Wednesday, April 27, 2016


I don't know the statistics, but I'd guess that almost everyone in this country has dealt with depression. Whether dealing with it firsthand or through a family member, friend, or colleague, depression affects or has affected everyone I know. Perhaps there's a pocket of joyful, chemically balanced people living in a enclave I haven't heard of (directions, please!), but everyone else has to face the reality of someone who just can't make him or herself better and doesn't even want to try.

Why don't you look for a job? Why don't you start exercising again? Why don't you stop drinking so much? Why don't you take a vacation? Why don't you go back to school? Why don't you go see a therapist? Why don't you talk about it?

Have you ever tried to encourage someone with depression? Have you ever wanted to pull your hair out because your clear, sensible, relatively easy advice repeatedly falls on deaf ears?

In Jerusalem, near the Sheep Gate, there was a pool. And legend had it that on occasion an angel would descend and stir up the water, giving it healing powers. Whoever entered the pool of water first when the water was agitated would be healed. Naturally, a collection of sick, lame, and otherwise infirm individuals gathered around the pool, lying and waiting for their chance.

John tells us that Jesus walked up to a man who had been lying there, waiting for thirty-eight years. (The numbers are symbolic, but suffice it to say that he'd been there for a long time.) Jesus looks at the man and says, "Do you want to be made well?" And the man answered, "Sir, I have no one to put me in the pool." And Jesus tore his hair out and said to the man, "Didn't you hear what I said? I asked if you wanted to be made well. You're just focused on your problems. Why don't you start looking for a solution? Why don't you do something about it?"

No, of course, Jesus didn't say that. He looked at the man and gave him the healing he needed but didn't even have the strength to ask for. "Stand up, take your mat, and walk." Sometimes we need the healing we can't ask for. Sometimes we need salvation when we can't even look for it.

I've written about this before, and I'm borrowing largely from Jeffrey John, who wrote The Meaning in the Miracles. In that book, he describes this encounter as one of Jesus meeting someone who suffers from depression or addiction or another imprisoning, volition-robbing condition. And the salvation Jesus offers, he notes, doesn't even depend on the man's ability or willingness to ask for it. Jesus just steps in and offers the man what he's been sick too long to see--salvation.

We are depressed. Some of us are depressed in a clinical, diagnosable way. But I mean spiritual depression. The human condition limits our ability even to ask for help. We're silently slipping under the surface of the water and don't even know to cry out for help until it's too late. Jesus tossing us a life preserver isn't good enough. We don't have the strength or wherewithal to grab it. We need someone to reach down and lift us up, and that is the story of Jesus. That is the incarnation. That is the God who comes among us and unites our brokenness to himself. That is the one who died and rose again so that all our effort and even our inability to exert any effort would be redeemed.

I know John 14 makes more sense this week, but this is our only chance in three years to preach on John 5:1-9. Don't miss it. The world needs to hear that we are being saved even from our helplessness.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Writing on the Wall

This post originally appeared in The View, the newsletter for St. John's, Decatur. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn more about St. John's, click here.

Earlier this month, I drove down to Montgomery for a wedding. I had been planning the trip for months, having reserved the whole day on my calendar for the festivities. A few days before the trip, however, I learned that a colleague had died and that his funeral would be at a church outside of Birmingham earlier that same day. A quick calculation confirmed that I could easily attend both, and I considered it a gift from God that I was able to.

I pulled off of the interstate at the exit where the first church was located, and I realized that I still had some time to kill, so I drove up to a gas station to use the restroom and buy a soda to go with the lunch that I had packed for myself. As I walked toward the men’s restroom, I passed by a young black man, who had finished a few seconds before I arrived. I closed the door and locked it behind me, grateful for the privacy of modern conveniences. Then, I saw it. Scratched into the wall by the commode were the words “I Hate Niggers.” (In writing this article, I choose not to abbreviate the racial slur because I do not want to sanitize something that I believe is a stain on our culture that we must confront in its totality.) Elsewhere on the wall were other smaller though no less significant proclamations of racism—repeated use of that word as well as swastikas and references to the KKK. Some were written with permanent black marker. Others were carved into the plastic or Formica surfaces. Some had been scratched out. A few counter-arguments about rednecks and trailer trash were offered. It was a stunning canvass of hate.

I was amazed. “This is the twenty-first century,” I said to myself. “What is going on here? Aren’t we past all of this?” Then I remembered the teenager who was exiting the restroom when I arrived. What did he think? What does it mean to see these symbols of hate carved freshly into the bathroom walls? What thoughts and emotions rise up in a young black man’s heart when he sees the vestiges of persecution, fear, torture, and death inscribed onto a modern day facility? For a man that young, Jim Crow would have been primarily a history passed down to him by his grandparents, but the hatred of that segregationist past is a life he still encounters today. Because of my race, I have the luxury and privilege of pretending that those words and symbols are legacies of a bygone era, but those bathroom walls remind me that, for many, those legacies are still real and active.

History shows us that these struggles are nothing new. In the first century, the apostle Paul urged the Christian community to move beyond racial prejudice and the division that it was creating in the church: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Paul likely borrowed those words from an early confessional statement associated with Christian baptism, using them to undergird his theological argument that, in Jesus, distinctions of ethnicity, class, and gender all fall away. His opponents believed that the way of Jesus was exclusively Jewish and that Gentile Christians must first convert to Judaism before becoming Jesus’ disciples, but Paul would have none of it. As he understood it, the way of Jesus Christ was threatened by those who saw meaning in those differences, and he wrote furiously against those who attempted to maintain any sort of ethnic segregation.

In the centuries since Paul wrote those words, we have lost sight of the necessity of racial equality in the kingdom of God. By the time the four gospel accounts were written, anti-Semitic sentiments, which had grown within the Christian community in the latter part of the first century, were enshrined as holy writ. Since then, theologians and churchmen like Martin Luther and George Whitefield—both heroes of the church—used the bible to justify segregation and slavery. “Sure,” we might say to ourselves, “those people and their ideologies are locked in the past—products of a time when religion reflected the society at large,” but what are we the church doing to ensure that the world looks more like the kingdom of God?

The persistence of racism in our society is a direct challenge to the authority of God and God’s reign on the earth. Whether we are carving the words into the bathroom stalls or shrugging our shoulders when we see them, we are perpetuating a culture where differences in race and class and gender are concrete. Those ‘isms cannot be present in the kingdom of God. They are the very powers of this world that stand in opposition to the way of Jesus. Thus, we are condemned by our silence. Even by doing nothing, we are standing in the way of God’s kingdom.

In Jesus Christ there is no longer black or white. In Jesus Christ there is no longer rich or poor. In Jesus Christ there is no longer male or female. Paul did not write those words to describe a kingdom that exists in the distant future—an eschatological place and time where there will be no such distinctions. Instead, he wrote of the present-day reign of Christ that has existed on earth since Jesus set us free from the bondage of sin. Whenever we are silent in the face of such racism, we refasten those chains onto ourselves as well as those who are the targets of our culture’s racism.
I am thankful that I rarely hear someone say the word “nigger” anymore. I would like to think that that points to an improvement in race relations since my childhood, but I suspect that is because such racist words and thoughts are now reserved for the privacy of a bathroom stall or a putting green or a dinner table—places and times where a member of the clergy is not present. But you don’t have to be a priest to stand up for God’s kingdom. Start with something as simple as telling your friends that you do not care for jokes like that. Consider asking those in your social circle whether by “those people” they mean “African Americans” or “Latinos” and then ask them what race has to do with whatever issue they are talking about. Stop pretending that everything is just fine simply because our country elected a black President or because our church elected a black Presiding Bishop. Pay attention to the writing on the bathroom walls. Acknowledge that this world is still a long way from the kingdom of God. Look for things you can do or say to bring all of us closer to God’s reign, and then do them and say them.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Gospel Logic

The collect for the Sixth Sunday of Easter portrays a logic unique to the gospel. It is an expression of how grace works. It defines that which makes Christianity distinct among religions and philosophies throughout human history. This is the preacher's chance to give the congregation a reason to go to church instead of the coffee shop, the yoga studio, the soccer field, the grocery store, the back yard, the golf course, or anywhere else people go on Sunday mornings. In fact, this is the only reason to bother going to church at all. We've got a week to look forward to preaching grace, and, for me, that starts with the collect.

Here's the prayer that the presider will use to collect all of the thoughts and prayers of the congregation this Sunday, but I wonder whether any of the clergy are paying careful enough attention to what it says:
O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Let's break that down into three counter-intuitive steps:
  • God gives good things to those who love him.
  • We ask God to give us love for him.
  • So that, having been given this love, we may receive those good things.
What's our part in all of that? Who's really doing all the work?

The first part makes sense in the human, worldly way of things. There is a being greater than I, and that being will reward those who love him/her/it. Our love of that entity is expressed in many ways: going to church, saying our prayers, being nice to strangers, trying to be a good parent, sending our mothers flowers on Mothers Day. We get that part. The world is built upon rewarding those who've earned it.

But then all the worldly logic unravels. "Pour into our hearts such love toward you." We know that love of God is the thing we must possess to receive those heavenly rewards, but, when it comes time to find them, we look not within ourselves for that crucial ingredient. We look to God. We ask him to give us that thing by which our worthiness is evaluated. God has prepared immeasurably good things for those who love him, so we ask God to make us love him. In effect, it explodes the logic of the first premise. It is, therefore, a confessional statement. We know that we must love you, and we know that that love cannot be found within us, so please pour it into our hearts!

The third part--a restatement of the first--is a completion of the deal. It's the collect's way of saying, "Yes, I know this sounds crazy; that's on purpose." Once we have received the love that you've given us, we will be able to love you enough to receive the gifts you promise to those who love you. Wait, what? Yes. Crazy.

God's rewards are granted not for something we've done but for something God himself has given us. Imagine the judge at the County Fair handing you the apple pie she baked and then telling you that you won. It's her pie. You didn't bake anything. But you still get the blue ribbon? In what bizzaro world does that happen?

In God's kingdom. In the gospel. In the universe-altering story of Jesus. We must love God, but we can't love God unless God gives us the love we're looking for. What is our role in the equation? Not much, really. And that's the good news of the gospel.

We Must Love One Another or Die

April 24, 2016 – The 5th Sunday of Easter
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
To start the sermon this morning, I’d like to play a little game of musical fill-in-the-blank. Help me out here, ok?

First one: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the bible ________________.” (tells me so)

Second one: “If you’re happy and you know it, _________________.” (clap your hands)

Last one—slightly harder: “And they’ll know we are Christians ______________.” (by our love)

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love. We know that song. We know that refrain. We might not know that Peter Scholtes wrote that song when he was serving as a parish priest on the southside of Chicago in the 1960s and needed a song to capture the spirit of the ecumenical and interracial work that he and his youth choir were a part of. And we might even forget that it is a response to John 13, when Jesus says to his disciples, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” But we remember those words: they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

But what are Christians known for today? Is it love? When the non-Christian world hears about us, thinks about us, sees us on television, and reads about us in the news, what do they see and hear and read? How are we known? Is it by our love, or are we known by something else? I don’t think it is love. I think that the Christian movement has lost its focus on love and on Jesus as the one who taught us to love. And, until we get it back, I think that the church will continue to slide off into cultural irrelevancy because love, after all, is what the world needs now.

There’s an organization called the Barna Group that for thirty years has been doing research on faith and culture and how the two intersect. Their website has hundreds of studies that they have done about religion and politics and evangelism, and there are two of those studies that really interest me. The first is about millennials and going to church, and the second is about what young non-Christians think about Christianity.

Millennials comprise that generation that became adults around or after the year 2000, which mean that they are the 25-35-year-olds that every church wants in its pews. Last year, the Barna Group did a survey of millennials and found that 30% believe that going to church isn’t at all important and another 30% believe that going to church is very important and that other 40% is somewhere in between. That’s not too surprising, but consider this. Of the 30% who don’t think church attendance is at all important, 39% say that it’s because they find God somewhere else. Even worse, 20% say that they don’t go to church because God is missing from churches altogether. Consider, on the other hand, that of those who think church attendance is very important 22% say that the reason they go to church is because the bible tells them that they should. No wonder the 20% of non-church-goers think that God is missing from churches—because 22% of those who do go think the best reason for going is because some ancient book says the should. Can’t we do better than that? Does it surprise you, then, that among all millennials—Christians and non-Christians—that, when presented with four different images depicting aspects of Christianity, a majority picked the two negative images—a finger being pointed at the viewer and a man with a bullhorn—than the two positive images—a man reaching out to help someone in need and a congregation in the middle of worship?[1]

Nine years ago, the Barna Group did a survey of 16-to-29-year-old non-Christians and found some startling perceptions of Christianity among them. Among the twelve most popular reported perceptions, nine were negative—87% said “judgmental,” 85% said “hypocritical,” 78% said “old-fashioned,” 75% said “too involved in politics.” Even among young Christians, “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “too political” were labels chosen by more than half of the respondents. Where is “loving” on that list? That was nine years ago, but has anything changed in the last decade?[2]

I am grateful to organizations like the Barna Group and the Pew Research Center for their work, which gives church leaders data to incorporate into their strategic planning, but do we really need a survey to tell us that the world thinks of Christians as a bunch of judgmental hypocrites? When news reports on Christianity are dominated by sex abuse scandals and televangelists lining their pockets and hateful demonstrators from Westboro Baptist Church and denominations fighting over human sexuality, are we surprised that the world wants to change the channel? That’s why Pope Francis is so popular: you don’t have to be Catholic to think mercy is a good idea; you don’t have to be a Christian to fall in love with radical forgiveness. If we want the world to be excited about what it is that we are doing, we need to remember how to love each other.

We must return to love. We must be about love. To borrow from W. H. Auden, who wrote on the occasion of the outbreak of WWII, “We must love one another or die.[3]” Jesus said to his followers, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” It sounds easy enough, but it’s deceptively difficult. By “love,” Jesus didn’t mean “get along with one another” or “enjoy one another’s company.” Jesus meant agape—true, total, selfless love. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another,” he said. Just as I have loved you? With a love that has no limit? With a love that is willing to die? That must be the love that we have for one another. How will the world know that we are Jesus’ disciples? When we love each other with the same selfless love that he has for the world.

Jesus didn’t come to earth to start an organization. What we do on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights isn’t what he had in mind. He came to earth to love and to teach us how to love. So put down right or wrong. Let go of winners and losers. You can’t argue someone into loving you, just like you can’t beat someone into heaven. Just love. If we are going to be true followers of Jesus, we must love each other just as he loves us. We must be known to the world by our love.

[1] “What Millennials Want When They Visit Church.” March 4, 2015. The Barna Group.
[2] “A New Generation Expressions Its Skepticism and Frustration with Christianity.” September 21, 2007. The Barna Group.
[3] “September 1, 1939.” W. H. Auden.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

People or Peoples?

These days, the bible seems to be the only place where the distinction between person/persons and people/peoples is maintained. Somehow, everywhere else in life, the plural of person has become people, but "people" is not merely more than one person. According to the online etymological dictionary, "people" comes from the Old French "peupel," which means "people, population, crowd; mankind, humanity." Sure, it's more than one person, but it's not just more that one person. It's a group--a defined, contained, understood group.

Today, we had a funeral at St. John's, and one of the lessons was Revelation 21:2-7--almost the same as Sunday's reading, which includes verses 1-6 instead. In my preparation for both sermons, I keep getting hung up on  a phrase in the NRSV translation of verse 3: "they will be his peoples." I note that the ESV, KJV, NIV, and RSV all use "people," but the ASV, NRSV, and CEB use "people." They will be his peoples. It sounds funny, doesn't it? But theologically it's powerful.

The reading from Acts 11 ends with the line, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life." That might not seem like much, but, as that reading makes clear, the expansion of salvation and new life to include the non-Jews was historic. This weekend, I have been invited to a Seder celebration--my first--and I am very much looking forward to it. I know a little of what to expect, but I do not know all of the traditions. I keep waiting for someone--the rabbi or my host--to ask me about my ability to satisfy the requirements of Exodus 12:48, but no one has. And, of course, I feel certain no one will. But this weekend's Seder and the scriptural requirement for circumcision remind me just how Jewish the message of salvation from Israel's God has always been.

But, it seems, not any more.

John of Patmos sees the new heaven coming down to earth. He sees that, on that great and glorious day, God himself will make his home among mortals. And which mortals? The peoples. Not the "people" of God but the "peoples" of God. By the time Revelation is written, that makes sense. By the end of the first century, the Jesus Movement has become as much a Gentile sect as a Jewish one. But, still, it is remarkable. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob shall live among the members of all the tribes of the earth.

I'm not a manuscript expert, but I can see from my Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament that both "people" and "peoples" have a long list of manuscripts associated with them. Still, I think the preacher has a choice, and, in light of Acts 11, I think "peoples" fits in perfectly. Let the awkward plural noun catch the congregation by surprise this week. Maybe they'll be listening. Even if you don't preach on it, it's worth hearing.

Funeral Sermon - Edith Haney

Burial of the Dead – Edith Weaver Haney
2 Corinthians 4:16-5:9; Revelation 21:2-7; John 5:24-27
21 April 2016
© 2016 Evan D. Garner

I met Edith in the hospital, and I said goodbye to Edith in the hospital. In fact, during the four and half years that I knew her, I saw her in the hospital more than anywhere else. And I think that suited both of us. She wasn’t able to go anywhere, so I had a captive audience. And, since she was the patient, I was willing to let her talk about whatever she wanted to, so she had a pretty captive audience, as well. And anyone who would sit and listen for half an hour as she showed pictures on her iPad of the ancestral research she had done was alright in her book—even if he was the preacher.

That doesn’t mean that I never saw Edith in church. I did—just not within these walls here. (And you’ll notice that, somewhat appropriately, her remains still aren’t in church today.) But I saw her pretty often working in the Flower Guild room. That’s where we saw her gifts come alive. Even, when she was having a hard time breathing and had no business walking up and down those steps, she was up here arranging flowers for the altar and for the church and for the God whom she loved. She had a gift, and she wanted to share it, and she did. And it will be missed. She didn’t really come to church on Sunday mornings very often—or ever, for that matter—but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t one of us—a part of this church family and a part of God’s kingdom. In fact, in many ways, I think she was the flag bearer for that kingdom, standing right out in front of everyone, reminding them what the kingdom of God is supposed to be.

In case you didn’t know Edith, she loved politics—and by “politics” I mean celebrating Democratic causes and trashing Republican ones. I consider it a treat to have known her—again, in the hospital—through two different presidential election cycles. When I went to visit, I could always tell if she had been doing well. If so, the channel was tuned to CNN because, as Edith would remind you, they didn’t carry MSNBC in the hospital. But, if she hadn’t been doing well, her family left the television on Fox News as a motivation for her to recover her strength enough to get up and change the channel. Even when she couldn’t really talk, her eyes would light up when I asked her about the election or other political issues she cared about. And, when she could, she would talk so much that she would wear herself out of breath because the oxygen was going into her nose, which she didn’t have time to breathe through while she was telling me about what the latest idiot in Washington had done. I regret that she didn’t live through this November’s election. Either way, no matter who wins, it would have been fun to watch her celebrate the victory she wanted or lambast the electorate for choosing the side she didn’t support.

But, for Edith, politics weren’t just about winning and losing. She was passionate about them because, for her, they were about justice and peace doing something right for all people. She cared about them because they make a difference in the lives of real people, and she believed with all her heart that all everyone should have a shot at a good life. Isn’t that the hope of the gospel, too? Although not particularly religious, Edith was committed to gospel principles like taking care of the least of these and lifting up the downtrodden and setting the oppressed free. She believed that society’s outcasts should have a seat at the table and that someone should speak up for them until they did. As Jesus said in the gospel reading from John, she heard that word from Jesus and believed that it was, indeed, God’s will for the world. She believed that all things would be made new, and she looked for that day when everything would at last be made right—when all tears would be wiped away and finally the world would be as it should. She believed that was possible, and, in her own way, she fought for it. And, to that end, she would argue with you about it until you just couldn’t stand it anymore.

We knew Edith and loved her, and we also knew that she wasn’t like anyone else. This was her home—Courtland and Decatur—and she was one of us, and she loved us, too, but at the same time, she didn’t really fit in here. She didn’t want to. Instead, she lived a life that was both fully here and that also belonged somewhere else. She lived with her feet and mind and voice right here, but her heart and her spirit seemed tied to another place—to a realm where all things are indeed made new. I don’t think she would have described that place as the kingdom of God, but that’s what I saw in her life and heard in her words. She brought all of us a little closer to it.

When Lynn and Jody and Kate met with me to choose the readings for Edith’s funeral, they all felt a connection with the lesson from 2 Corinthians: “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” Doesn’t that fit Edith Haney to a T? For years, her family and friends watched her body weakened by illness and struggle, but her spirit did not waver. She fought hard because she loved life and loved those with whom she shared it. She loved her husband and children and, especially, her grandson, Henry. They all might have had their own peculiar way of showing it, but they loved each other and filled each other’s lives with joy. Yet none of them expected this body and this life to be fulfilment of Edith’s hopes and dreams. This body, as St. Paul wrote, is an earthly tent—temporary. And Edith had that confidence that, although at home in this body, something better was awaiting her. And now, at last, she is gone from us and is finally at rest.
There is a deep sadness that we feel today because one we love so much is gone. There is no one like Edith. She could never be replaced, and she will always be missed. But we know that what is next for Edith and for all of us is that kingdom that she always looked for and fought for. In that place, there is no death, no poverty, no oppression, no war, no violence, and no hate. The life and death and resurrection of Jesus are a testament to that hope—that evil cannot win, that not even death can rob us of that hope. In her life, Edith taught us to hope for those things and to work for those things and even to fight for those things. She reminded us that this world isn’t the way it’s supposed to be and that there must be something better ahead of us. She reminded us of God’s kingdom, and now we wait until we will meet her there.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Other Commandment

On Sunday, the gospel lesson (John 13:31-35) recalls for us Jesus' new commandment: love one another. As Steve Pankey wrote Monday in a great piece that has me (again) rethinking my plan to preach on Acts 11, this is a wonderful lectionary opportunity--all the loving mandate of the Last Supper but without the gross foot-washing. Now, I'm looking forward to Sunday's gospel in a new way. But, before we get there, let's stop and think about another commandment Jesus gives right before that Last Supper speech.

In the daily Eucharistic lectionary for Eastertide, the gospel lesson for Wednesday in the fourth week of Easter is John 12:44-50. Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He has predicted his death by describing the necessity of the lifting up of the Son of Man. He has confronted the unbelief of the people, quoting Isaiah's "He has blinded their eyes" passage. And now, in this passage, Jesus is yelling at whoever will listen, "Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in the one who sent me." If you go back and read John 12, you can see that today's passage, which immediately precedes the Last Supper feet-washing scene, is an emotional mini-climax. Jesus has whipped himself up into his own frenzy. His time is short. His work is not finished. He's agitated and not afraid to show it.

At the end of chapter 12--again, right before the feet are washed--Jesus says, "...the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life." Jesus has a commandment to give. But it's not his. It's straight from the Father. And, despite what you may be thinking, he seems to say, the commandment itself is eternal life.

What does that even mean? The commandment is eternal life. Not "the commandment leads to eternal life." Not "the commandment is accompanied by eternal life." Not "the commandment is the product of eternal life." The commandment itself is eternal life. How are we to make sense of that?

I hate to do it, but I'm turning to the Greek (long sigh). The Greek word for "commandment" is "ἐντολή." It means "commandment" or "ordinance" or "injunction." In the New Testament (written in Greek), it is used for "law." So when Jesus tells us that he has a commandment from the Father, it's not unfair for us to picture a new Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai with a new, albeit shorter tablet in his hand. This is the Commandment (capital-C) from on high. But what is a commandment? As Strong's Concordance shows, the Greek word "ἐντολή" is derived from "ἐν" + "τέλος" which in English is like "in" + a word that means "purposeful end." The word τέλος is used to describe the ultimate direction for life. Our τέλος is our ultimate purpose. It is where our lives trajectory is pointing. The Greek behind the word for "commandment" points us toward our real, true fulfillment. A commandment is that which is rooted in our ultimate trajectory. Starting to make sense?

When God issues a commandment, it isn't simply an "do this or else." It is an instruction--in the teaching sense of the word. It is a direction--in the pointing sense of the word. With all apologies to those who want to look at "commandment" and emphasize the Latin root of "mandare," I think the real theology of this moment is in "ἐντολή" and its teleological foundation. How is the commandment eternal life? Because that is both our ultimate trajectory and end and also the means by which we get there.

Jesus is showing us what the Father's will is and, by delivering an ἐντολή, is directing us to the fulfillment of that end. Whether you're preaching today on John 12 or preaching on Sunday on John 13, keep in mind the etymology of commandment and remind the congregation why the commandment isn't just a step in the right direction but the direction itself.

Who's Counting?

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

A few months ago, I had my annual physical. As a child, I feared getting a shot. Now, as an adult, I fear the wrath of my physician, whose job it is to chastise me about my weight, my cholesterol, my blood pressure, or my something. After a short wait, I was called back by the nurse, and she asked me to stand on the dreaded scale. Hoping to shave off every possible ounce, I took off my shoes and removed my cell phone and keys from my pockets. When I stepped on the scale, however, my heart sank. The digital display bore devastating news. I knew that I had gained some weight, but I had no idea how much it was. The number I was given was terrifying. “How could it be that bad?” I asked myself. “How could I have taken such poor care of myself?”

That morning, I was the doctor’s second appointment, but the nurse told me that he had been delayed at the hospital and could be a while. For thirty minutes, I sat in the examining room, pondering the significance of that terrible number. I had never been on a diet in my life. A few times, I had decided to cut back a little bit or exercise a little bit more because my clothes had gotten too snug, but, for the first time, I was seriously considering some major changes in my life. Everything was on the table. While I waited, I had time to call Elizabeth and share the bad news with her. “I have to do something,” I told her. “This is terrible.” I hung up and had more time to sit and think. This surprise had really shaken me. I was forlorn.

Eventually, I heard the doctor come into the office and enter the patient’s room adjacent to mine. I heard a muffled exchange that went on for a while. I rehearsed in my head the conversation that I knew would take place when it was my turn. Then, I heard the doctor and the patient come out of the room and say something to each other in the hall—something about needing to try that again. “Hmmm,” I heard the physician say, “that can’t be right.” A few minutes later, the doctor came into my room and told me that the scale had malfunctioned and may have given me an incorrect reading. He asked me to weigh myself again, and this time I weighed thirty pounds less. Thirty pounds! In the span of half an hour, I had gained and lost thirty pounds, and, in the intervening time, I had agonized over every ounce.

When the doctor told me that I had actually gained two pounds since my last appointment, I brushed them aside as if they were nothing. “Yeah,” I said, “but what’s two pounds when you’ve been sweating over thirty?” Even though it was unintentional, the doctor had accomplished a considerable feat. By effectively lying to me about my weight, he had scared me into considering seriously what I could do to take better care of myself. Although two pounds did not have much of an effect on me, the thought of gaining thirty pounds really did. “If you want to get through to your patients,” I told him, “you should make them think that they have gained thirty pounds and then leave them alone in a room for half an hour.” It worked for me. Even though it was an illusion, I am still haunted by that moment.

What is the church’s equivalent of an annual physical? How do you measure your spiritual health? How do you know whether you are taking good care of your spiritual life or letting it go to pot? Do you tally the number of times you come to church? Do you count the hours you spend each month in prayer? When you keep track of the money that you give to charity, do you do so only for tax purposes or do you also think of it as a measure of your spirituality? Are there other ways that you attempt to quantify your relationship with God and your participation in the life of the Christian community? Do you really know how things are going? As a church, we keep those numbers for the aggregate congregation, but it is up to you to keep them for yourself.

Sometimes life catches us with us in a big way, and we find ourselves confronted by the reality that we do not possess the spiritual wherewithal we need to make it through a crisis. A parent dies. A job is lost. A diagnosis is received. Circumstances beyond our control have the power to bring us to our knees. What will we do? How will we make it? Why is this so hard? Why didn’t we take care of ourselves when things were going well?

A spiritual checkup can do us a lot of good. Imagine how your life might change if you came face to face with the reality of your spiritual health. What impact would a moment worthy of Ebenezer Scrooge’s dreams have on your relationship with God? Might a careful, thoughtful, and honest analysis of your spiritual life give you a fresh start? Could it help you regain the capacity to weather whatever squalls wait for you down the road?
Take thirty minutes of quiet to think about your relationship with God. Write down all the ways that you nourish your faith. Look back at your calendar and see how you have been spending your time. Flip through your checkbook register or browse your online bank account and take stock of the priorities in your life. My experience has taught me that guilt won’t work. A doctor yelling at you about your weight won’t help you lose a pound, and a clergyperson shaking his finger at you won’t help you make God a priority in your life. But an eye-opening encounter with yourself has the power to change everything. What does your relationship with God look like? What do you want from that relationship? The first step to a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God is as easy as asking those questions and answering them honestly.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Wrong Side of History

Should we pull the statues of slave owners and segregationists and colonial oppressors down from their lofty perches on buildings that were erected in their honor centuries ago? Should we rename the bridge in Selma, Alabama, where civil rights demonstrators were attacked by state troopers, because its namesake, Edmund Pettus, was a noted Confederate general, senator, and Ku Klux Klansman? Is the best way to rewrite the history books to expunge the record of these once-honored, now-denigrated figures, or should we allow the dissonant histories--then and now--to stand alongside each other and point out the conflict so that we might learn from it? Can we point to those historical markers without praising the men whom they once lauded? I think we can. I think we must.

On Sunday in Acts 11:1-18, we will encounter Peter's report to the Jerusalem authorities that the Holy Spirit had fallen upon uncircumcised Gentiles. The "Circumcision Party," objected to Peter's fraternization of these outsiders, arguing the conservative position that the Way of Jesus was a distinctly Jewish movement and necessitated a clear Jewish identity. That made sense. Jesus was Jewish. His messianic identity could only be understood in its Jewish prophetic context. To preach the good news of Jesus in a Greek, Gentile, thoroughly non-Jewish arena was to miss the whole point of his life, death, and resurrection. Even today, two thousand years later, pastors, preachers, and theologians strive to recapture Jesus' Jewish identity so that the faith of his followers might be deepened. But, in Jesus, God was--and still is--doing something quite unexpected.

Peter didn't see it coming. As his report in Jerusalem made clear, three times he declined the invitation to eat the non-kosher foods presented to him in his heavenly vision. Three times God tapped him on the shoulder--knocked him on the head--to help him see that something new was taking place. The God-coordinated coincidence of Cornelius' inquiry and Peter's vision was confirmed by the Holy Spirit's unexpected, unrequested descent upon the uncircumcised Gentile believers in the centurion's house. At the end of his argument, Peter states the irrefutable truth: "If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" We read that "they were silenced." And, after a epiphanic pause, "they praised God, saying, 'Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.'"

We're now two thousand years down the road. The "Circumcision Party" doesn't exist anymore. There are still some isolated manifestations of this same argument (e.g. Seventh Day Adventists preserving the Sabbath vs. everyone else celebrating the Lord's Day on Sunday), but we've pretty much moved on from the "must one be observantly Jewish before becoming Christian" question. But I think we've distanced ourselves so completely from that moment in Jerusalem that we've forgotten what it means for God to do in an instant a reversal that radical, that unexpected, and that dramatic.

If you are a follower of Jesus, your faith is a product of that moment. Although our religion has its Jewish roots, we are no longer a branch of Judaism, and we haven't been since that day in Cornelius' house. Although Peter still needed to make the argument, and the Jerusalem Council still needed to accept it, and it took Paul a long time to get word of that sea change to the missionary church (read Galatians), when God revealed so resolutely what he was doing, who, indeed, could hinder God?

We forget that it didn't take a committee to make this happen. In the institutional, bureaucratic church, we forget that God doesn't wait for a resolution to pass before revealing what he's doing. We've forgotten it, and our historical ignorance is dangerous. "We've never done it that way," is the universal slogan of conservatism. But,  in Jesus, God has been shattering expectations--of the scribes and Pharisees, of the Roman Empire, of the Circumcision Party, and of the church and its leaders--for thousands of years. Who would hinder God? Have we grown so accustomed to the way we operate as the church that we are unwilling or unable to see that God might do something completely new? Why would we be surprised by that? Why would we be threatened by that? Remember our history as Christians, or else we'll find ourselves on the wrong side of what God is doing in the world.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Father and I Are One

In the last line of Sunday's gospel lesson (John 10:22-30), Jesus said to the religious people of his day, "The Father and I are one." This is a conclusion not only for the lesson but also his argument. The Jews, by which John seems to mean the religious authorities, came to Jesus asking whether he was, indeed, the Messiah. "How long will you keep us in suspense?" they asked. "If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." And Jesus replied, "But I have told you, and you do not believe." Before they had a chance to respond, Jesus continued, explaining that only the sheep of his flock hear and understand his voice. But (and here's the kicker), Jesus also told them that there was nothing they could do about it: "I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand."

Of course, that statement in part means that not even death--Jesus' or theirs--will be able to separate Jesus from his followers. But, in the words that follow, I think John layered on another meaning. In some enigmatic words that are easy for the preacher to skip on "Good Shepherd Sunday," Jesus declared, "What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one." What has the Father given him? What is this thing that no one can snatch out of the Father's hand? And how is this assertion that Jesus and the Father are one reflective of that?

The Jews asked Jesus if he is the Messiah, and along with that question they brought all of the cultural, religious, historical expectation that the designation "Messiah" contained. But Jesus represents something that none of those expectations could anticipate. He is Emmanuel, God with us. He isn't just anointed by God to bring victory to God's oppressed people as anointed ones have done in the past. He is God with us. That's the sort of designation that goes beyond messiahship. It's not the sort of designation that is bestowed upon a prophet when his words ring true. Nor is it the title we ascribe to the king when he sits upon the throne. Jesus God-connected identity isn't subject to the eyes of the beholders. He and the Father are one--inseparably, undeniably one. No matter what happens--betrayal, arrest, cross, death--nothing can take away Jesus' messianic-and-more identity as God with us.

Notice what happens in the next verse: "The Jews picked up stones again to stone him." In response to their death threat, Jesus asked, "I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?" In those words, he puts the expectations of works back on the authorities who would kill him. Their response, "It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God," is John's way of playing the story back at them. Remember, in John's gospel account, signs point to a deeper truth. This is the Jews acknowledging that to which the signs point but rejecting explicitly their implied conclusion.

It turns out that John 10 is about a lot more than messianic expectation. The "shepherd of God's people" sounds a lot like David--the anointed, messianic leader from Israel's past. But John wants us to know this is different. No matter what the people are hoping for, Jesus is not just another messianic leader like David. He and the Father are one. His messiahship transcends the expectations of his day. Might the preacher ask the congregation what sort of shepherd they are following--one who points them to God or one who is God himself?

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Great Ordeal

Do you remember that scene in West Wing when President Bartlett is debating with Vice-President Hoynes about the issue of gun control? Hoynes is from Texas, and he points out to his boss the political reality behind limits on gun control, citing the Second Amendment. Then Bartlett, prone to frustration over ideological claims he does not like, barks, "We can't just all agree that it's a stupid-ass amendment?" Sometimes, when someone asks me about the Book of Revelation and a strange, apocalyptic teaching that it presents, I want to channel my inner Bartlett and let that person know how silly it sounds to use a highly symbolic, second-century text to predict the future. But you know what? Then we get to passages like Revelation 7:9-17 and I think, "Yeah, this kind of hope is why this book stayed in the bible."

On Sunday we will hear the angel ask John about the "great multitude that no one could count" who had gathered in white robes and with palm branches in their hand. "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" the angel asks. John of Patmos replies, "Sir, you are the one who knows." And then we learn that they are the ones who had come through the "great ordeal," having "washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." And I hear that description about the multitude too large to be counted having passed through the great ordeal and, because of Jesus' blood, have come through with white robes, and I think, "You know what? That's hope."

The Contemporary English Version translates it as "the great suffering." The English Standard Version chooses "the great tribulation." The King James Version omits the article and calls it "great tribulation," which almost makes it feel more like a proper-noun-worthy event: "Great Tribulation." All of them suggest that this is one specific suffering, ordeal, tribulation. The Greek word is "thilpseos," which means literally a "constriction" and is usually rendered "affliction." According to Strong, it is "a narrow place that hems someone in," which gives a beautifully simple physical description of this strange metaphorical event. Having come through this bottle-neck of life, they are made pure and spotless and bright.

I don't know what your great ordeal is. I don't even know what mine is. Maybe we all share the same one. I'm pretty sure that the author of Revelation had the persecutions of the first and second centuries in mind. What is our "narrow place" that rubs us, threatens us, constricts us from entering the kingdom? What is the spot in our life that makes us wonder if we will make it through? Peer through that little opening and see that on the other side is a great multitude which no one can count--all dressed in white. This is a story of hope. Don't worry about the details. Just focus on the hope.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Pointing to Jesus

In Acts 9:36-43, we read again how the power that Jesus had has been imparted to the disciples. In Acts we've already read about the lame and sick and demon-possessed being healed by the disciples. They're doing amazing things. But in this story we read about Peter raising Tabitha from the dead. This passage is very similar to the one about Jesus raising Jairus' daughter in Luke 8:40-56. In that encounter, Jesus allows only a few to accompany him into the room where the dead girl lay. He takes her by the hand, speaks to her, tells her to arise, and she gets up at once. The parallels with Tabitha's awakening from death are clear and intentional. This story is as much about saying that Peter and the apostles have the same power as Jesus as it is about the healing itself. And that's why it's so unbelievable.

I don't have a problem believing that Peter could raise the dead. That's remarkable, yes, but I don't doubt that part of the story. The part that I have trouble with is the fact that, in response to Peter's resuscitation of Tabitha, the people believe in Jesus--not Peter.

Preachers know that awkward encounter on the steps leading out of church when a parishioner comments on how wonderful a sermon was and it's her or his job to deflect the compliment and point people back to Jesus. "That's the Holy Spirit at work," I often say. Or I might remark, "Well, I could never have known how much that would mean to you. I'm glad the Spirit is speaking through me." The occasion calls for humility--sometimes genuine, sometimes manufactured--even though the performance might have been really special. Imagine, then, if the minister in your church wasn't just preaching a sermon but healing the sick, casting out demons, even raising the dead. How in the world would you remember to keep focused on Jesus? How would your minister remember that, too?

The more amazing the preacher, the harder that person must work to point people to Jesus. How did Peter do it? How did a man who raised a dead woman and gave her back to a grief-stricken crowd manage to use that feat to point people to a power greater than he? How does anyone give his or her heart and soul and strength to the amazing work of the gospel yet at the same time get out of the way so that people can see where the real power is?

Don't let this story be read in isolation. Go back and read the rest of Acts 1-9, and I think you see where the answer is. Peter was a miracle worker, but he was also part of an intentional community. He practiced a faith of submission. All possessions were held in common. The people were united in prayer and worship. The Holy Spirit was moving through all of the disciples in an amazing way. Peter wasn't just a travelling resurrectionist. He was deeply rooted in a life that pointed people to Jesus. The miracles weren't the exception--they pointed to a rule of life that was based on Jesus.

As a clergyperson, I must remember that my whole life should be grounded in the gospel community. A life of prayer, study, fellowship, stewardship, sacrifice--all of these should be hallmarks of my life. Then, my preaching and teaching and pastoral care all point to something bigger than me. If I'm getting compliments that I'm having difficulty receiving with grace, it's a sign that I'm not as well rooted in the Christian life as I need to be. As remarkable as the miracle was, Peter didn't have trouble pointing people to Jesus because that was just one more chapter in his life of faith. Might we say the same about the best sermon we'll ever preach--just one more day in a life grounded in the gospel?

Monday, April 11, 2016

Not What but Who

This is going to be a "catch-as-catch-can" week since I'm headed down to L.A. for a conference through Wednesday. I'm preaching at our parish retreat this Sunday, which means that sermon prep will look a little different, too. A first look at the lessons for 4 Easter--also known as "Good Shepherd Sunday"--brings to my mind questions of evangelism. How is it that we are inviting the world to know Jesus as the Son of God whose death and resurrection bring hope and life and redemption to those who believe in him?

Easter is a season of discovery. Not unlike the season after Epiphany, when many of the lessons focus on Jesus' miracles, this is a time for the followers of Jesus to learn who he really is. I continue to maintain that the resurrection itself was the first clear and lasting sign of Jesus' true identity that the disciples received. Otherwise, they would have been waiting at the tomb for the resurrection on the third day--a miracle that caught everyone by surprise. Only in the light of the resurrection do all of the other teachings and miracles make sense.

This Sunday, we read in John 10:22-30 about those who asked Jesus, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." Since we're jumping back to the pre-crucifixion, pre-resurrection part of the gospel story, it may seem like this is a non-Easter encounter, but I assure you that Easter is at the center of this exchange. The religious people of his day want a plain answer, but, as Jesus explains, even a clear and plain answer will not help them. "I have told you, and you do not believe," Jesus says. "The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice."

There is a real sense that, no matter what words Jesus uses to identify himself, those who do not belong to him cannot understand. His sheep, on the other hand, hear his voice. They know his voice. They recognize what is being said--even if they do not understand the words--because the know the one who is speaking. As evangelists--and, yes, we are all evangelists--we must remember to set aside our words about Jesus and let Jesus speak his own words through us.

You cannot explain Jesus to someone who does not know him. You cannot argue Christianity to one who is not seeking Jesus. Instead, Jesus must call them. Our job isn't to save anyone. Only Jesus saves. Our job is to bring people to the feet of Jesus--through our words, our relationships, our actions, our communities--so that they can hear his voice. We might be the ones who are talking, but the voice must belong to the Shepherd.

Effort Repels Unconditional Love

April 10, 2016 – The 3rd Sunday of Easter
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
It’s the guy who offers to help when your arms are full but causes you to spill your groceries in the parking lot as he tries to take them out of your hands. It’s the husband who puts the butter back into the fridge because he didn’t know you had put it on the counter to soften it before making a cake. It’s the mother who instinctively licks her thumb before wiping the smudge off her thirteen-year-old son’s cheek while his friends watch and laugh. It’s the lean-in for a kiss when the woman you’re with just wants to be friends.

Have you ever known someone whose intentions were good but who ended up being as wrong as wrong can be? Has that ever been you? What do you do when you realize that everything you’ve done has actually made things worse? How do you handle that moment when you see for the first time that all of your parenting instincts have made your child as neurotic as you? What do you do when you come face to face with the fact that, despite working for everything that is good and right in this world, the real villain in the story is you?

For Saul, that fateful moment on the road to Damascus wasn’t just an epiphany that signaled a career change or a dramatic religious conversion. It was a total and complete repudiation of everything he thought had been God’s will for his life and for the world. Jesus didn’t show up to invite him into a new faith and a new life. This was God knocking him down and making him blind so that Saul could finally see that every instinct he had was in direct opposition to who God is and what God is doing in the world.

As you might recall, Luke is the author of the Book of Acts, which we read throughout the Easter season. And I love how he tells this story of blindness and sight. In the bible, stories of blindness are never just about physical sightlessness. They’re about a spiritual failure, too. “Though his eyes were open,” Luke writes, “he could see nothing.” Remember how the prophet Jeremiah described the “foolish and senseless” people of God as those “who have eyes but do not see?” Similarly, Luke wants us to know that even though Saul may have lost his sight in that blinding flash of light, he had been walking around for a long time with spiritual eyes that could not see the truth. And how things had caught up with him! Now, instead of leading the murderous cause against the followers of Jesus, Saul was “led by the hand and brought into Damascus.” Once powerful, he was now helpless. Once a champion for religious purity, he now couldn’t even take care of himself.

We get further insight into what sort of blindness this was when we read about Saul’s response to his affliction. As a treatment, he chose a fast—no food or drink for three days—because he knew that this was the sort of spiritual malady that a doctor could not cure. In response to his blindness, Saul chose an act repentance, and remember that repentance is literally a turning around—a change of direction, a reversal of course. When Jesus met Saul on the Damascene road, he stopped him in his tracks. His deep-seated blindness had finally broken through. He could go no further. He had to start from scratch. He had to find a new path.

Enter Ananias, the faithful though timid disciple of Jesus, to whom the Lord appeared in a vision. “Get up and go to the street called Straight,” the Lord told him, “and…look for a man of Tarsus named Saul.” But Ananias was familiar with that name, and the sound of it filled him with fear. “Lord, I have heard from many about this man,” he said, “how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.” But God wasn’t worried about that. He told Ananias to go anyway and lay hands on this murderous zealot because God had decided to use Saul’s passion for the faith to bring God’s name to Gentiles and kings. And the most remarkable part of it is that Ananias did what God told him to do. His every instinct had told him that Saul was an irreversible, ironclad enemy of the Way. But, when God appeared to him in a vision, Ananias could see what God was doing—enough to believe that God could do what no one would expect and turn the life of the arch-persecutor of the church completely around.

“Brother Saul,” Ananias said as he laid hands on him, “the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Notice that the offer of physical healing was inseparable from the promise of spiritual awakening. And, as he prayed, “immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and his sight was restored.” Something had occluded his vision—a reptilian-like covering that had blocked his sight. Now that it was gone, the transformation was as complete as it was instantaneous. Luke tells us that “he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.” Remaining with the disciples in Damascus, Saul “immediately…began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’” This man who was determined to destroy the name of Jesus as a threat to the way of Israel’s God was now hailing the same Jesus as the Son of God who had come to save the world. Could there be an about-face more dramatic than that?

Don’t lose sight of how Saul found himself in that predicament in the first place. Of what was he guilty except loving God too much? What was his sin except working too hard to protect the faith that he held dear? For his whole life, Saul had been faithful. He had said his prayers. He had gone to synagogue. He had worshipped in the temple. As a Pharisee, he had kept not only the law but also all of the extra traditions of his faith. His persecution of the church was a direct outgrowth of his faith in God—the same God who was and is the Father of Jesus the Christ. How could this be? How could someone who loved God as much as Saul find himself not only failing to see what God was doing but actively, determinedly, and zealously fighting against it?

How? Because, as is so true when human beings try too hard to do what they think is right, Saul was blinded by his own efforts. The efforts themselves were what had gotten in the way. Jesus had taught that a right relationship with God was defined not by how holy someone’s life was but by how God’s love could make even a sinner holy in God’s sight. Jesus taught that holiness came from God, not from a life well-lived. And nothing could be further from the faith that Saul had practiced his whole life. Nothing could be more threatening to the faith Saul had inherited from his ancestors. Whatever it took, he was determined to destroy this ungodly sect, and it took a blinding encounter with the risen Lord to help Saul see that his own best intentions had led him to miss the truth completely.

How often do our own best efforts get in the way of what God is doing in our lives and in the world? In fact, it is our very best intentions that push the truth of God’s unearned, unmerited, undeserved love further and further away. Human instinct casts God as a parent whom we would please, a teacher whom we would impress, a deity whom we would endear to us with our very best. That is the reptilian blindness that is indicative of the human condition. We believe our efforts are good. We believe that we are judged on what we do and how hard we try, but the harder we try to do good the harder it is for us to believe that God loves us no matter what. Saul had given his whole life to doing what he knew that God would want him to do, but, until Jesus showed up and stopped him in his tracks, he was blind to the fact that he was doing the exact opposite of God’s will.

The death of Jesus shows us what happens when human beings believe that God can’t get it right without our help. Our instincts are flawed. Our eyes, though open, are blind. But the resurrection of Jesus shows us that God won’t let our misguided intentions stand in the way of what he is doing in the world. Let the light of Easter blind you. Be filled with the Holy Spirit and let the scales fall from your eyes. Admit to God that your plan for your life and the world—no matter how well-intentioned—isn’t as good as the grace-filled plan God has in mind. Surrender to the truth of the resurrection— that God’s love for the world isn’t a reflection of our efforts or intentions but is given to us despite them.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Hearing is Believing

Every Tuesday morning, we read the gospel lesson aloud in staff meeting. Each of us takes a sentence, and, one at a time, we go around the table until the whole lesson has been read. By 9:15am on Tuesday, I've usually had a few opportunities to read and think and write about the lesson, but almost always there's a new insight that pops up as I hear my colleagues read the words.

This week, the lesson is John 21:1-19, and, when we read it, I put a little box around the word "heard" in verse 7. Peter decided to go fishing, and six other disciples joined him in the boat. Jesus appeared and asked them about their fruitless catch, but, as John wrote, "the disciples did not know that it was Jesus." Then, in a testament to his identity, Jesus invited them to cast their net on the right side of the boat, and the net became full of fish. At this moment, "that disciple whom Jesus loved" recognized what was happening and who it was. For Peter, though, the light hadn't gone off yet. The Beloved Disciple then said to his companion, "It is the Lord!" and the gospel account recalls the remarkable and confusing moment of Peter's epiphany: "When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea."

Sure, it seems strange to us that Peter would have been fishing naked. The Greek word is "gumnos," which can be translated as "naked" but, according to Strong's Concordance, rarely means "stark-naked" and more often means "wearing only the under-garment." So, Peter was probably fishing in his underwear. But why does he put on some clothes to jump into the sea? I think it's because, upon recognizing that it was the Lord calling to him, he wanted to be presentable--even if he was soaked--and the getting dressed and jumping into the water is a recognition of that paradoxical sense of "I want to honor this encounter with proper preparation but don't want wait any longer than I have to so I'm jumping into the water now." Bottom line: Peter understood the fullness of who it was standing there on the beach.

But he had to hear it first.

The Beloved Disciple saw and understood. Peter needed to be told. Sometimes the Lord is standing right in front of us, inviting us into a miracle, and we still don't understand. Sometimes our grief and guilt get in the way. Sometimes we're distracted by expectations or misunderstandings. Sometimes we need a little nudge. But, when it comes, watch out! We're jumping in.

Listen to the story--God's story, your story. Listen to the words of the gospel. Listen to the Beloved Disciple. Listen to Peter. Hear and believe what your eyes may not be able to see.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Saul's Blindness without a Baptism?

Despite the impressions of some in the congregation, I am sensitive to how long a service lasts. We do a lot in worship at St. John's. For starters, we sing a lot. We sing opening, closing, and sequence hymns PLUS a hymn of praise, a presentation hymn, two Communion hymns, a sanctus, and a fraction anthem. Also, the choir sings an offertory anthem. What can I say? We like to sing. But that takes time. Like most Episcopal Churches, we read all three lessons plus the psalm. Seth and I preach relatively short sermons--between 10 and 14 minutes--which might feel like an eternity but, I promise, isn't really that long. And, of course, we celebrate Communion and then distribute it, which takes some time. Sometimes we get bogged down in announcements. We also say birthday and anniversary prayers every week, and that can add 5 minutes to the service. By the time we're finished with a typical service, it's an hour and 15 minutes. And that's pushing though pretty quickly--no silence after the lessons or sermon, no lengthy pause before confession, and a worship leader who talks as fast as I do. Yeah, pushing it.

I'm sensitive to the length of the service. I hear complaints--usually not helpful or constructive ones that are based in exaggeration. "You know, there are lots of people who think the service is too long," someone will say at a dinner party. Although I want to say, "Great! This is exactly what I want to be talking about on an evening when I'm actually out with my spouse and paying a babysitter a gagillion dollars to watch my kids." Instead, I end up saying something like, "I'm sorry to hear that. Who are they? I'd love to call them and talk about what we might do to fix it." I never get their names. Still, I'm conscious that the service takes a long time. Granted, Jesus is probably worth 90 minutes of our time every week, but I might be biased about that. Nevertheless, I'm always looking for ways to trim the length of the service--even by as little as 90 seconds.

But, when I see the option of cutting short the lesson from Acts 9 this Sunday, I want to pull my hair out and scream, "Cut it short?? Did you read the lesson? Just leave the whole damn thing out, then!" On Sunday, the RCL gives us the option of reading Acts 9:1-6 or Acts 9:1-20. Take a moment and read where the lesson ends if you cut it short:
Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do."
That's it. That's the whole lesson. Saul is interrupted in his murderous threats. Jesus stops him in his tracks and strikes him blind. And then he tells him to go and wait for further instruction. Really?!? That's it? No scales falling from his eyes. No Ananias being told to go and lay hands on him. No baptism. No confession, "Jesus is the Son of God?" None of that? Why bother?

The story of Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus is, perhaps, the greatest reversal in the New Testament except for the resurrection itself. And the RCL even considers the option of leaving it short? There is no option. Although it does a better job, the BCP lectionary also stopped a little short, cutting it after verse 19a. We must hear the full conversion. I'm all for the drama created by literary uncertainty, but not when it comes to this. Maybe I'm wrong, but I hope time-sensitive ministers like me are willing to sacrifice 120 seconds to hear the whole story. Even if you don't preach on it--I am--let the people hear it. It's too important to miss.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

He Is Not Here

This post is also the cover article for our parish newsletter. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn more about what's happening at St. John's, Decatur, please click here.

Several winters ago, Elizabeth and I went on a trip with some friends from seminary. Although we were on vacation, the conversation inevitably turned to religion, and one afternoon we were drawn into a friendly argument about things that no one can prove. I enjoy overstating things to provoke a reaction, and, at one point in the conversation, I asked, “So, if the body of Jesus were somehow proved still to be on earth, would you give up on Christianity altogether?” We had been discussing the importance of the literal resurrection. I believe that the tomb is empty, and my friends do, too, but there seemed to be a disagreement between us on whether someone could call himself a Christian if he refused to believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus. I asked my question as a way of throwing out a philosophical limit that I felt that no one would cross, but I failed to anticipate how quickly and resolutely my friends would react. All of them, without hesitation or equivocation, said that if the body of Jesus were found here on earth they would stop being Christians.

I was floored—not because of their firm belief in the literal miracle of Easter but because of their uncompromising, unwavering, inflexible insistence that everyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus must agree with them. The conversation ceased immediately. I had nothing else to say. What more is there to say when one party’s position allows zero compromise? In the seven years since that day, I have had lots of time to think about our conversation. I return to it frequently. It is, after all, the central question about the central tenet of our faith: is Jesus’ literal, physical, bodily resurrection essential for Christianity? Can one believe in resurrection without believing that the tomb is empty? Can one proclaim “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” as a heartfelt metaphor for God’s promise of life-after-death reversal without necessarily believing that there is, indeed, physical, breathing, walking, talking life after death?

After seven years of reflection, I have decided that my friends were right: Christianity requires an empty tomb. Again, I have long believed that the tomb is empty, but that part of me that seeks consensus and wants to leave room for skeptics led me to hold open the possibility that, even though I might not agree, one can be a disciple of Jesus without believing in the literal miracle of Easter. As of today, I am letting go of that possibility. You might still feel that way, and I will not tell you that your meaningful relationship with the risen Christ necessitates a change in heart, but I cannot see any way to give one’s whole heart and soul and mind over to the proposition that Jesus is God’s victory for the world without believing that that victory is indeed manifest in the physical world. If Christ’s resurrection is merely a metaphor for hope in a hopeless moment, I think it is time to give up on that hope altogether.

This change of heart has happened gradually, but it has been crystalized by a recent focus on the Easter text from Luke 24. When the women see that the stone has been rolled away and, in their confusion, encounter two men in dazzling clothes, they are told, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” He is not here. Those four words have taken hold of my heart, and so far they have not let go. I am profoundly shaped by that form of the Easter proclamation. Although each version is different, all three synoptic gospel accounts contain those four words: “He is not here.” It is, in its essence, a proclamation from absence, and the absence of Jesus’ body is, therefore, the origin of our faith.

Of all the miracles in the New Testament, none is as dramatic as Jesus’ resurrection, yet, unlike almost all of the rest, it is witnessed by no one. No one is there to see the breath reenter the corpse. No one sees inside the pitch black tomb when the light of Easter morning first hits it. No one stares in awe as the greatest moment in human history unfolds. This is not the feeding of the five thousand. This is not the walking on water. This is not the calling back of Lazarus from the dead. All of those miracles were done so that people could see who Jesus really is, yet the one moment that finally reveals his true identity is testified to by his absence. He is not here. The faith of Jesus’ disciples is faith in emptiness itself.

During the first few weeks of the Easter season, we read stories of the risen Christ’s encounters with the disciples. He appeared to Cleopas and another disciple on the road to Emmaus. He sought out the disciples when they were hiding behind locked doors and, again, a week later when Thomas had rejoined them. He met them one morning on a beach, where he shared a meal of bread and fish with them. Each time the gospel encourages us to believe that he is risen, but those of us who live two thousand years later never had an opportunity to see the walking, talking Jesus. Our greatest hope lies not on the road or on a beach or in the upper room but back again at the empty tomb.
He is not here. He is risen. The most unlikely truth in human history—that we are loved by a perfect God regardless of our imperfection—is proven not by a word or an argument or an eyewitness but by an absence. If the tomb were not empty, that unlikeliest of hopes would crumble under the weight of doubt. Yet hope survives. Hope triumphs. And our hope is sustained by a tomb that remains empty to this day.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Fishing Trip

The lectionary skips over John 20:30-31. On Easter Day, those of us who used John's account of the empty tomb (John 20:1-18) heard about Jesus appearance to Mary Magdalene. Yesterday, we heard about John's version of the second and third times that Jesus appeared to his followers--once without Thomas and once with him (John 20:19-29). This coming Sunday, we'll hear John recall the fourth and final encounter of the disciples with the risen Christ (John 21:1-19). I understand why we're skipping over those two little verses, but, because we are, it's easy for the congregation to miss the evidence that this final encounter was stuck on the end of John's gospel account and not a natural continuation of the story.

After Jesus tells Thomas, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed," John seemingly concludes the account with these verses:
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
The end. Wasn't that lovely? That's a nice way to finish--an emphasis on believing without seeing and an editorial comment that drives the point home. But, of course, that isn't the end. John has more to say.

Turn the page, begin chapter 21, and we get Sunday's gospel lesson: "Jesus showed himself again to his disciples by the Sea of Tiberias..." What is the preacher supposed to do with this? If we're blindly following the lectionary with no appreciation for how the whole gospel is stitched together, we can focus on this as simply one more story of the Easter Jesus. It's nice. It makes sense. It has a "magical" quality that attracts the audience. There's the emotional bit about the redemption of Peter and his three-times denial of Jesus. It's a good passage. It's great for preaching. But I don't like what it does to Easter. Instead of bolstering the case for the risen Christ, it undercuts it. Jesus just said, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed!" And the disciples, who had their own in-person, in-flesh encounter with the resurrection, seem to struggle to grasp it. Where is that supposed to leave Christians in the 21st century who are inviting a skeptical, unchurched world to believe the unbelievable--that Jesus is risen from the dead--when even those who saw it firsthand are struggling to get it?

That's the heart of this passage for me--a clear, intentional rejection of a see-it-to-believe-it theology. I see this story as one of criticism first and encouragement second. Peter and six other disciples are hanging around. Remember: according to John's account, they've had their Pentecost moment. They've received the Holy Spirit and the commission to go out and forgive sins. And what are they doing? Hanging around on the beach, kicking the dirt, throwing stones into the water. Peter says, "I'm goin' fishin'. Ain't nothin' else to do." And what do they catch? Not a darn thing.

Daybreak. Enter Jesus. "Any luck?" he asks them, already knowing the answer. "What, no fish, children?" He tells them to try on the other side of the boat. It's a silly request. These are professional fishermen. They know how to fish. They don't need any pointers from some landlubber. But, of course, the advice pays off. The net is overflowing. Someone even takes note that there were 153 fish--the kind of story one retells for a lifetime.

This story isn't about proving the resurrection. It's about kicking the disciples in the pants and telling them to get moving. They already know Jesus is risen, but they don't know what to do without him. They're sitting around waiting for something, but they don't know what. Jesus calls them out for their fruitless endeavor. He invites them to refocus their efforts. Go back and read Luke 5:1-11. This miraculous fishing story was originally a part of the calling of the disciples. And that's where it still is--even for John. In this story, Jesus is calling his disciples to become apostles. His dialogue with Peter is about going out and doing the work of a shepherd. Jesus is sending them out again. It's a recommissioning. Maybe they'll get it this time. And maybe we will, too.