his baptism, his temptation, and yes, even his death, God stands ready to reveal himself to us in our baptism, in the trials and tribulations of our lives, in those moments of joy and grace, and perhaps most especially in the hour of our death, where we join with Christ in the fullness of life everlasting.
Thanks, Steve.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

What the Wise Men Teach the Church

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

In many cultures, today--the Epiphany--is a bigger celebration than Christmas. As a child, I grew up racing down the steps on Christmas morning to see what Santa had brought. Now, as a clergyperson, I rejoice with tears in my eyes during the singing of Adeste fideles ("O come, all ye faithful") at the opening of the late service on Christmas Eve. As a Christmas enthusiast, it's hard for me to imagine looking forward to the end of the twelve days and the celebration of the coming of the three kings on January 6, but, theologically speaking, I'm more excited about today's epiphany than the nativity of thirteen days ago.

Historically speaking, today is the day when I get to come to the manger and adore the newborn king. (Yes, I know that Matthew omits the nativity narrative and that it's not fair to conflate Luke's story of the manger with Matthew's story of the wise men, but I'm trying to paint a picture, so get over it.) Today is the day when Jesus the Messiah--a term that designates a strictly Jewish identity--is made manifest to all the peoples of the earth as the one and only hope for all creation. Today, Gentiles like me (and the vast majority of Christians) find our long-awaited place in the salvation story of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But it's more than that. As important as that moment was two-thousand years ago, I think the story of Epiphany is the most important story that the twenty-first century church can hear and tell.

Stop for a moment and think about how the story is told--how it unfolded. We say it well in the collect for today: "O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth..." The star is more than a cute detail for a children's sermon or catchy line for a familiar hymn. The star is how God chose to reach down and share the news of the savior's birth with the wise men. As such, God chose their spiritual language--their way of thinking and knowing. They were not Israelites. Perhaps they were familiar with the story of the Jews, but it wasn't their story. The God of Israel had never realed himself to the Israelites through the stars. Astrology was the field of other eastern religions. It was pagan. It was foreign. It was forbidden. Yet, in the birth of Jesus, God was doing something universal--something that wasn't just for the children of Abraham--and God chose a means that would connect his great act with those who were unfamiliar with the usual means of God's manifestation--the prophets, the scriptures, the Temple worship, the traditions. In other words, at the Epiphany, God went rogue.

But it was too small a thing for the God of Israel to breakthrough into the religious lives of the eastern sages by using an astrological sign that was familiar to them. God met them where they were, but he wasn't finished with them yet. God's sign led them to Bethlehem. The Jewish authorities, when asked by the sages, named the city of David as the place of the Messiah's birth. These foreigners--these Gentiles--were not simply met where they were and left there; God found them and brought them in. And that is the message of the Epiphany for the contemporary church.

Adoration of the Magi by He Qi (2001) - linked from
What is the spiritual language of the church? What is the spiritual language of the unchurched world? My preferred language is found in the Rite One BCP services of Morning Prayer and Holy Eucharist. That's my natural way of connecting with what God has done and is doing in the world. But I recognize that I'm in the minority--both within our church and, more substantially, in the world. If I stand on a street corner in cassock and surplice and invite people to join in the pseudo-Elizabethan language of those liturgies, I may attract some quirky and curious onlookers, but I think I'm unlikely to connect in a way that leads to conversion and a lifetime of discipleship. God chooses to meet the people of the world where they are--in star charts and coffee shops and TED talks and self-help YouTube videos and ironic eCards and Instagram posts and catchy memes. But, at the same time the church is seeking to communicate using the spiritual language of the contemporary world, it cannot forget that God isn't interested in meeting people where they are and leaving them there.
The wise men were brought to Bethlehem so that they could adore the baby king Jesus and present him with gifts. Warned in a dream, they departed by another road. It is no accident that they did not go back the same way that they had come. They were changed. God was not through speaking with them. Now, having pursued the star, they could hear Israel's God in a way that God typically spoke to his people--through dreams. As the church, we must adapt our language but not lose our story. It is not good enough for us to make people feel warm and fuzzy and loved and then walk away as if a momentary warm feeling is the vision God has for their lives. We must find a language that succeeds in inviting the peoples of the world to come and encounter Jesus. Yes, God is able to meet them even in pagan, foreign, forbidden ways. But God isn't going to leave them there, and neither can we.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Even the Samaritans?

Over the years, I've taught three different series on the Acts of the Apostles, and I'm sure that by the time I hang it up I will have taught at least five more. Each time, I try to do something a little different--never a straight, verse-by-verse exposition of the text but always a particular angle or take on the text as a whole. Most recently, I led a group through an exploration of the first ten chapters of Acts that focused on the different characters of the story. We began with Jesus himself and then took up each major figure (and some minor characters, too) as they presented themselves in the story: Matthias, Peter, the lame beggar, Stephen, etc.. Eventually, we got to Acts 8 and read about Philip, the evangelist who first took the good news of Jesus the Christ to Samaria, where he met Simon the magician. And the text that follows that missionary journey is the epistle lesson for Sunday (Acts 8:14-17).

On Sunday, we're commemorating the baptism of Jesus, and this lesson from Acts gives us a sense of the power of Jesus' baptism and the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the believers. But I think there is more to these four verses than a reflection of Jesus' baptism, and it helps to have some context. These were Samaritans. Since Pentecost, the gospel had spread throughout Jerusalem and then through Judea. It had been rejected by the Jewish religious authorities yet embraced by the multitudes that heard it. Momentum in the Christian movement was increasing, and, ethnically speaking, the Samaritans were the next logical recipients of the good news...but only barely.

Samaritans were genetically and culturally related to the Jews, but, ever since the two groups were split during the turmoil of the Babylonian exile, they resented each other. There's a lot to say about that, but, for now, suffice it to say that Samaritans had their own place of worship and their own understanding of the Hebrew scriptures--namely, that the only sacred writings were the Torah or the first five books of the bible. Because of that, Samaritans didn't have the same messianic expectations that the Jews had. Think about it: where in the bible does it talk about God's anointed one coming and rescuing or redeeming his people? Not in the Pentateuch. So the good news of Jesus as the Christ was ground-breaking, unanticipated, paradigm-altering news for the Samaritans.

When Philip arrived, he proclaimed to them Jesus as the Christ (8:4). He did amazing signs for them, and many believed. They were baptized by Philip, but none of the converts received the Holy Spirit. As we read in v. 16, "they had been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus," but the full Spirit-filled, Spirit-transmitting baptism had not been offered to them. And it is the apostles--the Jesus-appointed leaders--who come and pray and lay hands on the Samaritan converts, which results in them receiving the Spirit. Keep in mind that Philip, although an amazing evangelist, wasn't an apostle. He was a deacon--a table-server who had been appointed and ordained by the apostles in Acts 6. This story in Acts 8, therefore, is a remarkable tale of both the spread of the gospel and also the order and hierarchy through which that spread is transmitted.

On Sunday, this short reading from Acts 8 reminds us that God is doing amazing, earth-shattering things. His kingdom includes people and places that seem unlikely candidates for conversion. Yet these few verses also show us that the work of the Spirit, though radical and more inclusive than we can imagine, must be folded into the structure and mission of the church. We must allow the church to embrace and be shaped by the work of the Spirit, and we must see that the Spirit's work always finds its place in the church. God's work is not to splinter off new and separate groups. God's work is to bring a wider and wider range into the fold. That isn't easy for the institution or for those on the fringe, but that's how the Spirit works.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Baptismal Revelation

After a great week away with my family, during which I took a break from this blog, I'm back in the saddle and am excited that this Sunday we will be celebrating the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. Actually, at St. John's, we're also going to be celebrating recovery ministries, so much of my work this week will be an effort to hear that particular voice within these readings. For today, though, I want to start with the basics and look at the significance of Jesus' baptism and our baptism.

As usual, the collect for this Sunday will do a better job of proclaiming that sentiment than I ever will: "Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior..." There's a two-pronged approach to that collect and a two-pronged approach to this Sunday as a whole. On the one hand, we're marking the historical reality of Jesus' own baptism--what did it mean? why was it done?--and, on the other, we're placing our own baptismal identity in the same waters from which Jesus emerged.

First, Jesus. At his baptism, God the Father "proclaimed [Jesus his] beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit." Think about that for a moment. Depending on which gospel lesson we read yesterday (Wise Men, Slaughter of the Innocents, or Jesus Lost in the Temple), we've skipped over 20-30 years of the story. During that time, Jesus grew up. Like any adolescent, his self-identity was wrought during the difficult years of puberty. Fully human, he had moments of self-doubt and anxiety about his future. Somewhere during that time, Jesus must have discovered that he was different. Maybe his parents told him that he was special. Maybe, as Christopher Moore put it in Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, he discovered the fullness of that reality on his own. Regardless, by the time Jesus gets to the Jordan River and his cousin John's baptism, he must have had some sense that  God had raised up within him a servant to do remarkable things. Yet, at the baptism, that truth finally breaks through.

Whether or not Jesus understood that truth in full before the baptism is up for theological debate. I'll suggest it doesn't really matter. For Jesus, this is the start of his ministry. This is when it all becomes clear. All that he possessed since the Incarnation is revealed--not granted or adopted (heresy!) but revealed. And this revelation--this anointing--is the green light that the world (and probably Jesus himself) has been waiting for.

Now, us. As the brief reading from Acts 8 suggests, there is power in being baptized in Jesus' name. We are baptized into his baptism. We, too, receive the Holy Spirit. Our own ministry unfolds just as his did. It is the inauguration of something huge in our own lives--at least that what our baptism is supposed to be. As the collect states, we are asking God to grant that we may, indeed, live up to the covenant made in our own baptisms. But the covenant of baptism isn't just a series of promises to be a good person "with God's help." The Baptismal Covenant, though central to our faith and worth proclaiming again this Sunday, does not capture the fullness of baptismal theology. In baptism, we have been set apart as members of Christ's body, the church. We have recognized the cleansing of original sin and the initiation of a life spent pursuing God. Jesus' identity may not have changed, but ours did in that we became a part of Christ's death and resurrection in the waters of our own baptism. That level of identity isn't something we can choose on a daily basis. It's woven into our very fabric as human beings. Instead, we must look for it, recognize it, and hear what the Father's voice proclaims to us on a daily basis: "You are my beloved child."

This Sunday, we're celebrating several baptisms. Jesus' baptism, our own baptism, and, perhaps, a new baptism. They are all connected. In fact, they are all the same. My prayer is that the fullness of Jesus' baptism--Spirit descending, voice proclaiming--will captivate our own baptismal identity and also any other baptisms that unfold on Sunday.