Thursday, March 31, 2016

Re-Communicate Robert Bentley

If you haven't heard, Alabama is embroiled in a gubernatorial sex scandal. (I've been trying not to listen, but, since it's not football season, it's the only thing anyone is talking about.) Yesterday, my colleague Seth Olson asked what I would do if Governor Robert Bentley were a parishioner here at St. John's. My first thought went to the "Disciplinary Rubrics," which are found in the Book of Common Prayer on page 409. Quickly thereafter, I changed my thinking and began to wonder why the Episcopal Church wouldn't be the perfect place for a scandal-laden public official. And then I got to Sunday's gospel lesson. This post is about all three.

I don't know whether the Governor and his former advisor/alleged mistress have been kicked out of their Baptist church or the whole Southern Baptist Convention or something else entirely. I don't know how the Baptist Church works, but the pastor of First Baptist Church of Tuscaloosa is reported to have said to his congregation that neither Bentley or Mason is a member there anymore. Maybe they voluntarily resigned. Maybe they were impeached. Again, I don't know how that works. But I do know a little bit of how that is supposed to work in the Episcopal Church.

We don't kick people out of the church. We ex communicate them. Before I was ordained, I thought that ex communication meant kicking someone out of the church. But it isn't as simple as that. In our tradition, we believe that, when we are baptized into the church, we become inseparable members of the Body of Christ. That baptism cannot be undone, nor can it be redone. It is what it is. Once a member, always a member. For example, if you renounce your faith and spit in the preacher's eye and scream at him, "I don't want to be a Christian anymore," we still can't tear up your baptismal record. No one can undo your place in the church any more than he or she can convince God not to love you. It just doesn't work that way. But we can--and, in fact, must--withhold Communion from someone if that person and his or her behavior have become an impediment to Communion itself.

Here's what the first part of those Disciplinary Rubrics say: "If the priest knows that a person who is living a notoriously evil life intends to come to Communion, the priest shall speak to that person privately, and tell him that he may not come to the Holy Table until he has given clear proof of repentance and amendment of life." Notice these words: knows, notoriously, evil, shall, privately, clear, proof, repentance, amendment. Almost every word is significant. The priest shall say. It's not a choice. But only if s/he knows. And knows what? That a person who is living a notoriously evil life intends to come to Communion. And how will s/he approach that person? Privately. And what will the instruction be? That the person is not allowed to come to communion until a clear proof of repentance and amendment of life has been given. Remarkable!

So...are you coming to Communion on Sunday? Do we need to speak? Do I need to call my bishop and speak to him? Who is not affected by these words? Who gets to decide all of that? God? Me? You?

Again, I have no illusion that Governor Bentley is looking for a new church home, and I certainly would be surprised if he found his way to the Episcopal Church, but I must say that he would be welcome--not only as a member but, if it were my parish, also as a Communicant. I know of no theological tradition that embraces as completely as ours 1) the depravity of human nature, 2) the unlimited love of God for human kind, and 3) the call of Jesus Christ to follow him as a transformed, redeemed disciple. We balance all three. We do not preach sin without forgiveness, and we do not preach forgiveness without transformation.

To this end, consider what will happen behind locked doors in Sunday's reading from John 20. Jesus will encounter the fearful disciples and offer them peace. One of them denied him three times. One of them refused to believe that he had risen. All the rest had run away in their master's moment of need. They were hiding in fear and shame. And what does Jesus do? Does he wait for them to come and find him and say that they are sorry? No. He finds them--even behind locked doors--and offers them peace and forgiveness, and he tells them to do likewise. Shouldn't we listen to Jesus?

If any public figure caught in a scandal wants a place where he or she can be accepted as a sinner in need of forgiveness who is called to follow Jesus in a new life of grace, the Episcopal Church is a right place for that. I don't know whether Robert Bentley's sins have made him "a person who is living a notoriously evil life." I do know that the public has ex communicated him. Facebook posts and newspaper columns and water-cooler chit-chat about the sanctity of marriage and the broken public trust and the need for change have cut him off from our secular, social communion. It's a mess of politics and morality that attracts the swarm of sharks that is self-righteous humanity. But I choose to believe that, simply by walking through the church door, Governor Bentley would be demonstrating the repentance and amendment of life necessary for readmittance to Holy Communion. Yes, that's a choice, and maybe it's na├»ve, but, which one of us is any better than he? Who among us is not, in the eyes of the one "to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid," a notoriously evil sinner in need of forgiveness?

Governor Bentley, we've all screwed up. I give thanks that my screw-ups haven't found their way to I pray for you and Mrs. Mason. If you want to follow Jesus, you'd be welcome to follow him with us. We are all sinners in need of forgiveness, and that's what God has offered all of us in his son Jesus.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Take, Bless, Break, Give

Propers for Wednesday in Easter Week: Acts 3:1-10 and Luke 24:13-35
Audio of this sermon can be found here.

What is it about Communion that unites us with Jesus--that makes it a literal communion with him? What is it about the breaking of the bread that opens the eyes of Cleopas and the other disciple, enabling them to recognize the one who walked with them on the road? What is it about the act of making one's Holy Communion that reveals Jesus to us in a way that reading the bible and talking about the faith cannot?

In college, when I was studying for a big test, I would go into an empty lecture hall and write out on the huge chalk boards all the notes I could fit on them. Then, I would sit in a desk and look up at the board and read them aloud to myself. Then, I would walk back up to the board, erase everything, and then start over with the next set of notes I needed to learn. I didn't really know why I did it. It was just how I learned the best. I needed to do something--to move my hand and move my lips--before the information could move from words on a page to ideas in my brain. I suppose I'm a part-kinesthetic, part-oral, part-aural, part-visual learner. But aren't we all?

Jesus is inviting us to know him--not just to know about him but to really know him. We are to consume him. We are to digest him. We are to take him into our selves so that he becomes a part of us. And how are we to do that?

Celebrating the Lord's Supper is an act of sights and sounds and actions. In our tradition, we do not merely sit in our pews and listen to the gospel as espoused in a 35-minute sermon. We hear the good news, and we see it enacted for us, and we speak our part in it, and we move to receive it, and we touch and taste it and even smell it. At table in Emmaus with the two disciples, Jesus took bread--something we see--and blessed it--something we hear--and broke it--something again we see--and gave it--something we feel. In this four-fold action, we are made to remember Jesus' presence with us. The word "remember" is similar in form to "dismember," and you can see the connection (no pun intended but still celebrated). We "make whole again" the saving act of Jesus in Holy Communion. Thus, Holy Communion is not only a response to the gospel. It is the gospel itself. It is the good news of Jesus Christ transmitted to us in sight and sound and spoken word and physical motion. In it Jesus meets us in a real, more-than-metaphorical, more-than-symbolic way.

We are physical beings--not just shells for a soul or mind. We need physical nourishment and spiritual nourishment, and those things are not separate because there is no separation between soul/mind and body. We are faithful in our ears and eyes and brains. We are faithful in our hearts and minds and spirits. Holy Communion unites us with Jesus because fills all of us--our whole beings.

The Evangelism of Forgiveness

In Sunday's gospel lesson (John 20:19-31), Jesus will say to the disciples, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." I think he meant that, and I think we should take him seriously. In fact, I don't think there's any more important instruction Jesus could give the bearers of his gospel.

Yesterday, I began a new series in an early morning bible study. I've called it "Controversially Jesus," and each week we are examining a different aspect of Jesus' life and ministry that would have been controversially in his own day. I'm using Mark as the general basis for that work, and we began with the subject of "touching" with Mark 1:40-45 as the focus. Jesus touches a leper. Next Tuesday, our second class will be "forgiving," and we will use the story of the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2:1-12. Remember what the scribes say when Jesus pronounces that the disabled man's sins are forgiven? "Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (v. 7). That's Mark, of course, and this Sunday's gospel is from John, but I think that the basis for the scribes' question--who can forgive sins, really?--runs through the whole four-fold gospel.

In John's gospel account, there are several moments like that, but, from the very beginning of the way he tells Jesus' story, the act of forgiveness and the act of healing are inseparable--so much as not to need mentioning. In John 1, John the Baptist proclaims of Jesus, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!" In John 2, at the wedding in Cana, Jesus used the water set aside for purification rites to provide the good wine for the banqueting feast. That's followed immediately by the cleansing of the temple, which provides another skeptical focus on the Second-Temple cult. In Jesus' exchange with Nicodemus in John 3, he proclaims, "Whoever believes in [me] is not condemned." In John 4, we read a lengthy exchange between a scandalous Samaritan woman who had had multiple husbands and Jesus, who did not heal her in any physical way but offered her and her village an invitation to salvation (same Greek word) through believing in him. Perhaps most directly, Jesus healed a man born blind in John 9 but only after his disciples questioned whether it was the man or his parents who had sinned in order that he would be born with this disability. Again, there is no proclamation of forgiveness as there is in Mark 2, but the invitation to "walk in the light" and the healing power that Jesus offers are a direct repudiation of the doctrine of sin to which many in his religious culture held.

On Sunday, therefore, when we hear Jesus transmit the power of forgiveness to his disciples, I believe it is the culmination of his work on earth. His proclamation from the cross, "Father, forgive them," is accomplished in his death and resurrection, and this Pentecost-like moment of breathing the Holy Spirit on the disciples and sending them out to forgive (or not) is the completion of his earthly mission. After all, it's all about forgiveness, isn't it?

Mother Church has long used John 20:23 as the basis for presbyteral absolution of sin. This is the moment when those who continue in the footsteps of the apostles are equipped with divine authority to pronounce forgiveness. I don't deny it. Certainly, I practice it. But I think it's more than that. This is more than a citation for church polity. It's the basis for evangelism. It's the focus of good news to be shared both by lay and ordained disciples of Jesus.

Travel back to that moment when the disciples were hiding behind locked doors. Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, and she had announced to the disciples that she had "seen the Lord." But he hadn't appeared to them yet. Peter and the other disciple had seen the empty tomb, but they hadn't seen Jesus yet. This was all still new. Uncertainty lingered. Fear remained. The doubt stemming from Jesus' earthly defeat stayed with them. Perhaps guilt and shame dwelt in their hearts. And what does Jesus say to them? "Peace be with you. Here I am. Look at me. Peace be with you. Just as the Father sent me, so I am sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive sins, they are forgiven. If you retain them, they are retained."

What does a fearful, guilt-ridden, doubt-plagued world need more than a proclamation of forgiveness and the peace that comes with it? It is a fundamental human truth--not a church doctrine--that, when someone offers us forgiveness, we are lifted and set free and, when someone withholds forgiveness, we are weighed down in psychological chains. What do you think Jesus came to earth to accomplish? (If you need a hint, go back and read John 3:16-17.) What do you think Jesus is calling us to do?

This is our moment, Church. This is our chance, sister and brother disciples. We are followers of Jesus. We have heard his message of forgiveness. Now it is our job to go and proclaim forgiveness to the world. Yes, that's partly a proclamation of God's forgiveness--the kind we do in church when the priest waves her or his arm in the air and announces that we are forgiven. But it's not just that. It's basic, universal, unlimited forgiveness. It's human beings saying to each other in the name of Jesus, "I forgive you. You are forgiven." Sure, we have the power to retain sins, but is Jesus asking us to hold that power or give it away? In the style of Francis and the Missionaries of Mercy, let us be in the business of forgiveness--all of us. That's what Jesus invites us to do. And forgiveness has the power to change the world.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Why Did You Come to the Tomb?

March 27, 2016 – The Sunday of the Resurrection: Easter Day
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
What are you doing here? No, really, what are you doing here? Why did you come to church today? Are you here because you always come? Are you here because someone made you? Is today one of those days when you feel like you’re supposed to be in church? Maybe you’re here because you haven’t been to church in a while and want to start a new habit. Or maybe you’re here and won’t come back for another year. Whatever the reason, I am glad that you are here today.

Some of us are here because we know what we will find. Today is Easter, and the truth of the empty tomb is written indelibly on our hearts and in our minds. Others of us aren’t so sure about that. Yes, we’ve heard the story. We know what the bible says, and we know what the preacher will say, but, whether it’s because we’ve never really grasped it or because our life has taken the sort of turn that has led us to question everything we thought we believed, we aren’t sure. We don’t know what it means to look into the tomb and not only see that the body of Jesus is missing but also understand and believe that he has been raised from the dead. And I want you to know that that’s ok. In fact, if you read the story that Luke tells, I think that you’ll find that no one went to the tomb expecting it to be empty.

Early on the first day of the week, as dawn was barely breaking, the women went to the place where Jesus’ lifeless body had been laid. These women had followed Jesus from Galilee, his home, and had been with him through it all. They had seen his miracles. They had heard his sermons. They had stayed close by even while he hung on the cross. And now, because Jesus had died right before the sabbath began, they came on Sunday morning to prepare his stone-cold corpse for its earthly slumber. Even they, who knew Jesus and his message as well as any other, came to the tomb, carrying spices, expecting to find a dead body.

When they went in and failed to find it, they were perplexed—confused, baffled, bewildered. Then, while they were still perplexed, they were interrupted by two men—perhaps angels—who were dressed in dazzling white. The men questioned why they had come to the tomb expecting to find it shrouded in death. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” they asked. “He is not here, but has risen.” Why, indeed? Why would those who had devoted their lives to following Jesus come to the tomb on Easter Day expecting to find that death had won?

Why? Because it isn’t easy to believe in miracles. Even when you’ve seen them with your own eyes, it isn’t easy to believe. It isn’t easy to trust that God has reversed everything that human experience has shown to be true—that death isn’t the end, that all of our sins have been forgiven, that even our very worst selves are loved and accepted by God. Sometimes, even on Easter Day, we come to the tomb for no other reason except that we don’t know where else to go. Think about Peter. That’s what drew him to the tomb.

When the women of Galilee ran to the eleven apostles and told them over and over again what they had seen and what they had been told, the men wouldn’t believe them. They thought it was “an idle tale”—a bunch of nonsense. These men, who had believed that Jesus was the answer that they had been waiting for, that he was the true hope of God’s people, would not, could not believe that the tomb was empty. Even though they had heard Jesus repeatedly predict his own death and resurrection, they still thought that the story was over—that all hope was lost. But Peter wanted to see it. He needed to see it. Even though he didn’t understand it or believe it, he needed to see with his own eyes what the women had told them. Luke tells us that Peter got up and ran to the tomb and, stooping and looking in, saw the linen grave cloths by themselves, but he found no body. And he went home “amazed” at what had happened—amazed. Some translations say that he “wondered” or “marveled” at what had happened. But the one thing that no bible says about that moment is that Peter “understood” it or “believed” it. Because he didn’t. Not yet.

We come to church today because we have heard a rumor. Some women reported to us that the tomb is empty and that Jesus is risen. Their “idle tale” is too wonderful to believe, but perhaps we’re here because we need to see it for ourselves. Whether this is the first time that you’ve stooped down to look inside or whether you’ve looked into the empty tomb more times than you can count, allow yourself to be amazed—perplexed, bewildered, astounded. Remember that no one came to the tomb expecting to find it empty. That truth caught everyone by surprise—even Jesus’ closest friends, the saints whose example we try to emulate. I’ve been doing this for a while, now, and I still don’t know what I will see each year when I look inside.

No one in his right mind expects it to be true, but, on this day, when we see the stone rolled away and find that the tomb is empty, we discover again the truth that God’s love has triumphed in a way no one thought possible. We might not understand that truth all at once, but we don’t have to. God’s victory isn’t trapped in this moment. God has defeated sin. God has triumphed over death. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has declared that his love for you will never end. That will be as true tomorrow as it is today and as it has always been. Whatever it is that brought you here today, I hope you will leave with a sense that God has done something that has the power to make a difference in your life, and I pray that, no matter how long it takes, you will come to know how full God’s love for you truly is.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Separation Itself Is Torn Asunder

March 25, 2016 – Good Friday
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
There are certain places in this world where we are not supposed to go. Most of them are roped off for our own protection. High voltage, vicious dogs, molten lava—these are all good reasons to KEEP OUT! But what about the not-so-good reasons. What about your neighbor—the one who keeps the perfectly manicured lawn, practically mowing the grass with a pair of scissors. That sign in his front yard that says, “Please keep off the grass,” doesn’t it make you want to veer ever so slightly off the sidewalk into his lawn when no one is looking? What about the Teachers’ Lounge? Don’t you still want to know what happens in there? Aren’t you just a little bit curious to know what your mother has been keeping in her purse all these years?

As far as I know, my two grandmothers didn’t coordinate their efforts, but both of them laid down the same unbreakable law: thou shalt not enter thy grandmother’s living room. A grandmother’s living room was, by definition, a room in which no child would ever have reason to go. I still remember standing in the foyer of one of their houses and cracking the louvered doors that screened off that sanctuary so that I could get a peek at what was enshrined in there. Pristine ivory carpet. Perfectly upholstered chairs. A sofa that looked as if no one had ever sat upon it. Even the light, straining to shine in through the decorative curtains, seemed too rich for a boy like me. It was beautiful. It was more than beautiful. It was holy. And it was off limits.

But, when you tell a child that something is too nice, too wonderful, for him to experience, what do you think that makes him want to do—want to do more than anything he has ever wanted to do in his whole, short life? “What is behind this door is too marvelous for you to fathom. Please, don’t peek.” Yeah, right.

I don’t know whether it was my experience in my grandmothers’ houses that caused it or whether it was simply the same innate desire that was awakened by the pictures in my children’s bible, but the only other place on this earth where I wanted to go more than my grandmothers’ living rooms was the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple. That might sound like a stretch, but I assure you that, for this nine-year-old, it was not. On one of the picture pages in the bible that we used in Sunday school was an illustration of what the holiest place in the world might have looked like. And, when I heard my Sunday school teacher tell me that I wasn’t allowed in—that only one man was allowed to go in on one day of the year and that even then a rope was tied around his ankle in case he did something wrong and God struck him dead on the spot—I knew that that was the place I wanted to be.

It was, after all, the place where God lived—where his presence dwelt on the earth. And, in that strange paradox that strikes at the heart of the relationship between God and humankind, the Holy of Holies was, therefore, both the place of perfect communion with God to which all of God’s people are beckoned yet also the place where no one except the High Priest was ever allowed to go. Like all paradoxes, that makes perfect sense yet also completely defies understanding.

What does it mean for us to believe that we are unworthy to stand in the holy presence of the Almighty yet also believe that God wraps his loving arms around us? What does it mean for us to worship God as transcendent and ineffable yet name him as “father” and “friend?” What does it mean for us to know the depths of our imperfection—our complete inability to be the people we know God is calling us to be—yet still hear God say to us, “You are my beloved son,” or “You are my beloved daughter?” That is what today is all about. In the crucifixion of our Lord and Savior, the Son of God, whose flesh was torn for us, we see the temple curtain ripped in two. We are given a glimpse into the inner sanctuary. We are beckoned into God’s holy presence. But how?

One of our Lenten speakers this year was the Rev. Kelley Hudlow, who serves as the manager of The Abbey, which is a church disguised as a coffeehouse in the Avondale Neighborhood of Birmingham. She came and spoke to us about what it means to be a church in a non-church context. She invited us to consider how we, too, might be a place for unchurched people to call home. Before she came to visit, I heard her say in a workshop on that subject that, if you’re going to make yourself available to inquirers who didn’t grow up in the church, you’d better be ready to explain your theology of atonement. In other words, she cautioned us that non-Christians who are asking about the Christian faith really want to know how it is that Jesus’ death on the cross makes a difference. How is it that what happened at Calvary changes our relationship with God? How does Jesus’ death work?

I heard her make those comments two months ago, and I still can’t get them out of my head. And today, Good Friday, I find myself confronting my own theology of atonement. What is that I believe about the cross of Christ that makes a difference in my own life? How has my relationship with my Creator been changed by Good Friday in a way that gives me good news to share with our congregation and with the world? Do I believe, as so many Christians do, that God’s wrath against humanity needed to be satisfied and that Jesus, the perfect sacrificial offering upon the cross, took my place—that he was damned so that I did not have to be? I don’t know about you, but, when I peer through the torn curtain and get a glimpse at the divine nature, I see not a wrathful God but a loving one. So what, then? Is Jesus merely an emblem of God’s unchanging love—a testament to God’s unwavering willingness to forgive? If so, why was the cross necessary? Why was Jesus necessary? I know in my heart and in my bones and, more importantly, in the words of scripture that Jesus’ death changes everything, but how can we believe that without believing in a God who makes no sense? How can we understand that which cannot be understood?

Today we make our journey to the foot of the cross in order that we might stare up at the one who was crucified for us and, through his torn flesh, see beyond the curtain that has always separated us from God. It is by his blood, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, that we have confidence to enter God’s sanctuary and stand in his holy presence. This new and living way has been opened for us through the tearing of the curtain, which is his flesh. As William Barclay put it in his commentary on Hebrews, when God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, the flesh of that man was a veil that covered the divine nature until, at last, that veil was ripped upon the cross (p. 134). Now, staring at the one who died for us, we see for the first time that which has always been true even before time itself existed: God’s nature is always to love.

As I understand it, it is our sinful nature and the guilt and shame that our moral failures have produced within us that have made it impossible for us to see God’s loving nature. We are the veil. Our human nature is the veil behind which the Incarnate Word was covered. It is our sin that necessitated the curtain which kept us out of God’s holy presence. But the cross of Christ is the final translation of the Word of God. And the Word that God has spoken is love. The death of Jesus does not change God—it does not even affect him at all—but it has the power to completely change us. Now, standing at the foot of the cross, we see the unveiled love of God for the first time. Now, in the agony of the crucifixion, we hear God say to us plainly and clearly and perfectly, “I am love without limits. I am love with no end.”

Look upon the Crucified One and see God’s nature unveiled. Stare at the flesh of Christ torn asunder and peer through the ancient curtain. We are beckoned inside. We are welcomed into God’s presence. There is no separation anymore. There is only love.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Don't Forget the Moon

I've been following with interest the conversation between Christian leaders about fixing the date of Easter to a particular day in the calendar--like the second or third Sunday in April. Back in January, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, voiced his support for the idea, joining leaders of the Catholic, Orthodox, and Coptic churches. (You can read more about it here.) Welby was even so bold as to suggest that the date of Easter could be fixed in as little as five or ten years, saying, "School holidays and so on are all fixed - it affects almost everything you do in the spring and summer. I would love to see it before I retire."

I am, without question, opposed to the idea. But I've really wrestled with it. Am I opposed to it simply because I don't like change? If you know me, you know that's a real possibility. When it comes to traditions, I like trying something new, but I need to know that when the experiment is over we'll return back to business as usual. This would be, after all, the biggest thing that the several branches of the Christian community have accomplished since the Council of Nicaea in 325. Forget Martin Luther. Forget iconoclasm. If we can get the Copts, Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants to agree on setting the date of Easter, we'd have the first real, substantial agreement since the split over monophysitism. How could anyone--especially me, a parish priest who values deeply the conflicted history of our churches--be opposed to that?

Well, last night, I got my answer. Driving home from dinner with our family, I saw a huge, golden, fully illuminated, Passover moon hanging low in the horizon. In that moment, I knew. Seeing that moon awakened a sense of drama and anticipation in my heart. I changed course. Instead of going home, I had to drive down to the river to see it. I knew the moon was rising quickly and that with every passing minute the disc would shrink in my perspective, so I raced down past the empty water park, past the still-illuminated soccer fields, down to the end of the road. I got out of my car and ran down a trail to a point that stuck out into the river, where I could look up and see that moon. There it was. An immutable, unavoidable, incontrovertible call to Holy Week. Although the image is far better preserved in my mind, I took a picture of it with my cell phone.

The date of Easter is already fixed. It is fixed not to the Gregorian calendar, which most of us use, or the Julian calendar, which the Orthodox Christians use, but to the lunar calendar, which is the ancient calendar of God's people, the Hebrews. For ALL Christians, Easter is on the first Sunday following the first full moon following the vernal equinox, which means Easter Day is whatever Sunday follows the first full moon of Spring. That ties the date of Easter to the Jewish celebration of Passover. Granted, ever since the Gregorian and Julian calendars split, the Christian churches can't quite figure out how to align the date of Easter with the date of Passover. Consider, for example, that this year Western Easter is on March 27, Passover is April 22-30, and Orthodox Easter is May 1. (You can read more about those differences here.)

For me, though, the desire and efforts to unify the dates of Easter and Passover should not be based on a single, fixed date on the solar calendar but on a return to the lunar cycle of the Hebrew calendar. Read Exodus 12, in which God commands the Israelites to prepare for their liberation from Egypt. Preparations began on the tenth day of the month of Nissan. Then, on the fourteenth day of the month the lambs or goats or were slaughtered and the doorposts and lintels of the houses painted with blood. That night, the Lord passed through Egypt and killed every firstborn in the land whose door was not marked with the sacrificial blood, hence the term "Passover." When Pharaoh let God's people go, they ran out into the wilderness under the light of a full moon. The full moon happens on the 14th day of a lunar month. Imagine trying to find your way in the desert without even the light of the moon to guide you. Likewise, imagine celebrating Holy Week with a waning crescent moon in the sky. Imagine driving to church for the Easter Vigil with no moon at all up above. It doesn't work.

For a long time, I was worried that my instincts are Luddite--and perhaps they are. No, I don't navigate by the moon. No, I am not Jewish. But Jesus was, and my spiritual ancestors walked out of bondage in Egypt into freedom under the light of the full moon. And, through the Christian Pesach of Good Friday into Easter, I claim that freedom for myself. Easter has become a Christian celebration, but it was, to Jesus and his followers, a thoroughly Jewish observance. Read the stories of Holy Week. Even centuries later, they cannot make sense without the Jewish Passover. Thus, we cannot abandon our lunar date for Easter--no matter how convenient or ecumenical it may be.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Drawing All People

In the moment, it's hard--perhaps impossible--to see how big something will become. Do you think the revolutionaries would have expected us to still be discussing the Boston Tea Party as the spark that set a blaze that led to freedom from British rule? Do you think Rosa Parks knew how big her refusal to give up her seat would become? Do you think Philip and Andrew had any idea that we would still be telling their story 2,000 years later? More often than not, we do our small part and discover later on how much it meant to others. How could we know anything else?

Back in Jesus' day, when the Passover was celebrated, everyone who was able packed up and went to Jerusalem for the feast. Along with Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks) and Sukkot (the Feast of Booths), Passover is one of three pilgrimage festivals. It was a celebration that back then did not belong in the home but in the streets of the Holy City and in the courts of the Temple. It was chaotic and energetic and joyful and a little dangerous. People from all over would stream to Jerusalem for the festival that remembered Israel's freedom from Egyptian bondage. Those among the crowds would have felt the surge of nationalism, rebellion, and revolution that this particular holiday represented in Israel's history.

Imagine, then, what it felt like for some Greeks--some Gentile converts to Judaism who had come to the festival--to ask Philip if they could get an audience with Jesus (John 12:20-36). Do you remember that scene from Forrest Gump when Jenny brings Forrest to the "Black Panther party?" I can't say for sure, of course, but, when I hear that Philip went and asked Andrew and together they went and told Jesus, I get the sense that there was more than a little uncertainty whether it would be appropriate for some non-Jews to come and talk with Jesus during the Passover feast. What did the disciples think about their master at this point? They had accompanied him during the triumphal entry into the Holy City, during which the crowd had hailed him as the new King of Israel (John 12:13). They had seen the crowds stirred up to a feverish pitch at the possibility that Jesus of Nazareth, whose following had grown to gargantuan proportions and whose reputation was like that of no other political and religious leader, might come and seize the throne of Israel, wresting it away from Roman occupation. Was this really the time for Jesus to give an interview with some Greeks?

Actually, it wasn't. But not for the reasons the disciples may have thought. When approached by Philip and Andrew, Jesus replied enigmatically, "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." Even though the Passover was only days away and Jesus' sacrificial death was imminent, Jesus' closest followers still couldn't see the direction this trip to Jerusalem would take. They had in their minds the prophecies about the line of David being restored and the king coming to rule in everlasting majesty. But Jesus was focused on passages like Isaiah 49:1-7: "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." And Jesus knew that the only way that his movement could transcend the political, cultural, and religious boundaries of ancient Israel was to give up his life--to be lifted up upon the cross so that the whole world might be drawn to the Son of Man.

We need Jesus' death to shatter the boundaries between the peoples of the world. We need the cross to unite us as the one, faithful, beloved people of God. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob--the God of Israel--is the creator of all that is. He is the only God. Therefore, if we are to have any hope at all, God's work of salvation, which began with his people, must expand to include us--the other nations of the world. Our story of salvation is God's story, and, as such, it must be told as a part of the story of Israel's salvation. Jesus' movement was a Jewish movement. His message of salvation was told to his people. But it was too small a thing for God to use him only to "raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel." Jesus' movement would become even bigger than that. But to do so he must shatter not only the powers of the Roman Empire but also the tyranny of evil and sin and death that reigns over the whole world. In the cross, we have hope because, in the cross, we, too, are set free.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Because of Lazarus

Barely a week ago, we had the story of Mary anointing Jesus' feet with the costly ointment made of nard as our Sunday gospel lesson (John 12:1-8). Today, Monday in Holy Week, we get the same gospel lesson with an additional three verses. That's either a chance for the preacher to preach the other sermon she had written a week ago, preach the exact same sermon to see if anyone was paying attention, preach on one of the other lessons entirely, or preach on a little detail that is held in those extra three verses. I didn't preach on 5 Lent, and I'm not preaching today, but still I want to capitalize on the little bit that's added to this story.

Although you should read it here, here's the text of John 12:1-11 in summary: Jesus comes to his friends' house in Bethany, where Mary anoints his feet with a costly ointment, which raises Judas' objection as the ointment could have been sold for a great sum and the money given to the poor, raising Jesus' counter-objection that this was a preparation for his own burial and that the poor will always be with us. Make sense? And here are those last three verses that get added on in today's lesson: "When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus." On account of Lazarus!

If you asked me to name which of the pre-Easter miracles I found most compelling, Lazarus would probably be in the top three. Three-days-dead is a tough spot, and Jesus reversed it, bringing the dead man back to life. It's not my favorite miracle, but I must admit that it's pretty impressive. Still, given all of the healings and feedings and nature miracles and exorcisms, it wouldn't occur to me that the raising of Lazarus was the one that got everyone's least not at first. But this is John's account. And the whole gospel has been about signs that demonstrate Jesus' identity as God's Son. And, unlike so many of the other deeds of power, this one is personal. We know Lazarus. Jesus counted him among his close friends. He wept at his tomb. This was someone whose death and now miraculous resuscitation were known not only to the gospel reader but also to the wider Jewish community. This was the proof that, as John tells us, made it possible for anyone and everyone to believe in Jesus. Something had to be done.

Don't you relish those moments when someone misses the point the first time and then, in an attempt to solve the blunder, makes the same mistake twice? "Hey!" the Jewish authorities said to themselves, "This Lazarus thing is becoming quite a scandal. When we kill Jesus, let's go ahead and kill Lazarus, too." As if God's campaign to reverse even death itself could be undone by an effort like that. Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. Consider what that represents. No one raises the dead. That's God's work and God's alone. You think you can make that go away? Good luck.

This week we remember that in Jesus God is doing something unstoppable. No plot, no scheme, no tragedy, no murder can undo that. Lazarus was only the foreshadowing. The rest still lies ahead of us. Walk the road. Don't fear what lies ahead. God cannot be undone.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Strange Power of Jesus' Death

March 20, 2016 – The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
Liturgy of the Palms: Luke 19:28-40
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
When I moved to Montgomery as a newly ordained deacon, three different people pulled me aside to give me the same advice. In this church, they told me, don’t believe what you see: the men might seem to be in charge, but the women have all the power. Since that advice came from three different men and was also corroborated by several women and confirmed quickly in my own experience, I learned to trust that it was true. No one gave me that advice when I moved here, but I assume it’s because everyone knew that I had already figured it out. If you want to find the real power in a congregation, you usually have to look behind the scenes.

As we enter into Holy Week and celebrate the passion of our Lord, we find ourselves confronted by clear and diametrically opposed expressions of power. One is predictable—the kind of power that the world clamors to see. And the other is obscure—almost imperceptible unless you know where and how to look for it. I wonder in your heart and mind which kind of power will win out this year.

A crowd comes out to see Jesus enter the holy city of Jerusalem. Having witnessed his “deeds of power,” they hail him as their long-awaited king: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” But later that same week, unwilling to accept his topsy-turvy, countercultural threat to their traditions, they change their cry from shouts of praise to calls for his execution: “Crucify, crucify him!” At the Last Supper, the disciples argue over which one of them is the greatest, but Jesus challenges their presumptions, saying, “The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” When the time comes for the disciples to stand up for Jesus as the arresting party seizes him, one of them strikes the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear, but Jesus heals the wounded man and says, “No more of this!” Pilate and Herod both ask Jesus if he is the king-pretender whom the Jewish authorities have accused him of being, but Jesus refuses to answer them, standing silent and letting them come to their own conclusions. The crowd mocks him, and one of the crucified criminals joins in, saying, “If you are the Messiah, save yourself and us,” but Jesus won’t do it. He doesn’t fight back. Instead, he willingly yields his spirit over to death and chooses to breathe his last. And, then, of all people, the centurion, a symbol of Roman power, recognizes the truth of what has happened and declares, “Surely this man was innocent.”

Which expression of power will take hold in your heart and shape your life? Jesus’ death is full of power, but it’s not the kind of power to which we are accustomed. Yes, it does have the power to change us, but how? One option is to let it fill us with anger. We could look at the unjustified, undeserved, tragic death of God’s son and become enraged. We could lash out at those who stand in the way of God’s kingdom. We could focus our wrath on those who are opposed to the way of Jesus—those who disagree with everything we believe in. I hear from a lot of angry Christians these days, and we could make Holy Week an excuse to join their cause. But then we, too, would miss the true power of this moment.

To capitalize on Jesus’ death as the rallying point for our own cause is to fall victim to the same ungodly power that nailed him to the tree. Instead, we must let the sacrificial power of Jesus’ death become our understanding of power, too. We must let it transform us wholly for peace. We must walk the pilgrim way. We must journey on the road that leads to our own Calvary and there be crucified with Jesus. We must put to death any claim we have to our own interests. At the cross of Christ, we must yield every ounce of our own worldly power so that we might be filled with the sacrificial, self-emptying power of the cross. Then and only then will we be ready for Easter.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

On Our Lips

Three weeks ago, way back on the Second Sunday in Lent, when we were just getting used to withholding our "alleluia" from the fraction anthem, we read Luke 13-31-35 and heard Jesus say to the Pharisees, "And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'" (I must admit that I had forgotten which Sunday it was because I preached on the smoking fire pot and flaming torch of Genesis 15 that week.) As I prepare to preach on Palm Sunday, however, I am thinking about those words from Jesus: "you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'"

This week, as we begin our worship on Palm Sunday, we will not only hear Luke 19:28-40, in which the crowd heralds Jesus with shouts of "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!" but we will even put those words on the lips of presider and congregation, when, immediately before we make our own procession into the church, we say responsorially, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest." (BCP p. 271). In other words, those words of identification and acclimation become our own.

Of course, we won't stop there. Luke's story of Jesus' passion, death, and burial will be read in dramatic fashion by members of the congregation. And, when it is time for the crowd to speak, the entire congregation will urge Pilate to do the evil deed, exclaiming, "Crucify, crucify him!" No matter how many times I preach on Palm Sunday and no matter how many blog posts I write about this moment, I am still amazed and how quickly the crowd changes its mind from shouts of hope to shouts of anger.

I don't know about you, but I want to see Jesus. I want to see him this Sunday, when we gather to celebrate both his passion and "the benefits procured unto us by the same." I want to see him on Good Friday, when he is hanging on the cross, mocked and scorned by the world. I want to see him on Easter Day, when he appears to the women at the tomb. And I want to see him when he comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead and, at last, to make everything right in God's kingdom. I want to see him, and so I yearn to say, "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord." But I also know that to see him as the God-sent one I must first cry out, "Crucify, crucify him" because Jesus' perfect majesty is not revealed in a political or royal processional but in his agony and death.

In the story of Jesus, those acclimations go together. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord and is crucified for us. I want to see the real Jesus. I want to know the one who came and lived and died for us--not the idol of power and privilege the world has made him to be.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Damning Power of "Should"

I don’t believe in should. As a Christian, I believe in grace, which means that I believe that God loves me and you and everyone else in ways that none of us deserves. I want grace to be the dominant principle in my life. I want my thoughts and words and actions to reflect a life built upon the axiom that God’s love for me isn’t dependent upon what I think or say or do. In other words, I want to live a life that invites other people to believe that they are loved regardless of their behavior. I want people to experience the same freedom that comes with unconditional love that I have experienced. And that leaves me with no room for shoulds or oughts or need-tos in my life.

Lately—and I am not really sure why—I have noticed that, when I start to tell someone what he or she should do, I often catch myself in midsentence and start over in a way that avoids the use of an expectation or an obligation. In a manner that comes across as border-line schizophrenic, I interrupt myself, offer a verbal self-correction, and then restate what I was attempting to convey without telling that person what I think that he or she needs to do. “You know,” I might say, “I think you should… No, wait, I don’t mean ‘should.’ I don’t like that word. Let me try that again. What you might do is…” I know: that sounds crazy. But something is going on in my life that is drawing me back to the principle of grace—God’s unmerited favor for me—in a radical way that is changing even the way I speak.

Maybe I am experiencing that grace-focused renewal because I now have four children and find myself walking frequently that indiscernibly fine line between disciplining the ones I love and loving them no matter how much discipline they need. Or maybe it’s because I have now been married for over a decade and have learned how easy it is to take for granted the for-better-or-worse love that my wife and I have pledged to each other. Or perhaps it’s because most of the people who come and meet me in my office are looking for unconditional, unending love and haven’t yet found the only one who can give it to them. Whatever the reason, anything that stands in the way of grace—even a single word like “should”—hits my mind and ears and heart like a needle scratching across a record. Even a tiny obstacle to grace is unacceptable because grace with limits isn’t really grace at all.

Using similarly radical language, the apostle Paul wrote,

Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all [children] of God, through faith.” Galatians 3:23-36 (ESV)

Paul was writing to a community that was split over the issue of law and grace. Some Christians were insisting that Gentile converts be circumcised as a sign of obedience to the ancestral faith of Jesus. Others felt that, despite Jesus’ Jewish identity, requiring full conversion to Judaism undermined the grace proclaimed by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. On this Paul weighed in unequivocally. For Paul, who had been an obedient, zealous adherent to the Jewish law for his whole life, the freedom that grace provides—the invitation to become a full child of God through faith alone—was incompatible with the should, oughts, and need-tos  of ritual observance. Paul’s own conversion to the way of Jesus—the way of the cross—had taught him that.

In Jesus Christ, God tells the world that there are no more shoulds. Yes, as Paul explains, the law and all its “thou-shalts” and “thou-shalt-nots” is a good thing because it provided a framework for a good relationship between God and human beings. But, as Paul stresses and as anyone who has tried to please an unsatisfiable parent, boss, or spouse can attest, a relationship built on conditional approval is doomed to fail. The law, though good, could not complete or perfect what God intended that relationship to be. The fault is ours—the product of the human condition—but the remedy, which is grace, belongs to God.

There is no room in the gospel for should. That word has the power to shut a door, quench a flame, dash a hope, and ruin a dream. The concept of should sets us up for failure. It is a condition upon which approval, satisfaction, and love depend. When we say to someone, “You should do this” or “You ought to try that,” what we are saying to them is, “If you were the person you were supposed to be, then you would do this thing that I am recommending to you.” And where is the love in that?
Instead of telling someone what you think they need to do, try mimicking what God says to us. In Jesus, God declares that there is no thought, word, or deed that can get in the way of his love. Could we love others like that, too? What would our relationships become if we allowed grace to rule our lives? Might all of us become the children of God that God has created us to be if we only believed in the power of unconditional love, allowing that love to melt away all the conditional statements of our lives? You are loved like that. Whether you realize it or not, God already loves you no matter what. Consider, then, the joy that comes from loving other people in the exact same way.

This post first appeared as an article in our parish newsletter, The View. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn about what God is doing in and through St. John's, Decatur, please click here.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Chaotic Story

Each year on Palm Sunday we read the Passion Narrative from one of the three synoptic gospel accounts. Matthew, Mark, and Luke--each has its own character and feel. We save John's account for Good Friday, and, because it is read every year, that version is the one with which I am most familiar. When it comes to Palm Sunday, therefore, I always discover a few surprises.

This year we read what Luke has to say about the end of Jesus' life. I remembered that Luke's version is the only one that includes the repentant thief, who begs from the cross that Jesus would remember him. I also recalled that Luke portrays Jesus addressing the women of Jerusalem, encouraging them not to weep for him but for themselves. I remembered that Luke tells us that Jesus' earnest prayer produced blood-like drops of sweat. There are lots of other details I had forgotten about this year's account. I didn't remember Jesus' conversation with the disciples about them needing a sword or his words to Peter about Satan sifting wheat. More than anything, however, I had forgotten how chaotic Luke's telling of the story feels.

Take a minute and read it. Feel how disjointed everything is. In some ways, Luke is the opposite of Mark. Mark tells just the facts, but Luke seems to squeeze in every single detail. The dialogue jumps from one topic to another. None of the actions really feels finished. For example, at the Last Supper, Jesus mentions that one of the disciples will betray him, and, like in the other accounts, the disciples question themselves as to who it might be, but we never hear of Judas leaving the scene. The finger is never pointed at him until he appears in the Garden of Gethsemane with the arresting party. When I expect Jesus to have the final "do what you came to do" moment with Judas, he skips over it and starts talking about servant leadership. Again, it really bounces around.

I think the preacher's job on Palm Sunday is to get out of the way and let the lessons and the liturgy tell the story. Luke gives us an especially full, especially chaotic story. Like many churches, we will use a dramatic reading of the Passion Narrative, and I anticipate that that will further bewilder the congregation. I am approaching this week's sermon thinking that I am supposed to note explicitly what we all already feel: that the last 24 hours of Jesus' life were a spectacle of turbulence. We're supposed to feel confused. We're supposed to feel like something is missing--that something is unfinished. Don't try to wrap everything up, Dear Preacher, in a neat little package. Build upon the confusion of Luke's story and let it stand for itself. Instead of diagramming the death of Jesus, allow the emotion of the story to speak for itself. Get out of the way as best you can. Don't give people more than they already have. Instead, draw them deeper into what it already there and trust that they will leave exactly the way they are supposed to leave.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Doing a New Thing

In the church business, it's dangerous to get everyone excited about "the good old days" and then tell them we're not going to be like that anymore. I suppose that's dangerous in lots of other spheres of life, too, but, as a clergyperson, I feel acutely the tug between the traditions that define our past and the need to innovate. To oversimplify, everyone wants new people in church but no one wants to stop doing old things.

When I read Isaiah 43:16-21, I wonder, then, what it was like for the people of Judah to hear the prophet remind them of the salvation path that God wrought for them through the Red Sea, where the "chariot and horse, army and warrior" of Egypt were laid waste and "quenched like a wick" only then to say "Do not remember the former things...I am about to do a new thing." Was that good news? Were the people in exile excited to know that God's salvation would come in a new form? Was the "way in the wilderness" unreservedly good news, or were the people disappointed to know that salvation wasn't going to look the same as it had to their ancestors?

Given all the surrounding text, in which the prophet says things like "Fear not, for I have redeemed you" and "I give Egypt as your ransom," I think these words are supposed to be hopeful. But there is a disjunction with the past. So much of the first part of Isaiah 43 is remembering the way things used to be. By the time we get to the lesson for this Sunday, a transition is happening. There's some judgment language like "Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob" in there, too. So maybe this is both hopeful and a little unsettling. Maybe the people are being asked to recognize that, although God is still in the salvation business, it might not be exactly the same as it had been in former times.

Last night at St. John's, we heard from the Rev. Kelley Hudlow, who serves as the general manager of the Abbey, which is a church disguised as a coffee shop in the Avondale neighborhood of Birmingham. Since she is on the frontlines of evangelism, I suppose that she is often asked things like, "What can our church do to reach out to new people?" and "Should we open a coffee shop in our church, too?" That wasn't the focus of her presentation last night, but she did invite us to consider three things, which I want to hold on to in the weeks and months ahead. Here is her recipe for being the church and doing exciting new things: 1) hold space, 2) say yes, 3) be authentic. As she admitted, those sound simple but might be the hardest three things for a church to do.

In a conversation with Kelley after her talk, we touched on the challenges that face the church in the coming 25 years. She described it as a bubble. As we might expect, the biggest financial backers of churches took up that role in their prime earning years--their 40s and 50s. But, in today's church, there aren't many 20-somethings or 30-somethings who will be able and willing to take over that financial obligation when they hit their professional stride. The big givers--and they are also the big doers behind most of our ministries--will keep giving and doing until they can't anymore. And then what? Then, I'll suggest to you, we will find ourselves in Babylon, desperate for salvation.

I think the institutional church faces a decision point right now. Either we anticipate that bubble bursting and begin to let go of the old institutions and ministries and change the way we do church so that we can begin to BOTH attract committed leaders in their 20s and 30s AND transition away from unsustainable ministries and financial models. Or we can wait until that bubble bursts, the money and people dry up, and find ourselves forced to change the way we do church in a crisis moment. It's up to us. Will we anticipate the crisis or wait for it to happen?

Isaiah 43 is a hopeful but tough reminder. It's good news because salvation has come and is coming and will always come. But the way we have modeled God's salvation for the world is changing. It must change. What does the prophet tell us? Don't even bother remembering the way things were. That's how new this moment of salvation will be. It's hard to let go of old ways, but, in order to embrace fully the hope that is coming, we must put them aside.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Idolatry of Sermons: Gregory of Nyssa

Audio of this probably idolatrous sermon can be heard here.

My favorite exegetical author is Robert Krulwich, the NPR science correspondent, author, and co-host of my favorite radio program and podcast, Radiolab. He uses image, story, and analogy to explain the complexities of the universe. According to his Wikipedia entry, New York Magazine called him "the man who simplifies without being simple." Despite a surprising overlap in our fields, I don't often use his work in my sermons, but I do admire the beauty of his work and his mind in a way that shapes my own thinking. I love to explain. I love to use image, story, and analogy to begin to convey the complexity of theological ideas. No, I'm not anywhere close to being in the same league as Krulwich, but I consider him a model for my approach to preaching and teaching.

And that's why I find Gregory of Nyssa and his contribution to Christian theology both exhilarating and frustrating. He lived in the fourth century--back when preachers, teachers, and theologians like him were arguing over fine theological points that ended up shaping everything we know and believe about God. Most notably, Gregory of Nyssa and his companions known as the Cappadocian Fathers contributed heavily to our understanding of the Trinity. Who are Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? How are they related one to another? Where did each come from? What is their relationship to the created order? What can we know about them? What can we say about them? What can't we know?

Gregory of Nyssa added a lot to that conversation. He wrote about the consubstantiality of the three persons of the Trinity, which is to say that he believed that the Father, Son, and Spirit were all of the exact same substance. He wrote about the unity of divine action, which is to say that he believed that the Father, Son, and Spirit were all working in the same way. Otherwise, we'd end up with three gods instead of one. But my favorite, and perhaps the most important, work that Gregory of Nyssa did had to do with the infinitude of God.

Gregory wrote that God is infinite. On this point, he disagreed with many of the other theologians of his day, including Origen. He based that argument on the belief that God's goodness is limitless and, thus, because of the necessity of God's goodness, God is infinite. Let that sink in for a moment. (Ha!) God is infinite. Bigger than time. Greater than all space. There are no limits--no limits!--to God. And, Gregory wrote (and this is the tough part) that, if God is infinite, we cannot understand him.

That's disappointing to human beings of any era but especially to those of the 20th & 21st centuries--a time when the potential for exploration and discovery seems limitless. To say that God cannot be known is exceedingly frustrating. What do you mean we cannot know him? Well, if God is infinite, we cannot fit God into our finite brains. More than that, if God is infinite, any attempt to explain or describe who God is fails to do God justice. God is, at God's very essence, unknowable to human beings. As a result, Gregory argued that the only things that can be said about God are negative things--what God isn't instead of what God is. That's called apophatic theology. It means we can only define God in terms of what we know him not to be. God is not evil. God is not limited. God is not knowable. God is infinite. So, in this life and in the next, we will always be progressing closer and closer to God without ever getting there. For someone who lives to explain things in clear, simple, understandable ways, that's a total buzz-kill. Bummer, I know.

Any attempt to explain who God is is to create a false image of the unknowable God and set it up for idol worship. In his seminal work, The Life of Moses, Nyssen wrote, "Every concept that comes from some comprehensible image, by an approximate understanding and by guessing at the Divine nature, constitutes a idol of God and does not proclaim God." My favorite sermons--the ones that try to put God in an easily consumable package--therefore, are essentially idolatry. Yeah, bummer.

But what does Jesus say? In the gospel lesson appointed for Gregory's feast (John 14:23-26), Jesus says some helpfully enigmatic words: "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me." Notice that in this NRSV translation Jesus does not say, "If you want to keep my words, you must love me." Instead, he simply says, "If you love me, you will keep my words. And we--God--will come and make our home with you." We are not invited to know something. Participation in the divine life--the work of the eternal, infinite, blessed Holy Trinity--does not depend upon our apprehension. It hinges solely upon our love. Love is the relationship of the persons of the Trinity. Love is the dynamic movement of the three persons. Through Christ, the Incarnate One, we are caught up into that life of love. And God makes his home within us accordingly. We don't make a home for him. God makes his own home. And all we do is love.

Don't worry about understanding the Trinity. You never will because no one can. And don't listen to any terrible sermons with analogies for comprehending the incomprehensible. They are setting up idols for your false worship. Just love. God is love, and we love in God so God lives in us. I really can't say any more than that. No one can.

Do We Believe What We Pray?

So often, when I've read the lessons for Sunday and feel myself pulled in too many directions for one coherent sermon, I turn to the collect and find an answer. Last Sunday, I read the collect and scratched my head: "Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him..." Why were we reminding ourselves that Jesus is the true bread?

There was vague reference to bread in the OT lesson, in which we heard that the manna ceased on the day that the Israelites ate the crops in the land of Canaan. Likewise, the wayward son mentioned that his father's hired hands had bread enough to eat and some even to spare, but that hardly seems like a reason to collect our prayers for the day into a clear focus on Jesus as the true bread. "Maybe there are clearer references to bread in the other lectionary years," I thought to myself. Nope. The readings for Lent 4A have absolutely no reference to bread, and those for Lent 4B include only a passing grumble from the Israelites that they were tired of manna. So, again, why?

I may have found the answer by looking back at the 1928 prayer book. The first thing I noticed was the collect, which has nothing to do with bread at all. Instead, on Lent 4, we used to pray, "Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that we, who for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of thy grace may mercifully relieved..." How's that for old-school theology of total depravity and total dependence on grace? (Where have you gone, Thomas Cranmer? I could write an entire post about the lamentable loss of a good, gospel-based anthropology, but this is supposed to be about the collect for Lent 5, and I haven't even gotten there yet.) Just when I was about to give up on the '28 BCP for insights, I saw it: the gospel lesson appointed for Lent 4. Back then, we read John 6:1-14, which is the Feeding of the 5,000. Aha! And you know what? Under the BCP lectionary that story is also read in Lent 4B. Aha! So it was starting to make sense. The problem, of course, is that our lectionary has changed to the RCL but the collects haven't followed suit. I certainly can't see us switching back to the old collect for Lent 4, and, as a deputy to General Convention, I've publicly spoken against multiple lectionaries because I believe we all need to be reading the same lessons each week. Again, I don't have a solution, but I'm fascinated with the development.

So, now, on to Lent 5. After scratching my head last Sunday, I read this week's collect and think, "Dear Sweet Jesus, Thank you for the gift of Anglican piety!" I don't think it gets much better than this: "Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found..." Let those words sink in! God alone can bring into order our unruly wills and affections. God, please grant us the grace to love and desire what you command and promise because the world is a quickly shifting, changing place, and you alone are constant and true. Oh my!

Today, with the old, discarded pre-1979 collect for Lent 4 still on my mind, I wonder whether we believe what we pray. Do we? Do we believe that God alone can order our unruly wills and affections? Do we recognize that we are a ship lost upon the sea of life? Throughout the church year, we have several dominant-culture-questioning collects, and I wonder whether the congregation notices them. Does the average pew-sitter realize that, on her or his behalf, the presider in worship is saying these things to God? The "grant your people" bit means us--plural. It's not just the people who have promised in an ordination vow to "solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church" that are included in that prayer. It's all of us. Do we know that? Do we see that? Do we believe that? God, I hope so.

I don't think I'm preaching this week. My colleague Seth Olson is on the schedule for Sunday, but he's flying in from Texas late Saturday afternoon, and, well, spring storms can be tricky. So, if he gets delayed, I know where my last-minute sermon will come from. We've got a collect that almost preaches itself and an epistle lesson that backs it up. Still, I'm praying for safe and speedy travel for my partner in the pulpit.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

How Much More?

Whenever my friend Steve Pankey quotes me in a blog post of his, I usually end up learning what I should have thought about before I opened my big mouth. This time, however, we both seem to be tracking on the same line of thought, and, after kicking some ideas around in staff meeting this morning, it seems that we're not alone.

What can Judas teach us in John 12:1-8? Although John, through his editorial comments about Judas' betrayal and thievery, takes great pains to make sure that the initial answer to that question is "nothing," I still think we should give Judas another chance. No, I don't mean reversing history's condemnation of his treachery. (That's another post.) I mean letting his question to Jesus stand as genuine and valuable. Why wasn't the nard perfume sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor?

Since a denarius was what someone would make for a day's work, 300 denarii is basically a year's wages for a day laborer. You could argue that it's as little as $15,000 (what minimum wage earns you for a year's work) or as much as $48,000 (what a $20-an-hour skilled tradesman would earn for 300 days of work). Regardless, it's a lot. That's a lot of help for poor people. Imagine what an extra $20,000 would mean to the poorest family in your town. Wouldn't Jesus want to help them? Would he prefer that the cheap perfume be used on his feet so that the good stuff could be sold and the money spent to make a lasting difference in the lives of poor people? Didn't Jesus teach us to care for the poor?

Yes, he did. And that, I think, is the point of this passage. No, it's not a lesson upon which to build a theology of mission or a strategy for ending poverty. Jesus would surely be disappointed if we eliminated our outreach budgets and spent that money on incense. But this is a story that depends upon Jesus' genuine preference for the poor and, therefore, asks how much more valuable his sacrifice must be.

Jesus does care for the poor. He has a preference for them. The poor are the ones to whom and through whom the kingdom of God is revealed. That's a given. You can't read the gospel ("blessed are the poor..." and "sell all that you have and give it to the poor..." and "it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle...") and come to any other conclusion. Judas' question, therefore, is a good one. It's a reasonable one. And that forces us to wonder just how valuable the pre-burial ritual really is.

Often in the parables of Jesus, the implicit question is "How much more?" Occasionally--as in the story of the father who gives bread to his hungry children instead of a stone--it's explicit: how much more will your heavenly father give you good gifts? I think that's the attitude behind this story. We're supposed to be shocked that Jesus would say to Judas, "You'll always have the poor with you." Likewise, we're supposed to be shocked at how incomparably valuable the sacrifice of Jesus is.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Unrealized Gains are Realized Losses

I learned a long time ago not to obsess over investment returns. For starters, I don't have a lot in a portfolio to worry about. Also, since retirement is 30+ years away, I'm not too worried about whether I'm down 5% or up 5% at this point. I'm no finance guru, but I sense that someone with my horizon needs to worry less about today's returns and more about staying invested for the long term. Still, there's that fascinating feature on my online accounts that lets me see in an instant what my unrealized gains or losses are. Is this particular position up or down? If I sold that holding today, would I have made money or lost money? If I liquidated my whole account, would I owe money to the government in taxes, or would the IRS not even care? It's that unrealized gains or losses that allows an investor to see a snapshot of how things are going at a particular moment in time.

In Philippians 3:4b-14, we hear what the apostle Paul had to say about the unrealized losses he had accumulated in his life's account and why he went ahead and liquidated that account anyway:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. (3:4b-7)
This is Paul's Jewish CV. It's who he was and what he'd done as a faithful child of God. All the requirements of high-standing and the entire pedigree of an admirable Jew were his. He had done everything he was supposed to and then some. Imagine how anyone could describe himself as "blameless" under the law. Yet, for Paul, that is who he was--as accomplished as any religious figure of his day.

But then he met Christ, or, more specifically, Christ came to Paul on the road to Damascus. This interruption--both physical and spiritual--forced Paul to consider what had been accumulating in his life's account. He had worked tirelessly for God, and now God's son was breaking through to him and calling into question the value of that work. In fact, this change in perspective not only caused Paul to rethink his investment strategy but to count all that he had gained as loss. In an instant, the credits became debits. His life's work actually stood in the way. All that he had gained was to his own detriment. That's the power of Paul's conversion.

Paul didn't wake up one morning and think that something was missing. Paul didn't just decide to add Jesus to his life in order to find true fulfillment. His entire perspective changed. It reversed completely. Everything that had been stored up a gain was now considered a loss. Theologically speaking, his conversion to the gospel of grace hinged upon his recognition that any attempt to justify oneself before God is actually counterproductive. The harder he tried the farther he fell. Isn't that what the world needs to hear today?

I'm not preaching this week, and the story of Mary of Bethany and her costly Nard (John 12:1-8) is an attractive focus for the week before Palm Sunday, but I know what I need to hear. I need a preacher to remind me that all my efforts to be a good father, a good husband, a good clergyperson, a good preacher, a good pastor, a good Christian are all getting in the way. In this life, effort is a realized loss--always. It gets in the way. It is the chain that binds us to the law and from which grace seeks to set us free. Will we discover that our unrealized gains are actually realized losses before we even know it? Will the good news of Jesus set us free?

Believe in Forgiveness

March 6, 2016 – The Fourth Sunday in Lent
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
I don’t know about you, but I struggle to imagine a character less admirable than the prodigal son. That’s because I’m wired in the exact opposite way. I like following the rules. Before playing a board game, I make everyone sit down and listen as I read the rules out loud just so we can all be clear on how the game is supposed to be played. And I hate wasting money. If you come over to our house for a visit on a cold day, you should probably bring a sweater or maybe even a heavy coat. Why would we turn the heat up above 64 if you can stay perfectly warm sitting on the couch under a blanket while wearing a parka? And there is nothing in this world that I crave more than the approval of people in positions of authority over me. Whether it’s my boss or my teacher or my parents, I live to please them. The thought of letting down someone like that makes me break out in a cold sweat. But that’s just who I am. I’m an oldest child. I’m a type-A tight-wad. I still have the Student of the Month certificate I received in kindergarten. And that’s why I have little sympathy for the prodigal son.

“I’ll take my inheritance now, if you please,” the younger son said to his father. As the younger of two boys, the prodigal son would have stood to inherit one third of his father’s estate, but, since his father wasn’t dead yet, demanding his inheritance up front would have meant selling a third of his father’s land to another person who would take possession of it whenever his dad finally died. Imagine liquidating your relationship with your parents, cashing out on the family name when you were barely out of grade school. Then imagine taking all that you had and wasting it on alcohol and drugs and prostitutes, playing life hard and fast until it all ran out. And then what would you have to show for it? No money. No family. No friends. Just an empty wallet and an empty belly. Imagine how bad things must be if you were willing to eat the leftovers from the pig trough.

But then, in that place of complete emptiness, the tiniest ray of light and hope shone down upon the lost son. “My father is a good man,” he thought to himself. “I cannot be his son anymore, but maybe he will let me have a job on the farm. Then at least I will not starve to death.” It was a crazy idea. What sort of man would let someone spit in his face and then give him a job? Perhaps a loving man would. The only way the lost son could ever imagine getting a job from his father is because he knew that his father had the capacity for mercy. Even though by demanding his inheritance he had essentially wished that his father were already dead, the son still believed that his father would not let him starve to death. Indeed, it is only the father’s mercy that enabled the son to come to his senses and dream up the unlikely scenario in which he would receive a job back on the family farm. But, even then, he still underestimated his father’s love.

While he was still far off, the father saw his long-lost son and ran out to meet him. That suggests to me that the father had not given up hope either. Even years after his son had left, he was still looking down the road, hoping that his boy would come back. And, before the emaciated son could give his well-rehearsed speech about being “unworthy to be called your son,” the father wrapped his arms around him, sobbing and kissing him through tears. Finally, the son got the words out: “I have sinned against heaven and before you…” but the father wasn’t listening. He didn’t care. He only cared about one thing: the son whom he had lost had returned home. At last, his broken heart had been healed. Finally, everything was right. “Get a robe—the best one—and place it on my son,” the father ordered. “And put a ring on his finger. And get the fatted calf and kill it. Tonight we must celebrate because my son who was dead has come back to me. My son who was lost has been found.”

Even though I might not have a lot of sympathy for the prodigal son, I must admit that the father’s love warms even my heart. How could anyone not admire the forgiveness that the father bestows upon his son? How could anyone not feel a tug at the thought of a father weeping over the return of his lost boy? I don’t know. Maybe we should ask the older brother.

We call this parable the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but that doesn’t really do it justice, does it? If you think about it, this story is about a lot more than the younger brother. In his book Stories with Intent, theologian and author Klyne Snodgrass calls this passage “the Parable of the Loving Father and the Two Lost Sons,” and I like that much better because it lets us know that the father’s love is at the center of this story, and it also reminds us that both brothers are equally lost.

“What’s with the music and dancing?” the older brother asked when he had come in from working the fields on his father’s farm. Dutiful, honorable, hard-working, consistent, faithful. There’s not much we can say that’s bad about this older son—except, perhaps, unforgiving. This son had always done everything right. Not once had he let his father down. But his younger brother, who had brought a scandal upon his family and trashed his father’s good name and wasted everything that his father had worked so hard to get for him, this paragon of faithlessness and betrayal was being celebrated. “I’ll be damned if I’m going in,” the older son said to himself. “My brother doesn’t deserve this. I won’t honor his selfishness.”

And what does the loving father say to this angry son of his? “Please, my son, I’m begging you to come in and join us. Everything I have is yours. But your brother, who was dead, has come back to life. He was lost and has been found. We had to celebrate and rejoice.” For the merciful father, it wasn’t even a choice. He was compelled to celebrate because his nature is to love and to forgive. And now his older son’s hardened heart threatened to stand in the way of that. “I have forgiven your brother,” the father said to his dutiful son. “Can’t you understand that? Can’t you forgive him, too? I got my lost son back. Don’t let me lose the other one.”

What’s more difficult for you to believe: that God loves a sinner like you or that God loves all the other sinners—the prostitutes and tax collectors, the drug dealers and loan sharks, the wife abusers and pedophiles, the jihadi terrorists and mass murderers—just as much as he loves you? Don’t forget whom Jesus was speaking to when he told this parable of lostness. He wasn’t speaking to sinners like the prodigal son. He told this parable to the Pharisees and scribes who were grumbling because Jesus was having dinner with the notorious sinners of his day. This parable is directed at church-going, do-right older brothers like you and me. These words are a warning to us—that we must accept the wideness of God’s mercy or else we’ll find ourselves unable to hear the loving voice of our merciful father.
Whether you’re lost in the pigsty or lost in your judgmentalism, it is the father’s mercy that calls out to you. It is God’s love that makes forgiveness possible. Will you come to your senses? If you’re the prodigal son, will you take that first step back toward home, trusting that a merciful father is waiting to wrap his loving arms around you? If you’re the older brother, will you come into the forgiveness banquet that is being thrown for the long-lost sinner who has returned? Will you trust that God’s love for them is the same as it is for you? Whether it’s for you or for someone else, God is throwing a party, and you’re invited. Will you come? Will you believe that forgiveness is always possible?

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Nature of Repentance

This Sunday's gospel is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. (Actually, I don't like that title because it focuses on only a third of the story, but that's another post for another day.) Unlike some Sundays, when the gospel lesson is largely unfamiliar to the congregation, I feel an invitation to dive right into the theological depths of the passage. I don't need to spend any time trying to explain what Jesus was trying to say. We know what he was saying. We get that the younger son is shameful and that the father is unbelievably forgiving and that the older son has a hard time understanding that. So we can quickly move past all of that and ask the really tough questions like "Does God love axe murderers and terrorists the same whether they repent or not?" and "Is reconciliation a product of repentance, or does repentance only follow when reconciliation is already implied?" Yeah, it's a fun kind of Sunday.

Earlier this week, I focused in detail on the father's interactions with the older son. I looked at some of the language from their dialogue and noted how the father described the celebration thrown for the prodigal as necessary. Today, I want to switch back to earlier in the passage and look in detail at the younger son before, during, and after he is reconciled to his father.

Let's start with verse 17: "But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!" I love the image of coming to one's self. As if snapping out of a daze and in a moment assessing one's circumstance, one suddenly realizes exactly what's going on and asks, "What the hell happened?" I feel that. I identify with that. The son came to himself. Poor, starving, and feeding pigs the pods he would gladly have eaten, suddenly the son "came to himself." And who is "himself?" He is the (former) son of a farmer--a man with enough resources to employ him as a hired hand. Consider how much revelation is happening there.

The son first recognizes the ridiculousness of his circumstance. "Why am I here when I could be somewhere else?" He also remembers to whom he belongs--even if that relationship is over. "I have a father who has hired hands." And he also recognizes that things aren't the same. He knows that he cannot go back and resume the position of a son. He has asked for his inheritance and has exhausted it. He has no more legal claim of inheritance, nor does he have any claim to the relationship of father and son. Verses 18 and 19 complete the thought: "I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.'" All of that recognition in that epiphanic moment of trouble.

But what makes that possible? The return of the prodigal son is itself an act of repentance. Even before he reaches his father--before he utters even a word--the first footstep back toward home is an act of repentance. And what enables that first step? I find it remarkable that he would assume his father would hire him on as a farmhand. Considering the shame he has brought both on himself and on his family, I am amazed that he doesn't just allow himself to starve to death in a foreign land. What sort of father would even accept him back under those terms? Yet the promise of that acceptance--its own form of forgiveness--makes it possible for him to return. If he expected to be rejected by his father, he would not come. And so, in no small way, it is indeed the father's love and the son's confidence in that love that enable repentance in the first place. Of course, when the son arrives to make his humble confession, he is surprised to discover that his place in the family has been restored--not a product of his repentance but an expression of the father's love.

I'm looking forward to Sunday. I'm not looking forward to trying to pare down this sermon. The ideas I stuck in a box to germinate earlier this week have mushroomed and become too big for one sermon. It must be cut back, but that's the joy of a text like this.