Tuesday, May 31, 2016


I was always close to my cousins. We went to the beach together every summer. We visited our grandparents and played together in the house where our parents had grown up. We celebrated birthdays at each other’s homes. We went on long trips together and drove our parents crazy together. We annoyed each other and punched each other and pulled each other’s hair. We explored together and got in trouble together. From diapers to graduation gowns and everywhere in between, we grew up together. Looking back, I realize that I took those relationships for granted, and I am grateful for them now in a way that I could not have known at the time.

Every year, at the end of May, the church celebrates a moment when Jesus and John the Baptist met as cousins for the first time. Two expectant mothers, both carrying unexpected children, came together to offer each other comfort in a time of shared waiting. Long-barren and advanced in years, Elizabeth must have been surprised when Zechariah, her struck-mute husband, explained through gesture and a writing tablet that they were going to have a son. Although her friends would have celebrated the strange but joyful news, the women in her life had all become grandmothers and had long ago said goodbye to raising young children. For Elizabeth, therefore, these nine months were an experience that she had always dreamt of but had never expected to happen quite like this.

Equally excited and similarly lonesome, Mary, a teenage virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, received good news that also ostracized her from her family and friends. To be found with child yet unwed was a blessing wrapped in a scandal. Imagine trying to explain to those you love that God had sent this child into your womb. She received no baby showers or congratulatory hugs. Instead, Mary snuck off to her relative’s house, where she could share this gift with the only other woman on earth who could begin to understand what it meant for her to be carrying God’s child—even God himself—in her womb.

John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth were two men chosen by God even before they were born to bring God’s good news of salvation to the world. From the very beginning, they knew each other as cousins. Luke recalls for us that Elizabeth, upon hearing her kinswoman’s greeting, felt the baby leap inside her. “And why has this happened to me,” she asked, “that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Even from that moment, the future identities of these cousins were clear. One was a forerunner, and the other was the expected one. One was the prophet that prepared the way, and the other came to complete what the first had predicted. One was the new Elijah, and the other was the Christ. And, until John was murdered by Herod, neither of them knew life without the other.
On May 31, we celebrate the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but this celebration is about more than two mothers-to-be finding much-needed comfort and encouragement in each other. It is, of course, about the cousins that grew within then. On this day, we celebrate the gift of the shared calling that those two cousins always knew. We dream with Luke about what it must have been like for each of them to grow up knowing that one belongs with the other. We imagine how those cousins played together, learned together, and caused mischief together because we, too, know what it is like to share a childhood with cousins. Today, I give thanks for the gospel and the beautiful and exceptional yet ordinary and familiar stories it tells. These are the stories of God’s family, and they are our stories, too.

This post originally appeared as the cover article in The View, the parish newsletter for St. John's in Decatur, AL. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Necessary Miracle

I love the story of the raising of widow's son in Nain (Luke 7:11-17), but I wonder whether I love it for the same reasons that Luke wrote it. The story itself is a short, direct, uncomplicated miraculous raising of a dead man. There's not a lot to pick apart here.

Sure, one could focus on how Jesus seems to press the limits of the laws of clean and unclean by touching the bier upon which the corpse is being carried, but I think that would miss the point. Also, one could preach a sermon on how a compassionate, uninvited Jesus walks up to the emotionally distraught widow and gives her a word of comfort--"Do not weep"--and then follows it up with the miraculous revivification, but I don't think that's the most important part. The RCL Track 2 gives us a parallel with 1 Kings 17 and the resuscitation of the son of the widow of Zarephath by Elijah. Perhaps that suggests that Jesus is a new Elijah but, because Jesus doesn't beg the Lord for intervention and, instead, intervenes on his own, also shows us that he is even greater, but I still don't think that's what Luke had in mind. I think Luke needed a dead-raising miracle, and he put one in the story.

If you read ahead at the verses that follow this Nain miracle, you find that the disciples of John the Baptist had come to Jesus to ask, on John's behalf, whether he was the one upon whom the people of Israel were waiting. Jesus replied, "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me" (Luke 7:22-23).

This blended quotation by Jesus of passages from Isaiah (8:14, 15; 29:18; 35:5, 6) is very important for Luke. This is Luke's understanding of the messianic expectation and its fulfillment in Jesus. If you had asked Luke, "Why is Jesus important, and what does he represent for God's people?" his answer would have been something like, "In Jesus, the longings of God's people are fulfilled in that the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them." If you read Luke from start to finish, you can't help but see that this is the center of his telling of the gospel. This is Luke's good news.

But Luke needed a dead man to be raised, and so we have Luke 7:11-17. I'm not so cynical or skeptical to think that Luke invented this story to fill out his list of messianic qualifications. But Luke is the only one who tells this story, and he also inserts it into his account rather clumsily. Nain is about 30 miles from Capernaum, which is where the first part of Luke 7 takes place. That's a lot of ground to cover. Plus, nothing else takes place explicitly around Nain. So, in short, I'd guess that the widow's son was raised from the dead in Nain at some point in Jesus' ministry, but Luke weaves it in here to make a point. And the point Luke makes is the real focus of this story.

There were lots of messianic expectations in Jesus' day. Some expected a military leader to help overthrow the Romans. Some looked for a charismatic priest to come and renew the worship of God's people. Some hoped for a king. Some expected a prophet. For Luke, however, none of that was as important as the rescue of the needy. The blind can see. The lame can walk. The deaf can hear. Even the dead are raised. And, saving the most important for last, the poor hear the good news, too. The raising of the widow's son in Nain isn't just about the raising of the dead. It's about the fulfillment of God's promised reversal of fortune that happens not at the national level but at the personal level. It's about one woman getting her son back. It's about one blind man receiving his sight. It's about one poor, single mother hearing that God's good news is for her.

Don't read and preach on Sunday's gospel lesson in isolation. It doesn't make sense without Luke 7:22-23. This is good news for everyone.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Who Is Worthy?

When more than one gospel account records a particular story, I like to see if there are any differences in the way the story is told. When there are substantial differences, it likely says a lot about the complexity of the text or how the particular gospel writer has adapted it to make it fit into his larger narrative. In this Sunday's lesson from Luke 7, we hear about the healing of a centurion's servant that is very similar to the account in Matthew 8, but there is one critical difference that shifts my focus away from the healing itself and to the conversation that takes place before the servant is healed.

In Matthew's version, the centurion approaches Jesus and informs him of his sick servant. When Jesus offers to come to the centurion's house and heal the servant, the Roman soldier stops him, saying, "Lord, I don’t deserve to have you come under my roof. Just say the word and my servant will be healed." Then there's a conversation about authority and faith, all of which make for a spectacular sermon on Jesus' identity and his ability to engender faith in unexpected people. And all of that is essentially what Luke tells us, too, but Luke offers a prologue, and the prologue changes everything.

In Luke's version, the centurion doesn't approach Jesus--ever. Instead, the centurion sends some elders of the Jews to speak to Jesus on his behalf. Take a minute to read what Steve Pankey wrote on Monday about how the faith of the centurion--a hated instrument of the despised, unholy Roman Empire--amazed Jesus in order to get a sense of how remarkable it is that the centurion had made friends with the local Jews. Then, come back to this blog and consider how the word "worthy" is used in Luke's telling of the story.

The Jewish leaders come to Jesus and say, "He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us." In other words, they are informing Jesus that this centurion (wink, wink) is the sort of fellow who deserves his special attention. After reading Steve's piece, I'm less amazed by the centurion's faith and more amazed that the Jewish leaders would celebrate him in this way. That's the miracle--that the Jews considered this centurion worthy of anything. But, by the time the Roman officer picks up on the word, the sense of worth has been turned upside down.

As Jesus approaches the man's house, the centurion sends friends to intercept Jesus and say on his behalf, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed." Again, the language mirrors that used by Matthew, but the repetition of the word and the reversal of the sense with which it is used is stark. "Despite what the elders should say, I am not worthy." And Jesus marvels at his faith.

What does it mean to be worthy? Both versions allow the preacher to focus on the humility of the centurion, but Luke draws our attention to it. In every worldly sense, the centurion is worthy of Jesus' attention. He is faithful. He is observant. He is a peacemaker. He supports the Jewish people under his charge. He gives to them and their causes. He is identified as the one who built the synagogue. But, instead of showing up himself to be applauded for his good deeds the way a wealthy donor might, he sends messengers. He's not interested in the credit. He's just hoping for some help--a little salvation.

Who is worthy? No one is worthy, not even one. Luke gives us a Jesus whose assessment of a person's worth is different from his peers. The centurion is no exception--only, this time, the issue isn't whether his colleagues can see the worth of society's outcasts but whether they can see that worth isn't measured in accomplishments or favors.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

New and Old

This is a sermon preached for the minor feast of Bede the Venerable. Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

If Jesus promised to make his disciples "fishers of men," what kind of bait did he teach them to use?

Early in the morning, while it was still dark, my friend Tim and his father and I loaded up the truck and headed down to Weeks Bay to go fishing. For teenagers like us who grew up on the coast, it didn't get much better than fishing on a Saturday morning. We pulled a jon boat behind the truck, but, when we got to the water's edge, we didn't put the boat in the water. Nor did we get the fishing rods out of the truck. First, before we could do anything else, we had to get some bait.

We walked down to the beach not far from the boat launch and stepped into the water up to our calves. Tim's father took a cast net, folded it up, cradled it in his left hand, held one part of the net with his right, gripped the other side of the net with his teeth, as I had been taught, and twisted his body, uncoiling his arms and the net and letting go with his mouth all in a synchronized effort that unfurled the weighted net in an almost perfect circle before it hit the surface of the water and sank out of sight. The line attached to the end of the net was fastened securely around his wrist, and, as he drug it onto the shore, in the dim morning light, we could see silvery fish flipping and flopping under its weight. Bait.

There were all sorts of sea critters in the net, many of which did us no good, and the three of us sorted through the catch, placing what we could use into a bucket and throwing what we couldn't use back into the bay. After a few more casts, we had all the bait fish we needed, and we walked back to the truck, placed the net in the bed, backed the trailer down the boat launch, and headed out for a morning's fishing.

"The kingdom of heaven," Jesus tells us, "is like a net that was thrown into the sea" (Matthew 13:47-52). This is the seventh and final parable in Matthew 13--a chapter full of parables about the kingdom. The Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Weeds, the Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast, the Parables of the Treasure Hidden in a Field and the Merchant in Search of Fine Pearls, and, finally, the Parable of the Net. "The kingdom of heaven is like all of these things," Jesus says, "and I'm saying these things to you so that you will get a glimpse of how God and God's kingdom work." In his analogistic way, Jesus was painting a series of pictures of the kingdom of heaven not to give his audience a complete understanding of the kingdom but to show them that God was (and is) doing something none of them expected. Like a dragnet or seine, everything and everyone was caught up in what God was doing in Jesus, and Jesus was showing those who would listen that they didn't need to worry about what got dragged along. Good and bad, it was all going to be sorted out later.

"Anyone who is properly trained as an expert on God's kingdom," Jesus told them, "is like the master of a house who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old." In other words, those who know about the kingdom know that our understanding of that kingdom comes from ancient traditions and new insights. Like the good host of a family's Thanksgiving dinner, if the menu was exactly the same every year for a century, it might get a little stale, but no one wants to show up for Thanksgiving and find nothing familiar on the table. It must be both--old and new--and, like the master of a house, those who speak of the kingdom are able to weave both strands into their understanding. And, if you think that's easy, try asking people in the church to change.

Today we remember the Venerable Bede--historian, churchman, and doctor or "teacher" of the church. Bede is most well known for his work The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He lived in the 7th & 8th centuries, and, back then, history wasn't a popular subject. If you didn't read Greek and Latin, which is to say if you weren't fabulously wealthy and well educated, you didn't care about history. Just tell me what I need to know to make it through today. Why would I bother learning how Christianity made it to England hundreds of years ago? But Bede knew and cared, and he wanted others to care as well. He translated the most important theological texts of his day into the vernacular, enabling the spread and enrichment of a distinctly English Christianity. He taught and wrote and documented and compiled. He wrote biblical commentaries and doctrinal treatises. He spent his life making the riches and wonders of the church available to his people, and laid a foundation for Anglicanism--not the denomination but the way of thinking. His work, respecting the old and bringing it into the new, made Christianity in Great Britain its own expression of the faith.

But that was then, and this is now. Our heritage as Episcopalians is that of old and new. We come from that stream of Christianity that is simultaneously traditional and ground-breaking. But how many of us are willing to break new ground as a church? The world is changing, and we are having a hard time keeping up. In this century, it may not be a language barrier, but there is a cultural separation between traditional, mainline Christianity and the world around us. The world still needs Jesus, and we have Jesus to share, but, if we're only setting the table with the same old silver, I'm not sure anyone will come and eat. Anyone who would share knowledge of the kingdom of heaven must be like the master of a house, who brings out of his treasure new and old. We've got the old. We're good at old. Maybe it's time for us to remember our history and do something new.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Hospital Visit

My cell phone rang, and the caller-ID showed a local number that I did not recognize. I must have been in the mood for sport because I answered it anyway. “This is Evan,” I said, making no attempt to mask my expectation that I would soon regret it. But I didn’t. “This is the hospital switchboard,” the voice said, identifying herself. “A nurse has asked to speak with the chaplain, and you’re on call this week.”

Not long after I moved here, I volunteered as an after-hours chaplain for our local hospital. Along with thirty or so other ministers, I agreed to take one night a month in the event that a patient or member of staff requested a pastoral visit when the full-time hospital chaplain was off-duty. In four years, I was only called twice. Recently, however, our hospital has stopped using a staff chaplain, and the volunteers have been asked to take a week at a time—day and night—in case someone needs a clergy visit. Not expecting many calls, I was happy to help.

The switchboard operator connected me to the nurse who had requested the visit. She explained that the patient was facing some tough decisions and seemed particularly vulnerable. She had asked the patient if she would like a minister to come to her room and talk and pray with her, and, when the patient said yes, she made the call. I thanked her and told her that I would be there in a few minutes.

On the drive across town, I allowed my mind to rehearse how the bedside visit might go. I knew only the scantest details, and I practiced various scenarios—some serious, others comical—to help prepare myself for the encounter. I imagined how I might explain my clerical collar to a Christian from a denomination where the clergy do not wear a particular outfit designating their vocation. I considered what I would say to her if she told me that she wasn’t a Christian but wanted to become a follower of Jesus before she died. Remembering some of the strangest moments from my time in seminary, I pretended that she might have had a psychotic break, chuckling at the bizarre possibilities that could be waiting for me. Returning to reality, I pondered what I would say if she told me that she was afraid of dying.

Although I frequently get the chance to spend time with parishioners in their moments of great vulnerability and need, I don’t often have the opportunity to spend that time with strangers. I walked into the room and met a delightful woman who was facing some difficult circumstances. Usually, my hospital visits last three to five minutes, but this one lasted most of an hour. She told me about her family and the deaths that they have experienced over the last five years—a sibling, both parents, and a son. She told me about her church and the new pastor who had buried those family members but, other than that, whom she had not really had the chance to get to know. She told me how she had always been the strong one who held things together for her family and friends, and she admitted in a roundabout way that her reality was quickly changing. I gently asked her about the next few weeks and months that lay ahead of her, and I offered some words of comfort and encouragement. And then I left.

I don’t remember her name. I doubt she remembers mine. Most of my pastoral relationships last for years. As a parish clergyperson, I have the privilege of celebrating births and watching children grow up and rejoicing at their weddings and seeing people in the primes of their lives and walking with them as they age and, eventually, saying goodbye to them when they die. That doesn’t happen all at once, but, in a parish, it happens all the time—an ongoing cycle of life that all of us share. But an hour with a stranger whom I will almost certainly never see again is no less special or authentic than a lifetime spent with people whom I love. Even a one-time, never-repeated bedside encounter is an opportunity for sharing a love and concern and care that lasts.
Love is a powerful thing. We love our parents and siblings and spouses and children. We love our teachers and neighbors and friends. But will we love a stranger? On the drive to the hospital, I rehearsed several different scenarios, but I never considered that I might fall in love with the woman I met. It does not matter that I do not know her. God has made a space in my heart for her, and I still hold her in prayer. Whom might you love today? Whom will you allow into your heart?

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

Monday, May 23, 2016

Combatting Summer Doldrums

If you are worried that the summer doldrums might affect the preaching in your parish, you can rest easy--at least through the Fourth of July weekend. Starting this Sunday and lasting for six weeks, the Epistle lesson will focus on Galatians, and I think it's pretty difficult to read Galatians without feeling at least some measure of enthusiasm. Even the most worn-out preacher can be reinvigorated by this emotional text. And I can't think of a better time for us to focus on Paul's fiery message of grace.

Of all Paul's letters, Galatians is his most passionate plea for the gospel of grace. He gets angry in Galatians, and those raw emotions show through. He even resorts to name-calling. This letter was written early in his letter-writing career, and he hadn't yet learned how to hold anything back. This is practically unfiltered, unrestrained polemic against those who would dilute even the slightest bit the gospel of grace. And twenty-first-century Christianity needs a sharp, angry voice calling us back to the uncut truth of grace-alone.

Paul's letters usually follow a form that was widely used in his day. The author identifies himself, identifies the recipients, and then offers a word of greeting. Typically, in Paul's letters that greeting is followed by a thanksgiving, which is then followed by a quick summary of the author's intent before the body of the letter begins. That's not how Galatians works. Paul doesn't have time for that. This is serious. He can't wait.

As soon as he finishes his formalized greeting--"Grace to you and peace..."--he skips the thanksgiving and moves right into his argument:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
Could more timely words be written? Even if we came and told you a different gospel, you shouldn't believe it. Even if an angel came down from heaven and told you a different gospel, let that one be accursed! There is no other gospel. There is no other gospel except the gospel of grace. Apart from that, there is no good news at all. Period. The end.

In contemporary Christianity, I don't hear a lot of debate about circumcision or kosher dietary restrictions. Those were the issues in Paul's day, and we'll see more of them in the coming weeks. Should a Gentile convert become an observant Jew in order to follow Jesus? Paul's emphatic, unequivocal answer is NO! Jesus Christ has set us free from a system in which justification comes from any effort on our part. Only faith in what Jesus did can save us.

If he were writing a letter to the churches of today, what would Paul say? Well, what perversion of the gospel of grace has infected the church? What makes a person good? What gets a person into heaven? What qualifies someone to be a Christian? News flash: it isn't loving your neighbor as yourself. It isn't helping those in need. It isn't going to church. It isn't reading the bible. It isn't following the Ten Commandments. It isn't loving God with all your heart, strength, and mind. And, with apologies to devotees of the 1979 BCP and the Baptismal Covenant, it isn't respecting the dignity of every human being or any of the other responses to the "will-you" questions we rehearse at every baptism. All of those things are fruit of the redeemed life--they come after Jesus has saved us, after his blood has redeemed us, after his death and resurrection have justified us.

For any preacher to set any of those things up as an expectation for her or his congregation is to place a stumbling block in front of God's precious children. All of that is law, and it stands in the way of grace. If we are justified by faith, those things will come. But defining them from the pulpit as the marks of a Christian is no different than preaching the necessity of circumcision and of keeping kosher. Expectations are law. They always get in the way. They pervert the gospel of grace. Period. Try telling your four-year-old daughter that the hallmarks of a good child are to grow up and be happy and successful. See where that gets you. (Hint: a teenager) The parent's job isn't to create expectations. The parent's job is to love his child. And the same is true for the preacher of the gospel.

It's only Monday, and I'm already fired up, and I'm not even preaching this week. I can't wait to see what the next six weeks will bring!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sometimes Words Aren't Enough

May 22, 2016 – The First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Although I am convinced that that truly glorious hymn “I bind unto myself today” is appropriate for any occasion, I don’t often recommend it for funerals (though I hope you’ll remember to sing it at mine). Instead, when I meet with a family to pick out funeral hymns, I try to steer them in three separate directions. First, to open the service, I suggest a strong, confident hymn like “A mighty fortress is our God” or “Holy, Holy Holy! Lord God Almighty.” Hymns like those remind us of the awesome power of God, and that gives us strength in our time of need. Then, in the middle of the service, I suggest a sweet, comforting hymn like “The King of love my shepherd is” or “Lord of all hopefulness.” Hymns like those wrap their arms around us and remind us that we are not alone in our suffering. Then, at the end of the service, I suggest a hopeful, forward-looking hymn like “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee” or “Lead on, O King Eternal,” which reflect our belief that God has given us a hope that is stronger than death.

As with many aspects of our worship, hymns often tell us more about who God is and who we are than even the most carefully crafted sermon. Without a word of explanation, three deliberately chosen hymns can fill the hearts and minds of a congregation with a sense of God’s greatness, God’s tenderness, and God’s hopefulness. It’s hard for me to imagine all three of those things all at once. It is impossible for me to find words that can convey a God who is all of those things and more, yet I experience all of them together all of the time.

What about you? What sort of God do you worship? Which God do you serve? When you come to church, what God do you expect to meet here? When you kneel beside your bed to say your prayers, what sort of God is listening? When you lie awake at night, alone with your worries and your tears, which God is there with you in the silence?

It has always helped me to think of God as the strong, powerful king of the Old Testament. I need to know, in those moments when I’ve gotten myself into some trouble, that God is bigger and stronger than any mess I might find myself in. For others, tenderness and compassion are most important. Indeed, for some the incomparable power and uncompromising holiness of a God who would strike Uzzah dead on the spot for reaching out his hand to catch the Ark of the Covenant when the oxen stumbled is problematic while, for me, that same story is oddly comforting. Which God is your God? Which God is our God?

Have you ever heard someone say, “You know, I like Jesus just fine, but I can’t believe in a God who would send people to hell just because they don’t believe the right thing?” Or how about a Christian who says, “We don’t believe in that Old-Testament God any more. Jesus came and changed all of that?” They’ve got a good point. There is a lot to like about a savior who teaches us to love everyone and welcome everyone and forgive everyone. And we should be skeptical of a God who would tell us to kill everyone. But the really strange thing is that we believe that they are one and the same—that the God who ordered the army of Israel to spare not a single life is the same God who sent his Son to die so that the whole world might be saved. But how can we make sense of that? How can we even find the words to begin to explain it?

On the night before he died, Jesus looked at his disciples and said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Even Jesus couldn’t find the words to say it. Some things cannot be said. How do you explain to someone that the death you are about to die at the hands of your enemies is actually part of God’s plan for the salvation of the world? Even now, two thousand years later, how do we explain it? We don’t. No one can. Instead, we watch what happens, and we wait for the Holy Spirit to guide us--lead us, pull us by the hand--into the truth.

Sometimes words aren’t enough. Sometimes we must see in order to believe. And sometimes not even seeing is believing. For thousands of years, God’s people spoke of God as one who loved the world. The promise God made to Abraham was that, through him, all the nations of the earth would come to know God’s saving love. But words weren’t enough, so God sent his Son. But not even Jesus could find the words to express the fullness of God’s love. And so he died and rose again. But those who saw him laid in the tomb and then, three days later, saw him alive again still could not understand the magnitude of God’s love. And so the Spirit came and revealed that God’s saving work could not be confined to the people of Israel. And so the Holy Spirit continues to guide us, pull us, leading us by the hand, always toward the truth that God’s love has no limits. And still we do not understand.

I don’t know what God you worship. I don’t know which God dwells in your heart. But all of human history has shown us that God is leading us further and further into the truth that God is love. In each generation, we discover in new ways how limitless God’s love really is. And still the journey continues. What will God show us next?

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Is God Finished Speaking?

In this Sunday's gospel lesson (John 16:12-15), Jesus tells his disciples that God isn't finished speaking to them yet: "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come." The Spirit will say to the disciples things that Jesus could not say to them while he was still with them. But when will the Spirit be finished?

There are at least three ways to hear Jesus' words. First, there's the strictly limited interpretation. You can use John 15:15 as a filter for reading this passage and decide that the Spirit may speak to the disciples but won't tell them anything new. In that part of the farewell discourse, Jesus says to his disciples, "No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you." Despite what Jesus says in 16:12, that makes it pretty plain that there isn't anything left to be said. I don't buy that interpretation, but I can understand it.

Second, there's the conservative interpretation. The Holy Spirit had important things to say to the apostles, but, once the last one of them died--presumably, according to a conservative reading of the bible, John on Patmos as he wrote Revelation--the revelation ceased. In short, Jesus' instruction to the disciples was limited to the disciples, and God had nothing else to say after that. Again, I don't buy it. It's tempting. It's neat and tidy. It's comfortably static. But the power of Pentecost seems too great for a sixty- or even seventy-year run.

Third, there's the continuing interpretation, which has two distinct branches. Both agree that the Spirit continues to speak and provide new revelation to God's people. One branch is the Catholic version, which states that the Holy Spirit continues to speak but only through the revelation of church dogma. In other words, those who continue in the line of the apostles--and only those who continue in the line of the apostles--have the authority to listen to and interpret what the Spirit says. The other branch is the charismatic version, which believes that the Holy Spirit can and does continue to speak in and to and through anyone who is baptized by the Holy Spirit.

I must admit that I fall somewhere in this third stream of interpretation, but I don't know exactly where on the Catholic-Charismatic continuum I fall. I do believe that the Spirit speaks through anyone--not just those in positions of authority in the church--but I also believe that it takes the whole Body of Christ to understand what the Spirit is saying and that loners or schismatics who hold a Spirit-claimed authority are probably barking up the wrong tree--or perhaps even at the moon.

Is God finished speaking to his people? Did he say everything we needed to hear in Jesus? If the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments do contain everything necessary to salvation, do we need to acknowledge anything that comes after the book closes on Revelation? Did the Spirit guide those successors to the apostles at Nicaea and Constantinople and Chalcedon into the "confession of a true faith," which is "to acknowledge the glory of the Eternal Trinity?" Might the mystics who spoke long ago and those who still speak at nighttime revivals in small country churches where the bare light bulbs hang from an extension cord stapled to the ceiling show us that God still has something to say? Who decides? Have you decided? I'd be surprised if God is finished speaking, but, if not, why aren't I paying more careful attention to what Spirit-filled people are saying to the world?

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Words to Bear

Jesus said to the disciples, "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now." That's how the gospel lesson for Trinity Sunday (John 16:12-15) begins. It's a teaser. It's unfair. It's like a friend who says, "I've got something really exciting to tell you, but I can't tell you now." What do you mean you can't tell us? What do you mean we cannot bear it? Why don't you just say it and let us figure out whether we can handle it or not?

When parents ask me how to explain something like death to their children, I tell them not to hold back. I also remind them that I've only been a parent for eight years, so maybe they should ask someone else for advice, but, when it comes to my children, I don't pull punches. Death, sex, war, cancer, child abduction--it they want to ask about it, I'll tell them. No, I don't bring it up, but I'm ready to answer their questions honestly and openly. I trust that they will pick up what they can handle and leave behind what they can't. I don't make up false images that distract them from the truth because I am worried that they will have nightmares. Better that they have nightmares today than need intensive therapy in a decade because their father lied to them about sex.

Jesus, however, has another plan. There is something about his truth that cannot be received yet. He tells the disciples that they cannot bear what he would say to them. The word "bear" interests me. In this gospel account, John only uses that word "βαστάζω" or forms of it a few times. In John 10:31, the Jews picked up stones to throw at Jesus. In John 12:6, Judas is described as having pilfered what was put into the money box. In John 20:15, Mary Magdalene says to the risen Jesus, presuming him to be the gardener, "If you have carried him away, tell me." But there's one other use of that word in John that really sticks out. In John 19:17, Jesus went out bearing his own cross. (Thanks to Strong's Concordance for those references.)

In the synoptic gospel accounts, this sense of bearing one's cross is depicted as a requirement of discipleship: "And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, [Jesus] said to them, 'If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me'" (Mark 8:34 ESV). In John, however, the only one who bears the cross is Jesus. There is no Simon of Cyrene who is compelled to carry it. There is no demand that those who would be his disciples must do the same. Only Jesus. And maybe it's because they aren't ready yet. They can't be ready yet.

Ultimately, the invitation to Christians is to participate in the divine life--to share in God's glory, as Paul puts it in Romans 5:1-5. And, like it or not, we cannot do that until we are able to participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus, which is in turn enabled by the Holy Spirit. In that sense, we cannot take up our own cross until Good Friday becomes Easter and Easter becomes Ascension and Ascension becomes Pentecost. Without the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus and the descent of the Holy Spirit, we cannot bear the fullness of God's will for us. But now we can. Maybe that's what Trinity Sunday is about after all.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Practicing Silence

Lithium was always my favorite element. Number three on the periodic table, it is one of the simplest atoms. It is the least dense (i.e. lightest) solid element, causing it to float in the mineral oil in which it is usually stored. It is stored under oil because, like the rest of the elements in the family of alkali metals, it is highly reactive and will ignite if exposed to the air. Its hyperreactivity is the product of its configuration. Possessing a single unpaired valence electron, lithium is desperate to bond with anything, seeking a more stable arrangement in which that single electron can be shared with a partner element. Lithium is so unstable that, in the natural world, it is never found by itself and is always observed having already reacted with something else.

Reactivity is a meaningful measure used in chemistry, but it can also be used to help evaluate our spiritual health. How reactive are you? How comfortable are you in anxious situations? Are you constantly bouncing from one emotional state to another, or are you able to let the ups and downs of life pass you by without jumping onto life’s roller coaster? When another driver cuts you off, does the anger within you barely simmer, or do you tailgate that car for two miles while the steam pours out of your ears? When you receive an e-mail or a text message that puts you on the defensive, do you wait a day or two before responding, or do you send out the first thing that comes to your mind? When someone you love is facing a crisis, do you stand by and cheer that person on, or do you jump into the situation without hesitation and start trying to solve the problem for yourself?

For human beings, reactivity is not just a product of a particular circumstance but is also a reflection of one’s spiritual configuration. Some situations require an immediate reaction—a kitchen fire, an automobile accident—but most of the interactions of life allow for a surprisingly slow response. Other people’s anger does not need to become our anger. Other people’s anxiety does not need to affect us at all. But how? How are some people able to confront even the most volatile of circumstances without breaking a sweat? Why are some people able to love highly reactive people without becoming reactive themselves?

Another word for spiritual and emotional unreactivity is peace, and peace takes practice. The most effective way that I have found to cultivate peace in my life is to spend time in silence. In the spiritual sense, silence is more than the mere absence of sound, and there are many different ways to seek it. Earlier this week, I read a piece in the Washington Post by psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal about the benefits of transcendental meditation, which is a particular method of spending fifteen to twenty minutes at a time in meditative focus. In that method, the practitioner uses a word or phrase called a mantra to focus his or her attention while the rest of the world and the cares and concerns it brings fade away into silence. Although at first he did not detect any substantial change in his own behavior, Rosenthal reported that, as his practice developed through the years, his friends and family noticed a big change. Their comments and observations confirmed for him how meditation had helped him let go of anger, anxiety, and reactivity to become more gentle, joyful, and patient.

Although transcendental meditation is not explicitly Christian, Christians have been using similar techniques to immerse themselves in spiritually beneficial silence since the first hermit monks secluded themselves in the desert as early as the third century. One method is Centering Prayer, in which the individual chooses a sacred word not as a focus for their concentration as with a mantra but as an invitation into the presence of God. Imagine using a word like “Jesus” or “grace” or “love” to set aside all of the noises of the world in order to reconnect with God during twenty minutes of silence. Another method is Lectio Divina, in which the individual reads a passage from the bible and sits in a prolonged silence to listen to what the Holy Spirit will say through the text. As with other forms of Christian silence, the benefit comes not from scrutinizing the passage as a traditional student might but from sitting knowingly in God’s presence. At the beginning of a bible study or before meeting with someone for spiritual direction, I invite us to sit in silence as a way for to release our need for answers and acknowledge, instead, that the presence of God is what we really seek. In my personal piety, I most often practice silence within the Daily Office, using a long pause after each reading as a way to pray not by forming in my mind unspoken words but simply by making myself available to God.

I cannot say whether intentional silence makes me a better husband, father, or clergyperson, but I do know that, when I have drifted away from the practice, I become more reactive. I carry more anger and anxiety with me into every conversation. I receive each critical text message and e-mail with a diminished capacity for patience. When offering pastoral care, I find it harder to let go of my needs and focus on the needs of others.

Is your fuse a little shorter than it used to be? Are you angry or anxious at things that have not always bothered you? Is someone you love struggling in a way that seems to be dragging you down with that person? Silence is not a cure-all, but the practice of silence brings us in touch with the one who is in control—the God of love and peace and hope.

God's Gender-Neutral Facility

At some point around the fifth grade, I discovered Deuteronomy 23:10. Even the King James Version gave me a giggle: "He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord." I remember my Sunday school classmates asking what it meant and then bursting into laughter when they learned what "stones" and "privy member" represent. Put into simpler language, that verse tells us that "no one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord" (NRSV). Admittedly, I am no Torah expert, but I understand the thrust of that verse. There were certain expectations of those who would take part in the Lord's holy congregation. Borrowing (unfairly) from the language of Leviticus, the Lord is holy, so his people are to be holy, too. And, in that time and place and culture, an injury or abnormality in the male reproductive organs would single one out as unfit for admittance into God's holy gathering.

So what sort of people would Deuteronomy 23:1 exclude? Again, I'm no expert, but I imagine that there were some individuals who had been injured in a construction project or a farming accident, perhaps even gored by a bull. Others may have suffered from a sexually transmitted disease like syphilis, which may have resulted in castration. Maybe there were even a few boys whose circumcisions had gone tragically wrong, ironically rendering them unfit for participation in the Lord's assembly. More commonly, of course, certain men were chosen to be eunuchs--likely from an early age when they were unable to weigh the ramifications of an irreversible surgery. They were docile, impotent, and had no real sexual identity. Because they were unable to violate the ruler's wives, they made good workers for a harem, as we read in Esther 4:4. Regardless of the cause, men whose sexual organs were nonfunctioning were excluded because they did not belong amidst the holy people of God.

Many years after grade school, I discovered Isaiah 56:3-5, which seems to undo everything I thought about Deuteronomy 23:1.
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
    “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
    “I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
    who choose the things that please me
    and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
    a monument and a name
    better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
    that shall not be cut off (NRSV).
I trust that the prophet knew the Torah well enough to know what Deuteronomy 23:1 plainly states about who is not allowed in the Lord's house. Still, he wrote of that time when "God's salvation will come, and [his] deliverance be revealed" (56:1b) as a time when even the eunuch would find a place in the Lord's temple--and not only a place but "a monument and a name better than sons and daughters." For the prophet, even the clear prohibitions of the Torah seem overcome by the Lord's vision for that one-day justice on which the whole world waits. Indeed, in the Lord's house, when all of God's dreams are fulfilled, the one who is defined by his sterility will no longer think of himself as a "dry tree."

I don't know about you, but I think it's pretty silly for people to confuse a belief in the bible with a desire to prevent people from using whatever bathroom they want to use.

I don't mean to suggest that transgendered individuals are the same thing as eunuchs. They aren't. I don't think transgendered people would really appreciate being lumped together with those represented by an anachronistic biblical image. Transgendered identity is more complicated than that. But, in biblical times, whether completely castrated, partially castrated, or sexually abnormal for another reason, eunuchs were individuals who did not fit into the prescribed male or female boxes that society laid out for them. They did not belong. They were neither male nor female, which is why they did not fit in God's holy assembly. Isaiah, however, saw things differently. He understood that the transformative, unifying power of God could overcome even those differences that seemed antithetical to the holiness of God.

I wasn't alive in 1956, so I don't know what it sounded like or felt like when Governor Shivers of Texas ignored the order of a federal judge to integrate the Mansfield school district and called upon the Texas Rangers to assist him in maintaining segregation. I wasn't alive in 1957, so I don't know what it sounded like or felt like when President Eisenhower sent federal troops to support the integration of Central High School in Little Rock in response to Governor Faubus' deployment of the National Guard to support the segregationists. I wasn't alive in 1963, so I don't know what it sounded like or felt like when Governor Wallace gave his inaugural address with the infamous line "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." I wasn't alive back then, so I can't say for sure, but, through the hindsight of history, the arguments made by those three governors sound and feel a lot like those who are decrying efforts by the federal government to protect the rights of individuals who want to use the bathroom that reflects the gender with which they identify. Does Governor Allen of Texas or Governor McCrory of North Carolina or Governor Bryant of Mississippi or Governor Hutchinson of Arkansas or Governor Bevin of Kentucky really want to be on that side of history? Do the people of God want to stand with them?

For some individuals, gender isn't as simple as male or female. That's true today, and it was true way back when the bible was being written. Eventually, God's prophets realized that gender confusion wasn't a reason to exclude someone from God's house. Thousands of years later, why would we let nontraditional gender identity be a reason to exclude someone from a public restroom? Perhaps someone could make a case for such discrimination, but I don't think the bible supports that view, and I don't think the constitution does either.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Don't Say What Can't Be Said

This week is every preacher's favorite Sunday: Trinity Sunday. Last Sunday, we received the promised gift of the Holy Spirit, and now, one week later, it's time to explain the mysterious doctrine of the Trinity--a doctrine at the heart of our faith yet essentially absent from scripture. That's right: there is no "One God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" in the bible. The closest we get are invocations at the end of Paul's letters, the creation narrative with its God, Word, Spirit imagery, or the words of Jesus to his disciples about his coming from the Father and the promised sending of the Spirit. So, yes, a sermon with no clear scriptural warrant. What could be more fun?

I'm preaching this Sunday, and I'll spend the week looking at the lectionary-appointed readings to see if any of them might lend itself to a coherent, non-heretical sermon fit for this feast. In weeks like this one, however, it often works best to pick a lesson and preach a sermon without any regard for the theme of the day. (Right now, I'm leaning towards Jesus' "this ain't over yet" advice in John 16.) But for today I'd like to invite you to consider modeling the doctrine of the Trinity instead of explaining it. After all, it can't be understood. Maybe the best we should hope for is to reflect the truth of God's Trinitarian nature in our worship.

How about this liturgical practice that completely blew me away? This past week, I had reason to browse the Eucharistic prayer from the 1662 BCP. (Don't ask; it happens.) In my reading of this beautifully Calvinistic, Epiclesis-absent rite, I noticed an asterisk that I had never noticed before. Immediately after the sursum corda, the celebrant continues, "It is very meet, right and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord, *Holy Father, Almighty, Everlasting God." Have you ever noticed that asterisk before? Maybe it's just me, but, when I read the accompanying instruction in the margin beside it, I was taken aback: "These words [Holy Father] must be omitted on Trinity Sunday."

Wait, what? Omit "Holy Father" from the opening of the Eucharistic prayer? That's part of the auto-pilot words that priests say when they've offered these words to God in prayer over and over and over. You can't take them out. I mean, I get why one would do that. It's Trinity Sunday, and we want to reflect the unitary nature of the three persons by not using appropriation to artificially direct our prayers to the Father when it is, of course, the One-in-Three who always receives our prayers. But that change seems so inconsequential to everyone except the celebrant who must now train his focus on not reciting the words that are only omitted one day a year.

How long did this go on? I looked into it and found, again to my surprise, that this liturgical practice was used in the Episcopal Church all the way up until the 1928 Prayer Book. That means that for the majority of our church's Anglican history--stretching from 1662 (the rubric doesn't appear in earlier versions) all the way through the 1920s--we dropped the reference to the Father on Trinity Sunday. Leaving it in, therefore, is just a newfangled liturgical innovation--like the Peace.

So what's the point? Leave it out this Sunday? No, I don't think so. But I do think we should look deeply and specifically at our worship and wonder to ourselves--perhaps even aloud--at the ways in which our worship reflects our belief in the Trinity or, perhaps more often, masks that belief. Are we separating the works of the persons, making one Creator, one Redeemer, and one Sanctifier? Heresy! Are we pretending that the death of the Son satisfies the wrath of the Father? Heresy! Are we praying to the Father, through the Spirit, in the name of the Son? Unless we see that the separation is only a pretense to help us make sense of it, it's a heresy.

The truth is that we can't say much about God. In fact, when preachers like me try to explain anything about God, we usually end up making the situation worse. The best we can do is not do any harm. This Sunday, don't do any harm. Get out of the way. Trust that God--Father, Son, and Spirit--is drawing us into the divine life. Don't split it up to make sense of it. But listen for it. Look for it. Take a long, careful look at the liturgy--as if you were presiding for the very first time all over again--and see how what we will do reflects what we believe about God. When it comes to the Trinity, it's always easier to do it than to say it.

Claiming the Power of Pentecost

May 15, 2016 – The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
On the Day of Pentecost, the disciples were all gathered together in one place. Suddenly from heaven there came the sound like the rush of a violent wind. Divided tongues of fire appeared and rested on each of the disciples. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages—languages that none of them had ever spoken before. When those in the area heard the noise, a crowd gathered and stared in amazement as these Galilean tradesmen began to proclaim God’s deeds of power in their native languages. What an incredible sight and sound to behold!

My question for you this morning, as the crackle of those flames and the cacophony of that speech echoes forward two thousand years, is to ask when you will claim the power of Pentecost for yourself.

Now, before you answer that question, take a minute to think about the real power of Pentecost. What was it that the Holy Spirit did on that day? If you’re like me, when you hear this story, your mind recalls an image like the one depicted in our Pentecost window. It’s a crowded space where all of the disciples are huddled together, each in a prayerful, meditative posture, while a gentle flicker of red fire hovers above each head. In our case, the image in the Pentecost window is so compressed that you can only tell that all twelve disciples are there by counting the flames. The image is static—fixed, as motionless as a carefully orchestrated (but poorly executed) group photo. But, when we read the story from Acts 2, we find out pretty quickly that there was nothing tame or dignified or static about this moment. In fact, the power of the Holy Spirit came down with such a disturbing and chaotic force that the crowd took one look at the disciples and thought that they were drunk. Now, nobody in that window over there looks drunk, so, before you sign on to be filled with the awesome power of God, you’d better be sure that you know what you’re getting into.

The real power of Pentecost cannot be conveyed through a picturesque representation of the Holy Spirit alighting onto the disciples. Nor can it be completely captured in that remarkable moment when the twelve disciples begin to speak in all the languages of the known world. It is even bigger than that. It is even more powerful than that. To get a sense of what the Holy Spirit was really doing back then and also see what it promises to do today, we must go back further in time and watch what happened on the plains of Shinar when construction on the Tower of Babel was halted in its tracks.

Brick by brick, the tower rose higher and higher toward the heavens. The people of the earth were building for themselves a city and, within it, a tower that could be seen for miles. This monumental achievement would stand out as an unparalleled accomplishment. So impressive would that tower be that all the people on earth would feel connected to it—united by it. This was their chance to “make a name for [them]selves,” one which all of them could share and thus overcome that competitive streak within them that otherwise might drive them to scatter across the face of the earth. But the Lord looked down and saw what they were doing and said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech.” And, so by divine fiat, their speech was garbled until they simply babbled nonsensically at one another, abandoned their efforts, and drifted apart.

But is that how it happened? If you had been there to witness that moment, is that what you would have seen? Don’t forget that passages in the bible were never intended to be eye-witness accounts. Holy Scripture was, as Thomas Cranmer’s collect (originally) for the Second Sunday of Advent puts it, “written for our learning.” By the time ancient pen was put to ancient paper, this story had been told and retold, shaped through the generations like a stone that tumbles down a riverbed. The story of the Tower of Babel—like all passages in the bible—tells us as much about the people who wrote it and what they thought about God as it tells us about what happened and how God was at work in the situation.

If you asked the ancient people of God why there were so many different languages on the earth, they wouldn’t know how to appeal to anthropology or archeology to explain it, but they would understand how that diversity puts a strain on their lives. They would know that the conflict between tribes and cultures stems from the differences among them. Consider, then, how the real teaching of this passage might be found not in the cause of Babel but in its effect. “They are all one people, and they all have the same language,” said the Lord. “This is only the beginning of what they will do. Indeed, nothing…will now be impossible for them.” Nothing would be impossible. If we were all one people, nothing would stand in our way. But, of course, we aren’t one people. And the nations of the world are separated by far more than language. And that’s why the real power of Pentecost isn’t found in a supernatural gift of speech but in the unlocking of humanity’s potential which can only happen when we are all finally made one.

For thousands of years—ever since the Lord spoke to Abraham and promised to be his God and the God of his descendants—Israel’s God had belonged to Israel. His way of salvation had been articulated by his prophets to his people. And Jesus of Nazareth was another chapter in that salvation history—a thoroughly Jewish savior for a thoroughly Jewish people. But Pentecost shows us something different. Pentecost shows us that God’s story of salvation is being translated into every language and is being given to every people. Yes, it will take a few more chapters in Acts before that salvation reaches the Gentiles, but Pentecost shows us that nothing can stand in God’s way. The real power of Pentecost is the revelation that, through Jesus Christ, God has opened the way of salvation to all people—that, in Christ, we all become the people of God—one people with one story and one hope.

Stop and let yourself dream. What would the world be like if we really were all one people? What would happen if we weren’t divided by language or race or culture or nation or religion? If there were no borders, no barriers, no boundaries, what would stand in our way? If we were all truly united in our efforts, would anything be impossible for us? Could that ever happen?

Pentecost invites us to dream of a world in which all of us are united as one. No, Pentecost doesn’t remove all of our differences; it transcends them. Pentecost shows us what happens when the Holy Spirit works within us to overcome those differences that drive us apart. It shows us that God’s work isn’t to separate us but to bring us together. It shows us what happens when the Holy Spirit takes over the people of God and uses them to spread God’s dream of a world in which we live as the united people of God. Will you claim that power for yourself? Will you refuse to give in to the differences that seek to drive us apart? Will you actively resist those forces inside of you that seek to push those who are different from you further away? Will you deny that instinct to surround yourself only with your own kind? Will you recognize that the kingdom that God has prepared for us doesn’t have neat, compartmentalized spaces for all the different sorts and conditions of humanity? It isn’t easy. In fact, the result is a pretty chaotic mess. But it’s God’s mess. It’s God’s dream. It’s God’s will for the world. What will you do to be a part of it?

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


My perpetual dislike of the never-ending Last Supper discourse in John may be clouding my judgment, but I suspect that very few preachers will focus on John 14 when they have the opportunity to preach on Acts 2. They are, of course, connected. And, even if the preacher won't focus on another speech by Jesus to his disciples--for the fourth week in a row!--it is worth allowing Jesus' teaching on the "Advocate" to shape our preaching on the Pentecost moment in Acts.

This time, as I read Jesus' dialogue with Philip, I am drawn to the word "satisfied." Philip says to Jesus, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied." And Jesus responds, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?" Jesus' response--another "I in you and you in me and we in them" kind of thing--gets a little heady, but I think a quick review of the word "satisfied" can help us make better sense of Jesus' explanation.

Satisfied. Satisfactory. When I was a kid in elementary school, our local bank would give students cash for a good report card. I don't remember the whole amount, but it was something like $3 for all As and $1 for As & Bs. Every six weeks, when report cards came out, my friend and I would walk to the bank and collect our cash. I made As in all of my core subjects--science, math, reading, etc.--but my handwriting was (and still is) abysmal. Instead of a G for "Good," I consistently received an S for "Satisfactory." Now, that isn't a B. It isn't even a subject. It's an exercise. It's like P.E.. What college is going to care whether you made a G or an S in third-grade P.E.? But, to my banker, that S was a ding on my record. "Well done," the teller would say. "Here's your dollar for making all As & Bs." I didn't have the vocabulary to express myself at the time, but, if I had the chance to go back and do it all over again, I think I'd call "bullshit" on that.

Satisfied. Satisfactory. "How was that dinner I made for you, Honey?" a spouse might say. "Oh, it was perfectly satisfactory," a well-meaning but apparently clueless spouse might reply. "Your work on that big company project was satisfactory," the boss might say to a now-disappointed worker, who was hoping to hear "excellent" or even "good." If your mother-in-law asks you how your marriage is, please don't say, "I'm satisfied with the current arrangement." You might mean that everything is "just fine," but "just fine" isn't all that good either.

Philip says to Jesus, "If you will just show us the Father, we will be satisfied." In today's English, that carries a demanding tone--an "unless you do this we won't be happy." The word "satisfied" necessarily conveys a comparison with "unsatisfied," which may be why "satisfactory" doesn't belong in a compliment. By saying, "If you...we will be satisfied," Philip seems to be drawing a line in the sand, but I'm not sure that's what he meant.

The Greek word is ἀρκεῖ, which, for you language buffs out there (Steve Pankey) is a dative impersonal form of ἀρκέω (thanks, Strong's). Used in this way, it means that the thing in question--the revealing of the father--will be enough, sufficient, contenting. That's not a difference in meaning--only in connotation--but consider how the passage might sound if Philip's statement sounded like this: "Jesus, show us the father and we will have all that we need." Even better, reverse the order and hear Philip say, "Jesus, we will be complete as you reveal the Father to us." There is no doubt behind Philip's question. Chapter 14 begins with Thomas asking Jesus to show the disciples the way to the Father, to which Jesus responds, "I am the way." Philip builds upon that "I am" statement with his follow-up remark: "Jesus, [merely] show us the Father, and we will be complete." Jesus has established that he is the way, and Philip is proclaiming in faith that when Jesus shows them the Father, everything will be as it should be.

But it's the "when" that gets him in trouble.

Jesus says, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father." What Philip cannot yet see is that Jesus has already shown them the Father because the Father is fully in Jesus just as Jesus is fully in the Father. And that's why we wait for the Advocate who will lead us into all truth. The reality is that no matter how well the disciples knew Jesus they could not know what the Church would learn through the light of the resurrection and the fire of Holy Spirit--that Jesus of Nazareth is the Incarnate Word of God. That is too big an epistemological leap for any human being to know. It requires divine inspiration.

Don't hear Philip's request for Jesus to show them the Father as an conditional expression of satisfaction. It's a statement of faith. We will be complete when you reveal the Father to us. What we learn from Philip and Jesus and from the Holy Spirit, however, is that the "when" is "now."

Goes Without Saying

I trust that Elizabeth knows that I love her even if I do not tell her that on a daily basis, but I tell her anyway because hearing and saying “I love you” does both of us a lot of good. When Elizabeth sprints through the day, running errands, transporting children, taking care of our house, and preparing our supper, I tell her how grateful I am for all that she does for our family. Even though she probably knows that I am appreciative of her efforts before I say a word, I say it anyway because some things cannot be said often enough. When I come home from work and toss my bag on the floor, swing the door closed with a little more force than usual, and stomp my way across the den, everyone in my family knows that I am angry about something, but I stop to announce it anyway because sometimes it just feels good to tell other people that you are angry.

I hope that it goes without saying that everything we do as a church is all about Jesus, but I think that it is time for us to move beyond that assumption and begin to proclaim that Christ-centered focus clearly and boldly.

Last week, our staff team met to discuss the scope and sequence of our Christian formation programs. What do we want a child to have learned by the time she is in kindergarten? When a new sixth-grader enters the youth program, what knowledge about our faith should he bring with him? What tenets of Christianity do we want a graduating senior to take with her when she leaves home for college? In the meeting, our focus was on children’s ministry and making sure that our programs for our youngest members fed directly into our programs for teenagers. But, as the conversation went around the room, a clear and overarching imperative surfaced, and I said to our staff, “There is one and only one thing that we want every single person in our church to know: God loves us so much that he sent his Son Jesus Christ to live and die and rise again so that we might be set free from sin and death.”

When the words came out of my mouth, they surprised me—not because of their content but because of their clarity. I have long looked for a way to describe succinctly what it is that I do as a minister of the gospel and what it is that we do as a congregation, and that statement seemed astonishingly simple yet comprehensive. Everything we do must be about Jesus. More specifically, everything we do must be about the love of God as shown in the story of God’s son and the promise of new, complete, and unending life that is granted to us through that story.

Everyone around the table gave me an intrigued look, so I said it a second time, trying it out again to see if it really did say all that I hoped it would: “Everything we do—our teaching, preaching, pastoral care, outreach, everything—must be built upon the principle that God loves us so much that he sent his Son Jesus to live, die, and rise again in order to set us free from sin and death.” It sounded so definitive and inflexible. It sounded uncompromisingly Christian. It sounded like a lot of work. Instead of finalizing one aspect of our children’s program, I was asking our staff to start over and rebuild all of our programs around this theme. It was a huge request.

Part of me expected the staff to respond with half-hearted acceptance or even that dreaded silence of rejection. But they smiled. The conversation took off. Everyone was excited. Sure, we now have more work to do than we realized, but it is good work—holy work, gospel work. We have set aside some days in the coming weeks to put together all the pieces of a comprehensive Christian formation plan for all ages from birth to death. We do not yet know what those pieces will be, nor do we know how we will tie them all together, but we do know what it is that unites all of our work. We must be all about Jesus.
There are many worthwhile endeavors that are not explicitly Christian, but they belong somewhere else. We all know of many other valuable organizations that are working for the good of our community that do not have Jesus as their focus. That work is important, and I applaud it, but it cannot be the work of the church. Our work must be distinctly, uncompromisingly Christian. Every sermon, every class, every hospital visit, every outreach appointment, every tutoring session, every yoga position, every dinner, every prayer must be grounded on the life-changing, life-giving story of Jesus Christ. That is our story. That is our work. Perhaps that goes without saying, but maybe it is a good idea to say it anyway.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Answering Babel

One doesn't need to be a biblical scholar to recognize the link between the story of the Tower of Babel and the story of Pentecost. The former is the divinely appointed confusion of human languages, while the latter shows how the Holy Spirit transcends that barrier to translate the good news of Jesus Christ into every language. In many intentional ways, the two stories go together, and I'm a little surprised that the Genesis 11 reading is only available in lectionary Year C. That means that this year is the triennial opportunity for the congregation to be thoroughly baffled by a God who (apparently) wants to confuse human speech to prevent us from accomplishing whatever we want and then see how God's will is for Christ to override that separation as he is proclaimed in the power of the Spirit in Acts 2. Does it get any better than that?

Biblically speaking, the Tower of Babel is an etiological story written to explain how human kind could advance from a single post-flood family (Genesis 10) to the nations of the earth whom Abraham will encounter (Genesis 12 and beyond). Anthropologically speaking, the advent of different languages is a product of limited resources. I'm no expert, but it seems to me that, when proto-human families could not find enough food or water to stay in one place, they moved and separated. Decades, centuries, even millennia passed, and different dialects and eventually languages arose--all because of competition over limited resources. If there were unlimited food and water and land and reproduction partners, we would all be together in one place, speaking the same language. But we're not. And the fact that I'm writing this in English on a computer to be published electronically on the Internet where anyone with online access could read it and, in theory, ask Google to translate it into almost any language is a sign that, despite our separations and linguistic confusion, the human species has turned out ok.

So what does Babel represent? Is Pentecost an "answer" for Babel? How do we make sense of a God who would say to God's self (or selves?), "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech." If God wanted us to be stifled in our efforts, why is the work of the Holy Spirit to unite all peoples? How do these two chapters of salvation history fit together?

Maybe the answers come not from reading scripture as if they were primarily insights into God's nature but insights into human nature--or, more specifically, insights into how our ancient human relatives understood God's nature. Instead of asking, "What does the Tower of Babel show us about God?" try asking, "Why would the ancient Israelites have explained linguistic diversity with this particular story?" And, accordingly, we then ask, "What does Pentecost say about first-century Christians' understanding of a God who would confuse human speech in Genesis 11 but whose Spirit would then transcend that language barrier in Acts 2?"

Have you ever wondered what sort of place the world would be if we didn't have crime, violence, war, famine, natural disasters, poverty, or oppression? I have. And I think the ancient Israelites did, too. "What could the world be like?" they must have wondered to themselves. The last few chapters in Genesis before the story of Abraham shows up are a dark and twisted tale of failed attempts to establish a utopia. Humankind is wicked. God floods the earth, preserving only Noah and his family. Yet Noah and his family don't turn out to be perfect, either. Sin returns, but God promises not to flood the earth again. In short, we've got to deal with the imperfect world that is the product of our sinfulness. But isn't it fun to dream about how it might be different--the impossible dream of perfection?

That's where the Tower of Babel comes in. And that's why Pentecost is so hopeful. Genesis 11 represents the ancient people of God trying to understand why things were so tough. It wasn't simply a recollection of God's will for confusion and conflict. It was--and is--an answer to the question, "What if things were different?" If they were, nothing would be impossible. Acts 2 is God's response to our wondering. "Let me show you what is possible," God seems to be saying to us. On Sunday, we are invited to marvel in two different directions: "Why is it like this?" and "How could it be different?" And, in the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God answers both.

The Good News of Freedom

May 8, 2016 – The 7th Sunday of Easter
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
In the spring of my second year of seminary, I went on a mission trip, but this was unlike any mission that I had ever been on before. Instead of rebuilding after a hurricane or helping a congregation in a developing country put on a vacation bible school, our mission team went from Cambridge to Billericay—a two-hour train ride that cost about £10. Billericay is a commuter town 25 miles east of London and about half the size of Decatur. It has all the pleasantries of a pit stop on the motorway and all of the challenges of a post-rural, post-industrial, post-Christian bedroom community. I was only there for a week, but I learned quickly enough that Billericay may be the place where 23,000 people sleep, but not very many call it home.

We went to Billericay because a vicar there was an alumnus of our seminary, and he had invited a team to come and lead his congregation in a good old-fashioned mission. Around here, we’d call it a “revival,” but in England the term “mission” meant sprucing the place up, hosting a few community dinners complete with salsa dancing lessons, holding worship services for several evenings in a row, and, most importantly, culminating our efforts with an evening of evangelical talks that were designed to convince non-Christians to start coming to church.

The day before the big talks, we split up into teams and spread out all over the parish, leaving flyers in every mailbox. We promised a free home-cooked meal. We promised upbeat live music. We promised an opportunity to pray for the needs of the whole parish. By this point, we had been working with the clergy and lay leaders in the parish for almost a week. There was a lot of energy and enthusiasm on our team. When it came time to figure out who would be giving the talks, I jumped at the chance to volunteer. People seemed surprised, but I knew I wanted to do it. I had some experience as a child of being skeptical about the church, and my conversion moment was a clear and powerful story of discovering the fullness of God’s love. I wanted to tell that story. I wanted people to hear it and decide to become Christians.

That night, there was a buzz amongst the vicar and the lay leaders in the parish. “He’s coming!” one of them said. “Who?” we asked. “Our town councilman! He’s not a Christian and has never had anything good to say about the church, but someone invited him to come and mentioned that there would be a lot of people from the community here, and he said yes!” The pressure was on. Two of us were responsible for giving the talks, and I went first. I poured my heart out. I spoke honestly, plainly, and emotionally about how hard it had been for me to accept the Christian faith. I told the audience that, by the time I went to university, I could feel that there was something missing in my life, but I didn’t know what it was. I kept trying to fill that whole with going to church and saying the right prayers and trying to be a good person, but it didn’t work. The agonizing hole was still there. Finally, exhausted by a spiritual search that had turned up nothing, I met a man who put me at ease. He told me to stop trying to save myself and let God do the work. It hit me like a lorry speeding down the motorway. I hadn’t found Jesus. Jesus had found me. And the hole in my life was finally filled.

I don’t remember what the other speaker said. She was a decade or two older than me and had had a fruitful career as a lay minister in the church. I am sure that what she said was lovely, but I was still trembling and my ears were still ringing after I stepped down from the stage. I don’t remember much about that moment, but I do remember very clearly what the councilman said once we were both finished. He looked at me and pointed a long, powerful finger right at me and said, “Everything you just said…meant absolutely nothing to me. It was hollow. But you,” he said, pointing to Alyson Lamb, the woman who went second. “You were brilliant. That’s what I needed to hear. I think there might be something to this church business. Maybe I’ll come back.”

What does it take to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to a hyper-secular, post-Christian culture like that of twenty-first century Europe? What words or actions could get through to an audience that considers Jesus to be nothing more than a passing fad? How do you capture the hearts and minds of a people who aren’t willing to give their time, money, or attention to Christianity? Maybe we should ask Paul, who, in today’s reading from Acts 16, became the first Christian missionary to bring the gospel of Jesus to Europe and, as a result, found himself in a world of trouble.

Speaking to the spirit of divination that had taken hold of a slave girl, Paul said sharply, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” The exorcism worked. The spirit left, but with it went the money-making power that had earned the slave girl’s masters a lot of money. Not unlike the many demons that had recognized Jesus during his earthly ministry, this spirit caused the girl to keep crying out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God!” over and over again until finally Paul couldn’t take it anymore. Paul carried with him the power of Jesus’ name, and, in its presence, the spirit within the girl could not help but cry out. It was as if the ungodly spirit was unable to ignore the power of God that dwelt within Paul. But Paul was annoyed, exasperated, worn down by her shouting. His own spirit couldn’t handle it either. These two contrary forces could not coexist, and the power of Jesus won out. The spirit of sorcery was gone. The girl was quiet. She was at peace. She had nothing else to say. But her owners didn’t like it one bit.

They didn’t care that Paul wielded a superior power. They refused to acknowledge what this exorcism represented. Instead, blinded by greed-induced rage, they threw Paul and his companions into prison and ordered the guard to keep them locked up tight. But, in the middle of the night, while the prisoners were singing songs to God, a great earthquake came and shook open the doors and broke loose the chains—another sign that God’s power could not be rivaled. And, when the warden saw that all the doors were opened, he drew his sword to kill himself, knowing that an even worse fate awaited him when the townspeople discovered that the prisoners had gone free during his watch. But Paul stopped him in the act. “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!” Again, now for the third time, the power of God took hold of the situation. “Sirs,” the jailer said to them, “what must I do to be saved?” And, by saved, he didn’t just mean “go to heaven.” He meant, “What will save me from an execution?” Regardless of what he was hoping for, the answer was the same: “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” They told him the good news, and the jailer got up and washed the wounds of the prisoners and fed them a meal, and that very night he and everyone who lived in his house were baptized and became followers of Jesus.

The powers of this world seek to bind us in chains, but the power of God will set us free. Even the fortune teller, whose power came from an ungodly spirit, recognized where true power was to be found, and the power of Jesus’ name set her free. When God’s power showed up and shook open the doors and the chains, the jailer knew that he had been beaten and that death was the only option, but God’s power didn’t come so that he could die. It came to set him free and to give him life. That’s what the world is eager to hear—not that something else is missing from their lives but that, finally, something has the power to set them free, and that something is Jesus.
God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world but that, through him, the world might be saved—liberated, set free. Jesus holds the power of freedom—the power to set us free from guilt and shame and disappointment. The name of Jesus has the power to set us free even from death itself. What will it take to get through to a world that isn’t interested in hearing any more good news? Freedom and the unconditional love that brings it. God didn’t send his son to conquer us. Jesus came to set us free. God’s love has set us free. Share that life-giving, life-freeing love with the whole world. Believe in the power of that love. Believe that it can set the whole world free.