Monday, February 29, 2016

Important Words

When it is time to prepare a sermon for Christmas or Easter, it is easy to lose sight of the biblical texts assigned for those days. Sure, it's Luke 2 or John 20. You don't even need to look them up. You already know what they say. Sometimes in the lectionary the occasion or the story is so big and so familiar that we forget to pay careful attention to the text. This week, as we prepare for the refreshing Fourth Sunday in Lent, we have the Parable of the Prodigal Son to consider, and I will suggest to you that, whether you're preparing to hear it or preach on it on Sunday, spending time this week refamiliarizing yourself with the already familiar text is valuable.

A quick reading has already led me to a thesis for Sunday's sermon, but I'm forcing that to wait. I'm putting into an intellectual box, where I hope it will sit and germinate until Wednesday, when I can check and see if it looks like it will bear fruit. Between now and then, I want to focus on some tiny aspects of the text that hopefully will shape the sermon that will come out of that box.

For today, I want to start with the second half of the parable--the part that involves the older brother and his father. Notice some of the words that are used in the parable:

When the older brother came in from the field and learned that his younger sibling had returned and that his father was throwing a party for him, "he became angry and refused to go in." He refused. Notice that word "refused." The brother wasn't just uninterested. He didn't just skip it. He was defiant. He was scandalized. Actually, however, the Greek isn't quite that strong. It's clear from the text that the son "was not willing" to go in, but the outright refusal of the NRSV overstates it a little bit. Maybe we're supposed to hear more of an opening in this line than English "refused" allows.

And what was the father's response to his "indignant" (Greek word in v. 28) son? Upon hearing that his elder son would not enter the celebration, he "came out and began to plead with him. He pleaded. Notice the word "plead." Isn't it remarkable that the father would plead--beg, entreat, cajole--the son to come to the party? The only other time Luke uses this word for "plead" is in Luke 8:1, when Jarius falls at Jesus's feet and begs him to come and heal his near-death daughter. This isn't a word for a polite request. It's a desperate begging. Why would the father do that? Why not just let him go and be stubborn? Maybe we are supposed to see that the celebration cannot be complete as long as the older brother refuses to participate. Maybe the father's invitation to the older brother is as important as the forgiveness he bestows upon the younger son.

How does the father explain this celebration to his faithful son? I can see the father placing a hand on the son's shoulder when he says, "We had to celebrate and rejoice..." We had to. Notice how that is rendered in modern English as "had to." The KJV uses Rite I language and renders it, "It was meet that we should make merry." The Greek word is edei, which means that it was "binding." It was "necessary" or "inevitable." This is simply what happens. There must be a celebration. It isn't even an option. Maybe we need to embrace the unavoidability of this feast of forgiveness. Maybe there's a reason for us to see it not as the father's choice but as the only fitting response to the return of the lost.

The brother was not willing to go in. The father pleaded with him to enter. Why? Because it is the only fitting response. That sounds like a sermon in the making. We'll see.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

There Are No Worse Sinners

There are a handful of theological concepts that I find both essential to Christianity and exceedingly difficult to accept. These are the doctrines or beliefs of our faith that make it distinct and, well, worth believing, but they are also the same things that make me scratch my head and think, "Really?" I've never been an unchurched person, so I can't say this for sure, but I would guess that these same doctrines make it hard for a seeker to accept the faith yet also are the very things that make Christianity inviting to a secular humanist who is looking for more.

These concepts are things the fact that you don't get what you deserve; you get God's love instead. They include the physical resurrection--the belief that the whole creation, including your body, will be made new. There's the love-your-enemies command and the turn-the-other-cheek command, both of which are baffling but essential to understanding Jesus. There's the rich-become-poor and the weak-are-made-strong expectations, which, again, don't make any sense except in the Christian context.

Perhaps you notice that that list of perplexing doctrines--and, likely, any others you would add to it--are all restatements of the first. which is grace. All of them--forgiveness, a new body, love your enemies, upside-down kingdom--they all are expressions of grace. Grace is the reality that God loves you and me and all of us regardless of what we've done but only because God loves. If you build a calculus around that premise, it requires lots of other unbelievable beliefs. For example, if you don't love your enemies, you can't understand grace. They all go together, and grace is what it's all about. Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 13:1-9) presents, perhaps, the most difficult of all Christian concepts, but, again, our ability to understand and believe in grace depends upon us getting past the unbelievability of it.

When asked about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices (i.e., some rebels whom Pilate had murdered as they were preparing to make a demonstration in the temple), Jesus responds, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?" Citing another example, Jesus says, "Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?" To both rhetorical questions he answers, "No." Although unvoiced, the crowd is asking, "Were these Galileans really that bad that this would happen to them?" And Jesus wants them to know for sure that God doesn't work like that. God doesn't single out "worse sinners" and punish them in brutal or tragic fashion. But that isn't all he says.

If Jesus left his answer at "No," we could leave this passage with the simple and reasonable conclusion that bad things don't always happen to bad people. You don't need to be a Christian to believe that. Lots of good, thoughtful, reasonable people acknowledge that sometimes bad things happen to good people without explanation. But that's not Jesus' point. Jesus goes further than that. There's a ethical, theological teaching in the rest of his response: "No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did." Wait, Jesus. What is that? You mean to suggest that there are towers waiting to fall on all of us unless we repent? Would you mind running that past me one more time?

Like it or not, sin is universal. Sin is evenly distributed across the human race. There are no worse sinners. Will a tower fall on us unless we repent? No, I don't think that's what Jesus is saying, but he is saying that the consequences of sin--small sin, great sin, public sin, private sin--are the same for each of us. He's proclaiming boldly and controversially that sin doesn't pool in the particularly low-lying sections of humanity. Sin is the same within each of us. And, therefore, the call to repent is universal, too. Without repentance, all of us are headed down the wrong path. Unless we turn around, all of us are destined to perish. Bad news? I don't think so. Actually, I think it's very good news indeed.

If you believe in God's unconditional love (e.g. John 3:16f.), you must believe in unconditional sin. Paul gets at this when he writes, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23). But, even more than that, because of God's grace--God's decision to love us regardless of our sin--sin isn't comparable. God's grace is no greater for Josef Stalin than it was for Mother Teresa. Both would perish the same if it weren't for grace, and repentance is a reversal from the direction of this life to the direction of the life God has given all of us. To suggest that any one sinner is worse than another is to deny the significance of sin itself and, thus, to deny the power of forgiveness and grace.

So, think about it this way: if you can believe that God's love has no limits, can you see that sin is universally distributed? If not, I invite you to consider again what it means to be loved by God regardless of who you are and what you've done. In other words, it's an invitation to repent--a daily invitation for all of us, including, of course, me.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Who You Are

There was a period in my life--around the fourth and fifth grade--where I was particularly uncoordinated and lacking in athletic ability. By the time I reached middle school, I had grown enough heft to compensate. But, for those two years, I wasn't good at anything on the playground. Our P. E. teacher encouraged team sports--kickball, flag football, softball--and we always split up the old-fashioned way: choosing teams. Two gifted athletes were identified as captains, and they took turns choosing their teams.

You know what happened. (Well, probably.) Quickly, I learned the self-protective practice of not looking too eager so that people wouldn't think I was disappointed when more and more names were called before mine. Casually, nonchalantly, I shuffled my feet waiting for my name to be called. It stung a little bit when multiple girls' names were called before mine, but I pretended not to notice. Finally, when the pack was really thin, someone would call my name--not last but close. There were always one or two other kids even slower, even clumsier than I was. (Thank God for Michael and Ashley.) My spot on the team was secure--not picked because of my talent but simply because I wasn't the least talented--chosen for who I wasn't rather than for who I was.

Today, we celebrate the one who wasn't--St. Matthias, the one chosen to replace Judas. We don't know a lot about Matthias. In fact, the only thing we really know about him is learned from the story we read from Acts 1:15-26. After this moment--after the lot falls on him and he is added to the twelve--we don't hear any more of him--not one more mention in the New Testament. Presumably he does apostle-like thinks and carries the good news of Jesus throughout the Roman Empire. Tradition (and we know that by "tradition" that means "stories people told") has it that Matthias brought the faith to Cappadocia and the coast of Turkey, but we don't have any real evidence of that--just stories.

Because there is so little told about Matthias after his election, we still think of him as the one chosen to replace Judas. Even the collect for his feast day underscores that lamentable fact: "Almighty God, who in the place of Judas chose your faithful servant Matthias to be numbered among the Twelve..." We aren't in any way acknowledging anything that Matthias did--only that God chose him to be the non-Judas. In Peter's speech to the faithful, there is far more attention paid to the tragic death of the betrayer than to the choice that was before them. Even the other candidate seems better known as he is identified as "Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus." The guy has two different nicknames! Matthias is just Matthias. On his saintly, apostolic resume, Matthias' greatest achievement is being the not-Judas, not-Justus guy on whom the lot fell.

But, actually, there's more to it than that. We may not know a lot about Matthias individually, but Peter's description of the qualifications for a replacement apostle are substantial: "One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us--one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection." No, Matthias was never mentioned in the gospel accounts. His name was not specified as a friend of Jesus. But, when it came time to pick someone to be a chief witness of the resurrection, the apostles needed someone who had been with them from the beginning and stayed with them through the end. Matthias was one of two who qualified. Think about that: he was one of two who had been as faithful as the other eleven disciples.

For the whole time that Jesus was travelling and preaching and healing and stirring up trouble, Matthias was there. Never mentioned, never noticed by a gospel writer, Matthias was faithful. And, when God looked upon him, God saw something that we cannot see--something we do not know. The Old Testament lesson from Morning Prayer for today is 1 Samuel 16:1-13. In that story, God sends Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint a new king for Israel--someone to take Saul's place. When the first seven of Jesse's sons pass before Samuel, each time the Lord says to the prophet, "This isn't the right one. It's someone else." Finally, when David the youngest is brought it, the Lord says to Samuel, "Arise, anoint him, for this is he." The lesson for the prophet and for us is that "the Lord sees not as mortals sees: mortals look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” We might not know what happened to Matthias, but we know that God saw something in him that we might not see. God chose him not because of who he wasn't but because of who, in God's eyes, he was.

What does God see when he looks upon you? Is your faithfulness conspicuous? Is your piety private? Do you shut the door and pray in secret? Or is the best you have to offer God already on display for everyone to see? For whose team are you trying to be chosen? Which captain are you hoping will pick you? Your priest? Your friends? Or the one who sees who you are and chooses you because he wants you--exactly you?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Job and the Burning Bush

Yesterday morning, I woke up and read the lessons for this coming Sunday, and, when I encountered the passage of the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-15), I felt the warmth of God's comforting words: "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey..." Then, I came into the office and started preparing for a bible study on Job 22-24, and I felt the dejection in Job's words: "Today also my complaint is bitter; my hand is heavy on account of my groaning. Oh, that I knew where I might find [the Lord], that I might come even to his seat!" (23:2-3). Perhaps it is a coincidence that I was studying Job and Exodus in the same day, but I choose to see it as an opportunity for dialogue, and I'd like to make something of it.

There is an intentional overlap in the language used in Job 23 and Exodus 2:23ff. Gerald Janzen makes this point in his commentary from the Interpretation series. The words of crying, bitter, and complaint are what the Israelites have uttered, and God has heard them. His calling of Moses at the burning bush is a clear response to the needs of the Israelites. Job uses those same words to say the opposite: God has not heard his cry. Indeed, Job would give anything for only a moment in God's presence so that God might hear him and vindicate him.

Some see Job as a repudiation of Deuteronomy. That might be overstating it but only slightly. Moses' delightful farewell address to the Israelites summarizes well the theology of Deuteronomy:
[16] If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. [17] But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, [18] I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. (Deuteronomy 30:16-18 ESV)
This simplistic logic--do good and good will happen to you; do bad and bad will happen to you--is the focus of Job's skepticism. Despite the traditional Israelite understanding of how God works, as portrayed in the story of the burning bush, God doesn't always work that way. Sometimes unjust suffering is not addressed by God. Sometimes the cries of the oppressed go unheard.

I don't know how that works its way into a sermon. On its surface, Exodus 3 is a wonderful, joyful, powerful story of God's salvation. It should be celebrated. At the same time, though, preachers should be careful not to portray God as the one who always hears and responds to the cries of his people. Hears them, yes. Responds? Well, not in the way we might hope--the way we see in the burning bush. There are people in our pews who are crying out to God for mercy. I believe that God hears them, but the timing of his rescue is, more often than not, delayed.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Luke 13 Blues

I went back and checked: of the four different times I've preached on Lent 2C, I focused on the OT lesson 3 times (including yesterday) and the gospel only once. It turns out that I've never preached on Lent 3C, and I'm not preaching this Sunday, but, if I were, I'd be focused on the OT text again (Exodus 3:1-15). Why? Because Luke 13 stinks.

Last week it was Herod the fox trying to kill Jesus and Jesus offering a cryptic reply about needing to go to Jerusalem in order to be killed. This Sunday, we back up to the beginning of Luke 13 and read about Pilate mixing the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices. Last week, as I struggled to make sense of the gospel lesson, I wrote about this passage as a bookend to the bit about Herod the fox. It seems that Luke 13 is set in this strange framework of political authorities who want to kill godly people. We know that Jesus is headed down that road, but we're not there yet. Instead, we have to deal with Jesus deflecting those warnings from an immediate concern to a longer-term issue. But, still, does the passage have to be this strange?

When asked about Pilate mixing the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices, Jesus replies, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them--do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did." Wait, what? Worse sinners? Where did that come from?

Maybe this is a teaching about the nature of sin, repentance, and punishment. Jesus seems to be rejecting the notion that those who met a grisly end were being punished because of notorious sins. "The same thing will happen to you," he offers to the crowd, "if you don't likewise repent." But surely he doesn't mean that those who don't repent have towers fall on their heads. What's going on here?

And then it all wraps up with a parable. Thank goodness for a parable. As I've written before, I love parables. I take them as clarifying statements on complicated teachings. And this parable seems straightforward enough: man wants figs; for three years fig tree hasn't produced; man says cut it down; gardener says give it one more year. Bingo. Repentance is an opportunity to bear fruit. I don't know if this is the point, but I'm looking for any sort of foothold here.

People get upset about tragedy. Human nature looks for causality even when a cause-and-effect relationship doesn't exist. (Go read Job.) Although towers falling and blood mingling may not be the consequence of sin, sin does have its own consequences. And repentance is how we have a fruitful, not-cut-down life.

But don't ask me. If it were up to me, I'd preach on Moses and the burning bush.

Believe an Unbelievable Promise

February 21, 2016 – The Second Sunday in Lent
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
In case you haven’t noticed, there are two penitential seasons upon us: the forty days of Lent and the four-hundred days of an election season. Both bring me to my knees. The Alabama primary is just nine days away, but, of course, we all know that this cycle of endless political blustering won’t stop there. I don’t know if you’re still paying attention, but you can count me among the disillusioned masses who flipped the channel back to SportsCenter a long time ago. Sure, I’m still willing and eager to participate in the political process by exercising my right to vote, but, for the most part, I’ve stopped paying attention. I learned a long time ago not to put any faith in the words uttered in a stump speech or shouted on stage at a debate. After all, what is the promise of a politician really worth?

Getting elected is all about making promises that you can’t keep, and staying elected is all about convincing everyone that not keeping them is someone else’s fault. There are websites out there that track the broken promises of elected officials, but who cares? Shouldn’t we expect those grandiose claims made on the campaign trail to fizzle into nothing? I don’t know who is more to blame: the politicians who make those ridiculous promises or the voters who convince themselves that this time their favorite candidate might actually keep them.

But, of all the ridiculous promises that I’ve heard over the last few months, none is as crazy or as far-fetched as the promise God made to Abram in today’s reading from Genesis: “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able …[that’s how numerous] your descendants [shall] be.” Even in the twenty-first century, with all of our advancements in fertility treatments, to say to an 85-year-old man whose 75-year-old wife had never been able to conceive, “You’re going to be a father,” is patently ridiculous. But that’s exactly what God said. And what’s even more preposterous is that Abram believed it.

This little story—this nighttime encounter when God spoke to Abram—becomes the bedrock upon which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all built. God had blessed this wandering herdsman from Mesopotamia. His wealth was exceedingly great, but still something was missing—something that kept him up at night. And, on one of those sleepless nights, God came to Abram and said, “What’s wrong, Abram? Why are you worried? I’ll take care of you. Your reward will be great.” But to Abram that sounded like the promise of more wealth, and the thought of running out of money wasn’t what kept him up. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful,” Abram replied, “but what will you give me? For I am childless, and I have no one to carry my name into the future. At this point, a slave born in my house will be my heir.” And God said to that 85-year-old man, “No, Abram. This man will not be your heir. I will give you a child—your very own son—and he will be your heir.”

“Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them…So shall your descendants be.” And, despite the odds, despite the absolute impossibility of what the Lord had said to him, Abram believed it, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. Abram’s faith changed who he was in God’s eyes. No longer was he a man without a future. He had become the one through whom God’s promises would come true. And, even though he hadn’t yet conceived a child, he was already the father of God’s people. When God made a promise too huge to believe, Abram believed it anyway, and that act of believing the unbelievable became the faith that binds the people of God to the one who can make the impossible possible.

But Abram’s faithfulness is only half of the story. There’s another part—the strange part at the end—the part with the animal carcasses and the flaming torch and the smoking fire pot. Sure, Abram’s willingness to believe God is remarkable, but even more incredible is God’s willingness to put his reputation on the line, and, in that dramatic and strange vision, God did exactly that.

“How will I know,” Abram asked God, “that this land you have promised me will be mine?” Abram might have believed God, but he wanted some verification, too. Unlike the promise of an heir, the promise of the land would not be fulfilled for several generations (as the verses our lesson omitted today make clear). So this request for a sign wasn’t just for Abram and his wife but also for their descendants—a sign that throughout the generations God would not forget his promise. So God told Abram to prepare a heifer and a she-goat and a ram and a turtledove and two pigeons and lay the carcasses out upon some rocks. And, after Abram had fallen into a deep sleep, the Lord appeared to him in a vision and made a covenant with him. An ancient custom for two parties wishing to seal an unbreakable promise between them involved slaughtering some animals and laying them out upon some rocks and then passing between them as a way of saying, “May the same fate happen to me if I break my word.” In Abram’s vision, the flaming torch and the smoking fire pot were God himself. God had passed between those rocks. In so doing, God had declared to Abram, “If I break my promise, may I be as dead as these hunks of meat.”

Now, that’s a pretty silly thing to think about—God ending up like a side of beef—but the risk to God was real. In this covenant, God put his very identity on the line. God is, by definition, the faithful one. If God makes and seals a promise but doesn’t keep it, our very understanding of who God is unravels completely. If God were to be unfaithful, God might as well be dead. So, when God made these ridiculous promises to Abram, it wasn’t just Abram’s faithfulness that was being put to the test. God’s faithfulness was on trial, too.

But why would God do that? God didn’t need to. There are countless people in countless cultures with countless so-called divinities who have told stories about human beings believing something about a particular god. But when does one of those gods ever stake its reputation—its very existence—on the fulfillment of a promise? God wasn’t merely making a promise to Abram. He was enacting a covenant with him—a two-way relationship that depended upon mutual faithfulness. This covenant invited something more than awe and wonder. It inspired trust—the kind of trust that exists between two lifelong friends. In this covenant, Abram belonged to God, and God likewise belonged to Abram and his descendants forever.
Our God is faithful. Our God makes the impossible possible. And, even more amazing than that, our God chooses to have a real, meaningful relationship with God’s people—with us. In order for that to happen, God chooses to be vulnerable—to allow us the freedom of knowing that, if God ever broke his promises, we would be justified in deserting him. But God never does break his promises, and, thus, we are invited time after time to believe in him. In the story of Jesus Christ, God reveals yet again that his love has no limits—that his faithfulness never comes to an end. In the cross, God shows that he is willing to put himself on the line in order to convey to us that his love can never be broken. God is making a ridiculous promise to you. He is promising to love you no matter what. He is promising that there is nothing you can do to separate yourself from that love. That kind of love from God is unbelievable but true. Will you believe it? Will you believe that God loves you that much?

Thursday, February 18, 2016

A Softer Touch

Yesterday, Seth Olson, my partner in ministry, and I were discussing the origin of the Christian symbol "IHS." Although I can't remember when or where, I had been taught that it represents the first three letters of the name "Jesus" when written in Greek: Iota, Eta, Sigma. It's a phonetic nickname of sorts--like "Nick" for Nicholas and "Matt" for Matthew. Seth agreed that he had heard that, too, but he also told me that, when he had recently looked it up, he found that some people attribute it to "Iesus Hominum Salvator," which means "Jesus, Savior of Man[kind]." I hadn't heard that before, so I looked it up in my handy, dandy Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. It seems the former attribution is primary, but the latter is pretty common, too. What interested me most, however, is that there is another tradition--less common but thoroughly provocative.

Some have used IHS to represent the Latin phrase, "In hoc signo [vinces]," which is the line that Emperor Constantine famously saw accompanying the sign of the cross in a vision that he supposedly had before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Constantine then used the image of the cross on his military decorations, and, when he achieved success on the battlefield, he decided that this cross of Christ thing wasn't such a bad idea. As I read that part of the entry for IHS aloud, Seth remarked as a half-hearted joke, "That's why we're Christian." He's right, of course. Who knows how else history might have unfolded, but Constantine subsequently gave Christianity a legitimate place in the Roman Empire, and, eventually, the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire, and the rest is history.

Isn't it nice to think that perhaps the main reason that those of us who are descendants of western civilization can call ourselves Christian is because an emperor used the image of Christ to slaughter all his enemies? Mockingly, I asked Seth what Jesus would think about all of that, and then we shrugged went back to our day.

On Sunday, though, we have the chance to hear and expound upon a completely different image of Jesus' saving work. Instead of the violence of the cross, which undoubtedly will loom large over us in the coming weeks, we have the chance to speak of Jesus the mother hen, who yearns to protect her baby chicks.

In Luke 13:31-35, Jesus is warned to flee from Herod, who is seeking to kill him. Instead of running away, however, Jesus accepts death and heads to Jerusalem, where a prophet's death can be enacted on a larger stage. Jesus offers a word of reluctance, though--not because he is unwilling but to let us know that, perhaps, it didn't have to be this way: "How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" In other words, if human beings weren't human beings, perhaps the salvation of the would could have been expressed in a way that didn't involve torture and execution.

What images do you hold in your mind when you consider Jesus' saving work? I'm drawn immediately to the cross, of course. I relive in my mind the nails driven into his hands and feet. I strain to hear across the centuries his screams of agony. I wait and watch for him to take his last breath. But those aren't the only images of salvation we have. Jesus is the one who dandles a child on his knee. He's the one who reaches out to touch the leper's hand. He's the one who grabs the dead girl's hand and says, "Talitha cum," or "Little girl, get up." He's even the mother hen who gathers the brood under her wings...if we are willing.

The dominant images of our soteriology (doctrine of salvation) are images of violence: whips, nails, cross, and spear. And there's a good reason for that. As Jesus shows us in Sunday's lesson, it couldn't be any other way. We're a violent people. Our sin is a violence against God's will. But that doesn't mean that God is necessarily violent. He is tender. He is gentle. He has a mother's love.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

All About Death

For three days, I've read and reread the gospel lesson for this coming Sunday (Luke 13:31-35), and I am still struggling to find something to grab on to for a sermon. It's chaotic. It's bizarre. It's confusing. I find myself wondering, "What's the point of this passage? What is this trying to tell us? How does this fit into Luke's portrayal of the gospel?" I don't have an answer yet, but I've got a new direction.

I went back to the beginning of Luke 13 to see what else that chapter might hold, and, right at the start of the chapter, I see a clear coordinating bookend to go with the passage we have for Sunday. The beginning and end of Luke 13 go together, and I'll suggest that any preacher who is tackling Sunday's gospel lesson should start by reading Luke 13:1-5:
[1] There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. [2] And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? [3] No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. [4] Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? [5] No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5 ESV)
It's another strange-sounding passage, but there are important links between it and the end of the chapter. First, we see that Jesus is informed by "some present" that there were some "Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices." Remember, Jesus was a Galilean. Is this a tragic story or a concerned warning or a veiled threat? Apparently, some people from Jesus' neck of the woods were offering their sacrifices in the temple, and Pilate killed them on the spot. Could the same thing happen to Jesus? Might Pilate be preparing to kill him? Should Jesus run away scared?

There's a lot that happens in between this opening paragraph and the end of the chapter, but hear how the first verse of Sunday's lesson picks up where that first paragraph left off: "Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, 'Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.'" Although Luke's geography is a little unclear, Jesus doesn't get to Jerusalem until after Luke 17:11ff, when he is described as passing between Galilee and Samaria on his way there. At the moment of Sunday's gospel lesson, therefore, Jesus is still in Herod's territory--Galilee. This warning/prediction/threat that he receives from the Pharisees is a follow-up from what was said in 13:1. If Pilate doesn't get him, Herod will. But Jesus isn't running away from death. He's embracing it.

Jesus said, "I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem." By saying "impossible" he might be exaggerating, but Jesus knows the fate that awaits him in the holy city. He knows that his death must be enacted on a greater stage. He's not running away from death--he's turning towards it. And he's inviting us to consider the same.

Death is coming to Jesus. As the beginning and end of the chapter demonstrate, it would be wrong to associate that death with punishment, and it would be wrong to see that death as a perversion of God's plan. Jesus is a wanted man. All the authorities are hunting for him. If he stays in Galilee, Herod will get him. If he goes to Jerusalem, Pilate will get him. But that doesn't really matter. What matters is that his death is the journey he accepts. He's not running away from it. That's where he's supposed to go.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Piecing Things Together

This coming Sunday, it will be difficult for me to preach on anything except the OT lesson (Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18). Quoted by Paul in his treatise on justification known as Romans, this passage recalls God's promise to Abram of many ancestors, Abram's acceptance of that promise, and God's reckoning of that belief to Abram as righteousness. To make things even better, there's a "smoking firepot and a flaming torch" to spice things up. There's drama in these words. There's theological significance. This is Abram's vision of the enacting of the covenant between himself and the Almighty. It doesn't get much bigger than this.

When I study the lessons for the upcoming Sunday, I start at the top of the page with the collect and first lesson and work my way down, eventually reading the gospel. Some weeks I'm guilty of getting stuck at the bottom of the page and never really returning to the other lessons in my sermon preparation. (I know this when I hear the lector on Sunday read something I didn't remember reading myself that week.) But this week is different. Not only is the first lesson particularly weighty and inviting, but, at first glance, the gospel lesson (Luke 13:31-35) seems to lack the substance for a sermon.

I'm sure that's not right, of course. I could preach three different sermons on the hen gathering her brood under her wings--a central passage for those who look for feminist, non-violent images of Jesus the savior. But, after reading the passage about Abram and the covenantal sacrifice, it's hard to get excited about Jesus saying, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!" It's a good thing I have all week to read what others write.

At another level, I find the gospel lesson out of sync with the first lesson. Sure, the reading from Philippians is lovely and joyful and encouraging, and it stands alone as such, but I kind of expected the OT reading to have some resonance in the gospel. But it doesn't. It's so out of step, that I went to the old BCP lectionary to see whether the readings for Lent 2C are any different, and there I found an answer.

Although all of the readings are essentially the same, there is one significant difference worth noting: the gospel lesson in the BCP lectionary gives the option of expanding the gospel to include vv. 22-30. Of course, in the Episcopal Church, one is allowed to expand the lesson regardless of the lectionary options, but finding this connection between the OT lesson and the gospel gave me new insights into how I might preach this week. Here are those verses missing from the RCL citation:
Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, "Lord, will only a few be saved?" He said to them, "Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, 'Lord, open to us,' then in reply he will say to you, 'I do not know where you come from.' Then you will begin to say, 'We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.' But he will say, 'I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!' There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last."
There's possibility there! Not only is there an explicit reference to Abraham and his descendants in the kingdom of heaven, but there is tension between Abram's belief-based righteousness in the OT lesson and Jesus' exhortation to "strive to enter through the narrow door." This is where a sermon comes from!

At this point, I don't know what it will be, but I feel new excitement for the whole set of readings. For me, tension leads to insight. There's a dialogue already happening between Luke 13 and Genesis 15. Even if that doesn't find its way into Sunday's sermon, it will shape the work that does.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Who Me?

Don't miss the first three words of Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 4:1-13): "After his baptism." The rest of the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil may be more exciting, but those three little words are what make this episode an instruction for the faithful and not just a fascinating tale of a hero standing up to evil.

I'm not preaching this week, so I have the privilege of exploring lots of potential sermon ideas without ever having to commit to one. If I were preaching, however, this would be my thesis: we are tempted to claim our baptismal identity as God's unconditionally beloved as a sign of our own power rather than a sign of our total and complete subjection to God's power. In conversations with my partner in ministry, Seth Olson, I have come to see this wilderness encounter as an exploration of Jesus' messianic identity. Seth first pointed out to me that this forty-day fast wasn't a vision quest for Jesus. Jesus already knew who he was. That part was confirmed in the baptism that precedes this passage. From that insightful platform, I have wandered my way through these possibilities and find myself convinced (today, at least) that Jesus was in the wilderness to struggle with what it means to hear God say, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased" (Luke 3:22b).

Lately, I've enjoyed asking bible study groups to tell me how they would portray a particular biblical scene if they were the director of a big-budget movie. This is one of those moments that lends itself to the silver screen. Jesus has grown up and felt the call to be a preacher and prophet. He has accumulated a small, local following. He heads out to do what all countercultural religious types were doing back then--receive baptism by John in the Jordan. In that moment, however, all the pieces of his life and his identity that he has known but has been unable to synthesize come together as he emerges from the water, sees the Spirit descending, and hears the heavenly voice. For the first time, Jesus knows perfectly and completely who he is as God's Son. And it is that overwhelming sense of identity that propels him out into the wilderness.

"What am I supposed to do with this?" I imagine Jesus asking to himself over those forty days. The temptations to misuse that identity were real. He could meet his own needs, turning stones into bread. He'd never have to work a day in his life. The power was all his. Moreover, he could take that power and claim a worldly throne. No one could stand up to him. He could overturn the kingdoms of this world and establish what he thought to be God's perfect kingdom. Throughout it all, he could live the rest of his days in isolated, insulated comfort. Nothing would threaten him. He didn't have to be hurt--physically, emotionally, spiritually. Even the angels would protect him. All of that was possible. God's declaration to Jesus showed him that all of that could be his. But that wasn't God's will. And so it could not be.

The words we hear in our own baptism--or, more likely, in the living out of our baptismal identity--are the same: "You are my beloved daughter/son; with you I am well pleased." What will we do with those words? Will we claim them for our own and coast through life expecting everything to unfold just the way we want it? Will we become angry when that "blessed" identity doesn't manifest itself when and where and how we want it? Will we throw ourselves down a road of self-destruction because we know that there is nothing we can do to make God love us any less? God's claim on us makes us invincible, but it also compels us to be vulnerable. We are not our own master. God's unequivocal approval does not elevate us or our interests. Instead, it calls us to humility and sacrifice. It calls us to follow Jesus to the cross.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Repentance Takes Practice. Practice Makes Perfect.

February 10, 2016 – Ash Wednesday
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Do you know what it’s like to sit down at a piano lesson and play through the piece that you have been working on for weeks and have your teacher look at you and say, “You didn’t practice that a single time this week, did you?” Although I enjoyed playing the piano, I hated practicing, and my instructor knew it. Thus, he knew that there was no future in piano for me. It’s funny how, even though a week passes by, you don’t get any better unless you practice.

Not everyone likes practicing. In fact, hardly anyone does. Unless you’re doing something you really love, practicing isn’t a lot of fun. Only when you’ve found your heart’s true passion does practice seem less like a chore and more like a gift. Even Foster, who comes to church six days a week to practice the organ and surely would have given it up a long time ago if he didn’t really love it, has moments when he doesn’t want to practice. We all do. You might remember Allen Iverson, the former NBA phenom, who, when asked about his practice habits at a press conference after the 76’ers were eliminated from the playoffs, replied over and over (22 times, in fact), “We’re talking about practice, man. Not the game—practice.” It turned out that he was inebriated during that interview, but he still got an understanding chuckle from the press: we’re talking about practice, man. If it’s hard to get an NBA all-star to enjoy hours of reps on the practice court, imagine, then, how hard it is to get people in a busy and demanding world to set aside time to practice their faith.

“Practice,” Jesus says. Actually, he says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others,” but, when I hear those words on Ash Wednesday, I am reminded that so much of what we do as Christians depends upon practice. Think about all that Jesus says in this gospel lesson: “Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you…But…do not [even] let your right hand know what your left hand is doing…Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites…[but] go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret…And whenever you fast, do not look dismal…But…put oil on your head and wash your face…” All of that takes practice.

How do we get good at those things? More importantly, how do we learn to enjoy them? How do we get past the mundane repetition of showing up and saying our prayers and dropping a check in the offering plate? How can the practice of our faith become life-giving—something we’re passionate about? I think that Lent is the perfect time to discover how practicing our piety with a new objective in mind can transform it from obligatory drudgery to a joyful endeavor.

Yes, yes—I said “joyful.” I know this is Lent, and I know that all of us think that this is supposed to be a season of unbearable depression. (Just ask Foster.) It’s all about “lamenting our wickedness” and saying that we’re sorry for our sins. But repentance takes practice. And practice makes perfect. And perfect repentance is actually a very joyful thing, indeed. Here’s what I mean.

If this is the first time that you’ve come to church in a while, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that today is terrible. In this service, we spend most of the time on our knees, telling God that we’re sorry for what we’ve done (and even for what we haven’t done). No one would fault you for thinking that, whoever that God fellow is, he’s the kind of entity that insists that we, his wicked subjects, wallow in our own misery and shame (or at that least pretend to for an hour or so). That’s no surprise because that’s what most religious types tell us. It’s what the secular world tells us, too. So-called Christians around the world tell us that we are bad, and, if we want God to love us, we’d better say we’re sorry and sound like we mean it. Society teaches us that people who do bad things should be punished, and people who stay on the straight and narrow should be rewarded and emulated. And the result is a terrible and inescapable trap that says that God will only love you if you’re good and that, if you’re bad, you’d better make up for it or else you’ll go to hell. But guess what? You can’t ever make up for it. You can’t stay on the right path. You’ll always screw up again. And then what—more misery? No, thank you.

As we prayed in the opening collect, God hates nothing that he has made. I believe that with all of my heart. I believe that each and every one of us is totally and completely and limitlessly loved by God in ways we cannot even imagine. We are beloved. That’s what Jesus is all about. Jesus came to say that even the worst sinners among us are chosen by God to be his children—his sons and daughters. He shows the world that, no matter how terrible you have been and no matter how terrible you will be, God still loves you exactly the same. There is no sin, no wickedness, no mistake that you could ever make that could change that. God’s love is unbreakable. But that’s where today gets tricky.

If God loves us the same no matter what, why do we bother falling on our knees and confessing to him that we keep screwing it all up? Why do we fast? Why do we pray? Why do we bother to come to church—on today, of all days? If God loves us whether we’re sorry or not, why be sorry at all? Why? Because we need repentance. God doesn’t need us to be sorry. (God doesn’t need anything.) But, if we are going to appreciate the reality of his unconditional love, we cannot take it for granted. We must, instead, plumb the depths of our moral failure so that we can see just how bottomless God’s love really is. Repentance isn’t for God; it’s for us. And discovering that truth takes practice.

The word repentance doesn’t mean saying that you’re sorry. It means turning around. It means adopting a new life. It means changing direction. And that takes practice. We do those things—almsgiving, prayer, and fasting—not to make God love us but so that we will know God’s love. Those things? Those habits? That’s repentance. Learning to do them the way Jesus taught us—not for show but so that our hearts might conform to the unchangeable truth of God’s unbreakable love—that takes practice. You can’t learn all of that in one day. It takes time. It takes time for a life of faith to take hold in our hearts. It takes practice to learn that we do all of this not to achieve God’s love but to celebrate the love that he already has for us. Perfect repentance takes practice, but the joy that come with it is totally worth it.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Mardi Gras

Today's post is also the cover article for our parish's newsletter, The View. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn what's happening at St. John's in Decatur, Alabama, click here.
I had never heard of Shrove Tuesday until got to college. As a child of lower Alabama who grew up going to parades where the rowdiest display was the oversized plastic cigar hanging from the mouth of a moon-pie-throwing reveler, I knew that the last day before Lent was supposed to be a time for family fun. Even though we stayed away from Mobile, where the partying was more intense by at least one order of magnitude, those of us in L. A. knew where the celebratory pre-Lenten tradition got its first American expression. Before the Crescent City was even founded, French settlers on the shores of Mobile Bay were enjoying one last feast before the forty days of fasting began.

When I got to seminary, I discovered that many people in other countries have never even heard of “Mardi Gras” or “Fat Tuesday.” Instead, they call it “Pancake Day” and celebrate not only by eating stacks of cheap, syrup-drenched carbohydrates but also by running relay races that involve flipping and catching (and often dropping) pancakes. I suppose that a menu of pancakes lends itself to a series of short sprints. Now, I like a short stack as much as the next diner, but I would rather celebrate that last feast with a meal one cannot order at IHOP.

I get it, of course. In preparation for a season of simplicity and culinary deprivation, the tradition is to empty one’s larder of fat and sugar and whatever else one might be giving up for Lent. Given our hedonistic tendencies, it makes sense that on Fat Tuesday one might be tempted to overindulge on the specific things from which one will be abstaining during the forty-day wilderness journey—foie gras, for example. The link to the cupboard, however, is only secondary as the real focus of Shrove Tuesday is spiritual.

To be “shriven” is an archaic way of saying to make one’s confession and be absolved of one’s sins. The transitive form of the verb gets even closer to the meaning of the day as to “shrive” means to free someone from guilt. On the day before Ash Wednesday, we take preventative measures to free ourselves from the guilt that would arise if we stumbled on our Lenten journey and fell into the temptation that a box of Bisquick in the fridge might represent. Modern Mardi Gras celebrations are mostly a hangover from this purging of the pantry, but I want to invite you to consider what steps you might take remove some of the spiritual stumbling blocks that lie ahead.

Would you like for Lent to be a quieter time, when you are able to hear God’s voice a little more clearly? Consider blocking out thirty minutes for silence on your calendar every day. Do you feel a desire to get back to church as a regular, weekly habit? Start by making plans for an early bedtime this Saturday. Are you hoping to develop a daily pattern of reading from the holy scriptures? Go ahead and pull the bible down from its shelf and dust it off and place it in the chair where you like to sit each morning, or set as your browser’s homepage. Would you like to reimmerse yourself in the Christian community and feel again like you belong to the Body of Christ? Pick up a copy of Forward Day by Day or our parish’s Lenten meditation booklet and read how other Christians are finding Jesus. Are you ready to care a little bit less about yourself and a little bit more about others? Set up an automatic daily bill pay of $10.00 to go to the Salvation Army or the CCC or, better yet, go to the bank and withdrawal forty ten-dollar bills and, each day, place another one in an old-fashioned pickle jar you have set on your kitchen counter for just that purpose.
Whatever you do, be proactive. Otherwise, the lure of ordinary things—things as common as pancake mix—will sneak up on you and threaten to disrupt your Lenten discipline. We are about to begin a forty-day journey through the wilderness. This journey could deepen your relationship with God, or it could end as soon as it starts. Make plans for the whole trip. Remove the impediments that might trip you up. If you stick with it, I promise that, when you come out on the other side, you will not be the same.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Devil's Voice

What does the devil's voice sound like? Is it deep and gravelly--the kind of voice I use when I'm sneaking up behind my children to scare them? Is it soft and sweet--so appealing that one could easily mistake it for an ally's encouragement? Or is it altogether silent--only persisting in one's mind?

Although I'd read the story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness many times, I had never considered what the devil sounded like until I was asked to sound like the devil. When I was a first-year seminarian, I was given the task of reading the gospel lesson for the First Sunday in Lent in the congregation where I was training. This was St. John's College in Cambridge, where traditions live far longer than even the oldest member of the college. Several students and a few adults encouraged me to continue the much-loved tradition of reading that particular lesson as the former Dean had read it--evoking the voice of evil when reading the words that the devil spoke: "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." I was terrified.

At first, I thought they were kidding. I thought they were trying to get me to do something that would make me look like an idiot. But as more and more and more people assured me that the Dean had always done it that way, it became clear to me that they were telling the truth. To my horror, it seemed that they expected me--a tenor who actually enjoys singing the alto line in many hymns--to boom the deep baritone required of Satan himself. What would I do?

I don't remember exactly how the conversation went, but the Chaplain, my supervisor, encouraged me to do whatever I felt was best. That was a nice gift of freedom, but it didn't quite resolve the issue. I asked the Dean what he thought, and he asked me what I thought the devil sounded like. Looking back, I dream that there was a deep theological conversation that followed, but I probably just said something deferential like, "Oh, that's a good point. Thank you very much, Mr. Dean. I'll think about that," and walked away. Regardless, I did begin to think about it. A lot. What does the devil sound like?

Two weeks ago, in a bible study on Job, we read the part about Job's wife encouraging her husband to "curse God and die." Although it's clear that the tradition singles her out as the ungodly voice of that moment, I don't fault her for her words. That's what I'd want to do. The tragedy that had befallen Job by that point was more than anyone could bear. As we were considering why she said what she did, I asked the class whether hers might be the voice of Satan in the story. Remember, God gave Satan permission to torment Job to see if he would renounce his faith and turn away from God. Isn't that what Job's wife was asking? I guess sometimes the devil's voice is more familiar to us than we expect.

On Sunday, we'll hear the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. It's a story of hyperbolic proportion. Forty days of fasting and solitary wandering in the wilderness. The devil showing him all the kingdoms of the world and offering them to Jesus in exchange for worship. The devil taking him to the pinnacle of the temple and encouraging Jesus to trust that, as the scriptures say, angels would catch him if he jumped off. Maybe it all happened exactly like that. (It says so in the bible, after all.) But I'd like to think that the voice of the devil is a little less obvious than that. I'm no Jesus, of course, but, when Satan speaks to me, it's a lot harder for me to tell what I'm supposed to do.

If we overdramatize Sunday's reading, we run the risk of making Jesus' temptation unrealistic and easy to thwart. But it wasn't easy. It's never easy. Yet Jesus persisted where all of us fail. Let the devil's voice be a sultry whisper. When I read that lesson so long ago, I whispered the devil's part. All the choir boys started laughing because, well, it was pretty ridiculous. I stand by it, though. When the devil speaks to me, it's hardly loud enough for me to hear, but speak he does. May Jesus' witness give us strength to hear the faintest of tempting voices and turn them away.

Gift of Hope and Love

February 7, 2016 – The Last Sunday after the Epiphany
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

What do you do when the road gets tough? What keeps you going when things get really hard?

A long time ago, back when I was a sophomore in high school, I got in big trouble. Until then, I had always been a pretty good kid. I never got caught with the wrong crowd. I always did what my parents and teachers expected of me. Sure, I talked my way into after-school detention a time or two, but my record was pretty clean. And then I screwed up in a big way.

I was out of town at a Key Club Convention. I had been elected District Secretary, and, along with a group of other state-wide officers, I was treated to a nice suite in a Miami Beach hotel. I was the only underclassman in the group, and I’d like to tell you that I protested loudly when the alcohol came out, but I didn’t. That first night was a lot of fun. It was the only night that was a lot of fun. The next evening, at the convention’s opening session, I looked up to see the chief disciplinarian pointing right at me and beckoning me to follow him out into the lobby. I never went back in. We were busted. I went all the way to Miami for a Key Club Convention and only saw the inside of the convention hall for about 15 minutes.

But the worst part was the phone call. Three of us had gotten in trouble, and we took turns dialing our parents to tell them what had happened. Much of that whole experience gets lost in my memory, but not the phone call. Left by myself, I dialed my parents’ number. When my dad picked up, I said, “Is Mom there?” Those were the last words I got out before the sobbing began. He knew instantly, of course, that something was wrong. Through choked tears, I explained to him what I had done. He listened as I blubbered my way through my confession. When I was finished, I went into the hall and got the chaperone so that he could fill my father in on the ugly details.

We didn’t actually go home after that. It was cheaper to leave us in a different motel in Miami until the convention was over than to change the airline tickets, so I had a couple more days to think about it. Unlike most of the kids who went to Miami for a week, I didn’t have any good stories to tell my parents. But the remarkable thing was that, when I got home, life went on. Sure, I had to resign from my position in Key Club. I had to meet with our faculty advisor and explain to her what happened. And she made me meet with the principal and the president of the Kiwanis Club that had helped pay for the trip. But, for the most part, that was it. I spent the rest of the summer as a free man—free to ponder two distinct truths: 1) I had screwed up in a really big way and 2) my parents had been remarkably forgiving. They never yelled at me. They didn’t tell me what a disappointment I was. Even on that dreaded phone call, my father was supportive instead of punitive. I had made the biggest mistake of my entire life, and parents loved me anyway. And I would need that forgiving love when I went to college, where even bigger trouble was waiting for me.

“Eight days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ of God, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.” Jesus and his disciples did that a lot—pray—but this day was different. While Jesus was praying, his whole appearance changed. His skin began to shine. His clothes became a dazzling white. His face beamed like the sun. Peter and the other disciples looked, and they could see two men standing with Jesus. One was Moses, and the other was Elijah. They were the Law and the Prophets—a clear and visible indication that Jesus was the fulfillment of both. Anything that had previously been hidden—anything that Jesus had kept under wraps—was now exposed for these three disciples to see. Jesus, their master, their rabbi, wasn’t just a remarkable teacher. He was God’s chosen one—the Christ, the one upon whom the hopes and dreams of God’s people rested.

But why that day? Why that mountain top? Why Peter, James, and John? Why not show everyone? Why not show the whole world who Jesus really was?

Eight days earlier, Jesus, again, had been praying. He stopped to ask the disciples, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” And they replied, “Some say John the Baptist, and others say Elijah, and still others say one of the prophets.” “But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked them. And Peter declared, “You are the Christ of God.” He was right, of course, but that doesn’t mean that Peter and the other disciples knew what that meant. You might recall what Jesus said to them right after Peter’s confession: “The Son of Man must suffer and be rejected by the chief priests and the scribes and be killed and on the third day rise again.” That was the path that stretched out ahead of God’s chosen one. That was the future God had in store for his Son. But acknowledging that Jesus was the Christ and hearing him predict his own death is still very different from watching him nailed to a cross and hearing him gasp for his last breath and seeing him laid in a tomb and, through all of that, believing that there is still hope and trusting that Jesus really is the one God has sent to save the world.

What would it take, in your darkest hour, for you not to lose hope? What would you need to carry you through that place of deepest loss? What would give you confidence that someday, somehow the sun would rise again? Would words be enough? Or would you need something more?

In the glorious light of the transfiguration, Jesus gave to Peter, James, and John a great gift. He showed them what they already knew. He revealed to them his true nature in a way that transcends sermons and parables and even miracles. He showed them with the blinding light of God’s presence that he was who Peter confessed him to be—God’s chosen one, the anointed, the Christ. And, with that knowledge confirmed not only in their minds but also in their eyes and in their hearts, they were able to journey together down the road that led to Jerusalem, where, indeed, the Son of Man would suffer and die. And I wonder whether we might say that the seeds of hope and confidence that were planted in those disciples’ hearts on that transfiguration day were what it took for them and their faith to survive the horrors of Good Friday and sustain them until they could see the empty tomb. Could it be that the light of the transfiguration is the only thing that got them through the darkness of Jesus’ death and led them to the sunrise of Easter?

Sometimes the road is hard. Sometimes the darkness closes in. Where will we see light? What will give us strength? Believing something with your mind isn’t the same thing as carrying it in your heart. Before that fateful trip to Miami, if you had asked me whether my parents would love me even if I let them down in a tremendous way, I would have told you yes, of course they would. They are my parents. That’s what parents do. But, when I picked up the phone and dialed their number, I wasn’t sure whether it would be love that picked up on the other end. And it was. And I will carry that sense of belovedness with me for the rest of my life. But even my parents’ transformative love pales in comparison with the love that our heavenly father has for each one of us.

Don’t just hear that God loves you. Don’t just say the words with your lips. See that love. Look for that love. Sit in that love. Experience it and know it and carry it with you forever. Journey with Peter, James, and John to the top of that mountain where that love shines as bright as the new day. Race with them to the tomb where the stone has been rolled away. Come to the altar and receive the body that was broken for you and the blood which was shed for you. God’s love is more than words. We don’t just say these things about Jesus because someone wrote the words down a long time ago. We profess our belief in him—we give our whole lives to him—because we have experienced that love firsthand. That love is real. His love is real. Find it, experience it, know it, and let it carry you through whatever lies ahead.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Next Day

Every year, on the Sunday before Lent starts, we read the story of the Transfiguration. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each recall the moment for us, and we read each account in successive liturgical years A, B, and C. This year, Year C, we have Luke's story. There are several subtle differences between the accounts, which allow the preacher to nitpick her or his way through a specific text. Often, I will use these differences to highlight some of the important themes in each version even if I leave those specific observations out of the sermon. This year, though, I'm making a pretty big preaching choice based solely on the way Luke portrays this encounter, and I think that it's worth exploring here.

This Sunday, in the Revised Common Lectionary, we have an option of reading Luke 9:28-36 or extending the reading to include the next episode, which concludes in verse 43. In the other two years, we aren't given the option of extending the reading, and, unless the preacher uses the rubrical option of expanding it, the gospel lesson concludes as Jesus urges the disciples to keep the transfiguration event to themselves. I find that bizarre. In fact, if I hadn't checked the RCL for the other two years, I would have assumed the opposite to be true because if there is any year in which the scene at the bottom of the mountain does not belong it is when we read Luke's version.

Matthew and Mark say essentially the same thing. They conclude the transfiguration with something like "As they were coming down the mountain..." and then immediately pick up the next story with "And when they had come to the disciples..." or "And when they came to the crowd..." In those two accounts, there's no break in the action. There is a real sense of immediacy to the encounter that awaits them. Not only is there no narrative interlude to split it up, but there isn't even the passage of time. It's immediate. When they get down the mountain, they are met by the disciples and a crowd who are waiting on Jesus to come and fix the problem that awaits them (see below). Luke's version is very, very different.

When Luke finished the transfiguration story, instead of depicting Jesus telling the disciples to keep quiet as they plod down the mountain, Luke offers an editorial summary: "And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen." That might not sound like a huge difference, but read the next verse: "On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him." That's a totally new story! There's not even an attempt to connect the two. Luke isn't interested in suggesting that one followed the other in quick succession. He wraps up the first with a transitional editorial remark and then lets a whole day go by before starting the next encounter fresh. I think reading them together in Luke's version is to make something out of nothing. Save it for Years A & B, when you can lengthen the reading and make the point.

And what might that point be? The encounter that waits for Jesus is the story of the father whose son is seized by an evil spirit. When Jesus is told that his disciples could not cast it out on their own, Matthew and Mark portray Jesus as making a connection with what had happened up on the mount of transfiguration. Mark has Jesus explain to the disciples that "This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer." Bingo! Prayer! And Matthew? His focus is on faith: " He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” But Luke? Luke gives us none of that. There is no explanation. There is no encouragement. There is no connection with the transfiguration.

I say leave it out. If you can't find anything to say about the transfiguration, go read it again. There's a dozen sermons at least tied up in this story. Don't preach the next day. Let the transfiguration tell its own story. If this were Mark or Matthew, I'd say that the following episode points clearly back to the transfiguration itself. But not this year. I say let it go.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Keep Watch!

Behind the altar in our church are three stained glass windows. Unlike many churches, we don't have a central window that features Jesus. Our large window represents our patron saint, St. John. I like to joke that we at St. John's think so highly of ourselves that we'd rather put our own face up there than Jesus'. Once you recognize who is portrayed in the other two windows, however, it all makes sense. Accompanying John are the other two disciples from Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 9:28-36): Peter and James.

Peter, James, and John. Those three represent Jesus' inner-inner circle. Among the disciples, they are the three whom Jesus takes with him up on the mountain to pray. They are the only ones who see his appearance transfigured. They are the ones who recognize Moses and Elijah and hear the Father's voice. And, as they come back down the mountain, they are told to keep these things to themselves. They were entrusted with a fuller revelation of Jesus' glory and were trusted to keep it quiet until the time was right.

No one can know why these three were chosen. Peter, of course, is known as the first among equals--the primary disciple upon whom Jesus builds the church. It makes sense that he would be there. James and John were brothers. In the synoptic tradition, they were called into discipleship shortly after Peter and his brother Andrew, which suggests that these four are particularly important to the early Christian tradition. Then why isn't Andrew invited along? I'm not sure, but there's something about these three that helps this moment happen.

The line in this passage that catches my attention this morning is the narrator's description of the three disciples during the transfiguration event: "Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him." They were tired. So often, the disciples were tired. Jesus was a "prayer warrior," able to keep long hours in communication with his father. The disciples struggled to keep up. This time, though, they managed to stay awake. And their alertness was rewarded. Luke suggests to us, therefore, that they might have missed it. And, had they missed it, there would be no story to tell. This moment of Jesus' glory being revealed is shown to an audience--a group of three who can confirm this story later--much later, when things had fallen apart, when their master had been killed, and when rumors of his resurrection were spreading.

Fast-forward several chapters to Luke 22:39ff., and we find the disciples again struggling to stay awake. This time, Jesus is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, and his companions are unable to keep watch with him. Unfortunately for the preacher this week, Luke doesn't identify which disciples he took with him into the Garden--presumably, therefore, all of them. But Matthew picks up the link and tells us that "Peter and the two sons of Zebedee" went with him. Regardless, in the later episode, we watch as the disciples miss the opportunity to see what is revealed in the Garden. What might it have been? What might they had seen if they'd kept awake? What sort of glory was shown in that place? Or maybe, even though they slept, the days that followed showed them the whole story.

The fullest epiphany will come at Easter. That's when the world sees what that three disciples saw on the mountain top. Jesus is the Son of God, whose glory cannot be hidden. This week, though, we are invited to keep awake and see with Peter, James, and John the foreshadowing of the Easter epiphany. Like them, we may be weighed down with sleep. The sermon may be boring. The lesson may be overly familiar. We may have stayed up too late getting ready for our Super Bowl party. Or maybe, and more substantially, our faith has gone to sleep. Maybe we've lost the ability to stay alert to the ways God is working in our lives. This week, we are beckoned to pay attention. Something exciting is happening. Jesus will show us who he really is. If we miss it this week, we may have to wait until Easter to see it again.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Prayer Changes Everything

Something happens when we pray. It may not be what we want or hope or even recognize, but something happens when we communicate with the Almighty.

I remember a Sunday school teacher from my childhood who taught our class how to pray. "It is talking with God," she explained. "Some people talk to God in a very formal way--like the prayers we say in church." That made sense. Why wouldn't one compose his words carefully when speaking to God? "Others," she went on to say, "talk to God as if he were a friend--the same way we talk with those we love." That was revolutionary for me--not because I was thrilled to know that I could talk to God in such a casual, chatty way but because I discovered that people would even think to do that.

Prayer is talking to and listening for God. For some, the radical part of that statement is found in the action. We are able to talk to God?!? And, if we listen to the sounds of our heart and the quietness of our mind, we might hear God speak back to us?!? Communicating with God is a remarkable thing. For me, though, the real amazing strangeness of it isn't found in the talking and listening but in the one with whom that communication is shared. Those who know me at all know that I take talking for granted. That God might listen and that God might invite me to listen is the revolutionary part.

When people tell me that they speak to God in prayer as if they were speaking to an old friend, I find myself baffled. Yes, I understand the premise of their statement, but I cannot identify with the experience. For me, there can be nothing casual about communicating with the Holy One. Although I trust that another opportunity will present itself, I approach prayer as if I were the visionary behind a techy start-up with a 30-second window in an elevator to make my sales pitch to Bill Gates, whose investment could transform my life forever. This is God! No, not every word is carefully composed, but, when I enter the presence of the Almighty in prayer, it isn't a casual chit-chat over a cup of coffee with Motown tunes playing in the background. Prayer takes every ounce of my heart and mind and soul. I want to give it my all every time--or else I'd better wait for that other once-in-a-lifetime chance to make my elevator pitch.

On Sunday we will read the story of the Transfiguration--the moment when, in mountain-top prayer, Jesus' countenance was changed to a "dazzling white" and he was joined by Moses and Elijah (Luke 9:28-36). We read this story all the time. Not only do we read it on August 6, when the story gets its own feast-day celebration, but we also read it every year on the Last Sunday after Pentecost--our final Sunday before Lent. In this encounter, we are invited to see the real power of prayer--not that prayer would change our circumstance but that prayer might transform us.

Jesus' face and clothes shone with dazzling white light. In the act of prayer, Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James, and John. They get to see how communicating with the Father can draw out evidence of Jesus' inner nature. In the act of prayer, Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah, who represent Law and Prophet--other means of divine-human communication. Eventually, the Father's voice speaks, confirming Jesus' identity as God's Son. And, in all of this, we, too, are invited into the life-changing act of prayer.

Prayer is communicating with God. The act of entering God's presence and being called on by God to speak is remarkable. Usually, in the holy presence of God, the whole world keeps silence, yet we have discovered in Christ that God invites us to speak. And then he deigns to speak with us in reply?!? This is remarkable indeed! This act of prayer, which we could easily take for granted, is powerful. It has the ability to draw out of us evidence of God's nature. It has the power to change everything because it has the power to change us.