Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Law of Christ

This morning, when I read this Sunday's epistle lesson (Galatians 6:1-16), something jumped out at me: "Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ." It was that phrase "law of Christ" that caught my attention. Law of Christ? What's that? And why is Paul, the suspected antinomian, writing about any sort of law as if it belonged to the one who set us free from the law?

I did a quick search for the word "law" in the bible. Not surprisingly, it comes up a lot in Galatians--27 times! In the Old and New Testaments, only Romans has more incidences of that word (51). In this letter, Paul is deeply and emotionally concerned with a faction in the Galatian church that is insisting that Gentile converts to Christianity be circumcised. At times combative, this letter is Paul's most vehement treatise against those who would require followers of Christ to be adherents to the law of Moses. Among the 27 times that the word "law," 26 of them refer in one way or another to the law of the old covenant. Each time, Paul is laying out a reason why that law is not operative in the lives of those converts. But then there's the exception.

"Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ." To the original readers of this letter, it must have leapt off the page in a way that I missed earlier this week. Law of Christ. If Paul is going to call something the law of Christ, he must really mean it. To someone who wants to be absolutely clear that the law of Moses is fruitless, those are dangerous words. But Paul chooses them carefully and for powerful effect. This is the law of Christ--this is what we, as followers of Jesus who have been justified by faith, are beholden to: we must bear one another's burdens.

But Paul doesn't mean that in the "Lean on me" kind of way. He doesn't mean that Christians must share the emotional toil of hardship with other disciples of Jesus. He's talking about ethics, and he's showing us that, when one of us is burdened by a transgression of ungodly, un-Spirit-filled living, everyone feels it. To see that, though, one needs to flip back to the end of Galatians 5 (or at least remember last week's epistle lesson).

At the end of chapter 5, Paul argues that "the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these." In contrast, "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control." In this, Paul isn't offering a prescription for participation in the body of Christ. No, he makes it clear in that same paragraph that those who "are led by the Spirit...are not under the law." This isn't a legislated moral code to which followers of Jesus must adhere. Instead, this is a description of the redeemed, Spirit-enlivened life. And, as we see in this Sunday's lesson, any brother or sister who fails on this point--who is "detected in a transgression"--should be restored to the community "in a Spirit of gentleness" because, as Paul writes, bearing one another's burdens of temptation and transgression is the law of Christ.

Among the many gifts that Paul offers the contemporary church is his understanding of sin as a condition--a sickness that cannot be cured by our will power. Think of all the "sinners" whom we ostracize from the Christian community. There's a reason that the recovery groups meet in the basement, where cheap coffee is served and the protection of anonymity is sacrosanct. Why? Because we have not succeeded in bearing their burdens as our burdens. We drive them to anonymity because we "who are nothing think [we] are something" and thus deceive ourselves. But, as Paul writes, there is a law in Christ--a law that states that brokenness is born by the whole body. We are called "to restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness." We are to restore those whom we have shut out through our own condemnation to full participation in the Christian community. Their burdens are our burdens, and Christ invites us to see that.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Following the Followers

When I was in eighth grade, all of the students took a vocational aptitude test--the kind of standardized assessment that lets you know whether you might be a good mechanic or nurse or firefighter. Other than the fact that I found the results amusing, I don't remember anything that that test predicted about my career. But I do remember very vividly when the counselor came into our classroom to ask us about our future. "How many of you want to go to college?" she asked. Every hand in the room shot up. "Hmmm," she continued. "I appreciate your interest, but the truth is that college isn't right for everyone. For many of you, vocational school or on-the-job training after high school will be more appropriate." More appropriate? For my whole life, I had been told that I could do anything I wanted to do if I set my mind to it. This was a shocking revelation. No, I wasn't worried about my own future, but it still felt like cold water was being thrown on the dreams of everyone in the class.

The world is full of leaders and followers, and the world definitely needs both, but I don't know anyone who encourages his children to strive to be a follower. As Steve Pankey wrote in his sermon last Sunday, the premier job in elementary classrooms is the line leader. No one expects the Star Student to be fourth in line. Yes, the "caboose" has its own special place as leading from the back, but parents like me get excited when we see our children in the front of the line, at the head of the class, distinguished from their peers. But being a disciple of Jesus is very different. One does not distinguish herself or himself as a Christian by being out in front. By definition, those of us who claim Jesus as our Lord are those who follow him.

I've spent a lifetime learning how to be a leader. At every turn, I've been encouraged to step out in front. Even in church and in Sunday school, I have been urged to take my place at center stage. That's where I am comfortable, but it's not necessarily where I belong. But it comes so naturally. Learning to be a leader dovetails with all of our deeply held animal instincts. On nature shows, we see species fighting over limited resources. Giant elk battle each other for the right to mate and propagate their genetic material for the next generation. Grizzly bears fight each other to the death in order to retain the right to forage in a particularly fruitful field. And we do the same thing. Whether it's looking for a job or fighting for a promotion or wooing a potential partner, human beings work to distinguish themselves as worthy choices. We are bred to be leaders. And God calls us to give all of that up.

Jesus says, "Follow me." That sounds so simple and easy and inviting. "Yes," we say, eager to set down these burdens that we carry. We'd love to not have to be first in line for a while. It's a relief to let someone else make some decisions for our life. But how long can we keep that up? How willing are we to be second in our own life? How comfortable are we sacrificing our own needs for those of others? How long can we stand not being in charge? How long before we're ready to take over again? How long before we need to stop playing second fiddle--Ed McMahon--and get some recognition for our own? But Jesus doesn't invite us to follow him for a while. We are not training to take over when he steps aside. Being a Christian means following Jesus for ever.

That's hard. It's counterintuitive. It means sacrificing that part of us that wants to be in the spotlight for our own sake. Fortunately, we're not the first to embrace this identity. We don't have to figure that out on our own. Today is the feast of Peter and Paul--two giants of self-sacrifice. We remember them not for the captivating orations they delivered or the thousands of followers they won for Jesus. We remember them because they were followers of Jesus. All of their accomplishments were achieved not for themselves but as followers of Jesus who had submitted their entire lives to their Lord. In 1 Timothy, we read of Paul's final days: "I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." He was an apostle in chains. He gave up his freedom in order to better serve Jesus. Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he told Peter that he would be led in chains to his own death, and Peter accepted that as part of his devotion to his Lord.

But don't confuse being a follower with being silent or meek or timid. There was nothing meek about Paul. And Peter was the rock upon which Jesus built his church. You don't get that kind of reputation for being a shrinking violet. No, following Jesus doesn't mean failing at life. It means letting someone else be in charge. It means using your gifts and talents--perhaps quietly, perhaps boldly--to point to someone else. Following Jesus means giving your will--your choices--over to Jesus and letting everything you do be about glorifying him.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

God Our Mother

In 1969, after Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church updated its lectionary. Instead of one list of readings that was repeated every year, the new lectionary used a three-year cycle that opened up "new" parts of the bible that hadn't been read in church for centuries. Even more astounding, in addition to the gospel and epistle lessons, a reading from the Hebrew scriptures was added, which meant that congregations were regularly hearing passages from the Old Testament for the first time in many generations. Most amazing of all, this reform was so well-received and admired that within a decade many Protestant churches had adopted similar changes to their lectionaries.

In 1994, after nine years of trial use, the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) was officially published, and the United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), Lutheran Church (ELCA and Missouri Synod), and dozens of others began using it in their worship. Although very similar to the Roman Catholic lectionary, the RCL introduced one critical difference. In the season after Pentecost, instead of offering only an Old Testament lesson and psalm that thematically paralleled the assigned gospel lesson, it offered an additional continuous track through various books of the Hebrew Bible without regard for the other lessons. This alternative was labeled "Track 1," thus given an implied preferred place, and was promulgated because the authors of the RCL wanted to avoid any hints of anti-Semitism that might be inferred from having paired OT lessons and gospel lessons in a way that implied the former was an explicit and exclusive foreshadowing of the latter. Although it seems good and right to avoid anti-Semitic practices, making clear connections between Old Testament and New Testament texts is not necessarily wrong, and I, for one, enjoy encountering the different voices on the same theme even if a link of causality is never asserted.

Our parish is a "Track 2" parish, which means that each week there is an implied link between the first lesson and the gospel. Usually it's obvious, but sometimes--in weeks like this one--the link is hard to spot.

On Sunday, Jesus will send out seventy missionaries with a harsh warning: "See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves" (Luke 10:1-11, 16-20). But, earlier in our worship, we will have heard the prophet words of tender encouragement: "I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees" (Isaiah 66:10-14). What's the connection? I'm not really sure. But, given the beauty of the maternal images in that passage from Isaiah, I don't really care.

The metaphors used to portray the comfort God is offering his people is sensual, deep, and motherly: "Rejoice...that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious bosom." The author was intimately familiar with what it meant to be a mother who comforts her wailing child by feeding it at her breast. That image of nourishment, comfort, and intimacy isn't often employed in the bible. Typically, when I think of salvation images in the bible, I think of God's work as being expressed in masculine terms that belong in a recruitment ad from the U. S. Navy--a military victory or a rescue operation. To imagine God dandling us on the knees of his holy city, bouncing us up and down as we squeal with delight, is a long way from celebrating the deaths of the infidel and the impregnable security of the city's walls. How delightful!

As I wrote yesterday, the gospel lessons are going to challenge us for the next several weeks. As Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem, moments of comfort and tenderness will be hard to find. Perhaps the pairing of these two passages gives the preacher a new way to express the saving work that will unfold once Jesus arrives at the holy city. No, Isaiah did not have Jesus of Nazareth in mind when he dreamt of Jerusalem's rescue, but Luke would have known what Isaiah wrote centuries earlier. Maybe it's not unfair to lay the two on top of each other and use a particular expression of the hopes of God's people to shade our understanding of the hope expressed in Jesus. Surely, in this challenging season of our journey to Jerusalem, it is ok to stop and linger in a moment of God's tenderness.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Hard Road Ahead

Yesterday, I preached a tough sermon. It was tough for me and tough for the congregation, too. It embraced the urgency of Jesus' call to discipleship and his work to bring the kingdom of God to fruition. Using issues like gun control and sex trafficking and poverty, it contrasted our current society with the kingdom of God. It proclaimed that the world is desperate for the transformation that the kingdom of God will bring and that Jesus is asking us to be agents of that kingdom right now--without delay. There is, of course, hope in that message. Jesus' death and resurrection have brought the kingdom to us in an immediate way, but the hope that that kingdom brings comes in the midst of deep and lasting societal challenges.

On the way out of church, someone remarked, "I was really hoping to be comforted today, but I didn't get that." We both chuckled a little bit. I took his remark as a comment on my choice of sermon--that he would have preferred that I preach a feel-good message--so I put the challenge right back to him. "You know, Jesus wasn't comforting today. The gospel lesson wasn't comforting." He nodded in agreement. Then, I continued with a gentle warning: "You know, now that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, things aren't going to get much better. We've got some hard weeks ahead. But the road to the cross is supposed to be difficult."

And then I woke up this morning and looked at the gospel lesson for Sunday and thought, "I'm in the mood for comfort, too, but I'm not going to get it, am I?"

At the beginning of Luke 10, Jesus sends out seventy missionaries to go and prepare the way for him. As they leave, he tells them, "See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road." Fun times, huh? Jesus commissions them to be vulnerable. They go out underprepared, learning what it means to trust that God will provide. They are sent out to a world that doesn't really want them, making them sensitive to how the Spirit will help them make peaceful, nourishing relationships with strangers. They are given the same message to proclaim to those who will receive them as well as those who reject them: "The kingdom of God has come near."

Perhaps thankfully, the gospel lesson skips over verses 12-15 and the woes to unrepentant Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum. When it resumes in verse 16, however, we find the surprisingly hope-filled return of the seventy. They "returned with joy, saying, 'Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us.'" They marveled at what they were able to accomplish. When sent out with so little, they were still able to do great things. But, before they get the "big-head," Jesus calls them back to reality, refocusing their joy on the nature of their work: "See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."

It's Monday. I've got five days to listen for hope and joy in the midst of challenge. Honestly, I'm still a little spiritually hungover from yesterday, and I'm looking for a little shot of joy to get me through this week. Perhaps I'll warm up to the reality of the challenge in the gospel lesson by the time I climb back into the pulpit. Or maybe I'll preach on the "glorious bosom" in Isaiah 66. Regardless, we're all on this journey with Jesus. For the rest of the summer, we'll be headed to Jerusalem. There's joy at the end of the road, but it's going to take us a while to get there.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

God's Kingdom Cannot Wait

June 26, 2016 – The 6th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 8C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Rarely is God’s will for our lives communicated as clearly and definitively as having the most famous (or infamous) prophet in Israel come alongside us and throw his mantle over our shoulders. I don’t know about you, but, even though I’ve felt like I heard God’s call for me a time or two, never has it fallen out of the sky and hit me on the shoulders like that. Right there, in the middle of a field, without invitation or introduction, Elijah walked up to Elisha while he was plowing behind some oxen, and, without saying a word, he threw his cloak upon him. One could not ask for a clearer sign, yet, still, I am surprised that Elisha said yes.

Keep in mind that, at this point, Elijah was a wanted man. Just a few verses earlier in 1 Kings 19, Jezebel, the wicked wife of Ahab, the most wicked king in Israel’s history, was enraged at him because he had killed all of her false prophets. She invoked a curse upon herself, saying, “May the gods [strike me dead] if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow” (19:2). And if anyone could make good on that murderous promise, it was Queen Jezebel, so Elijah ran for his life and hid in a cave. There the Lord spoke to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah? Go and anoint a new king over Israel and a new king over Judah and anoint Elisha as your successor.”

So he went and found this young prophet-to-be and foisted the authority and the burden of being God’s chosen one literally upon his shoulders. The Holy Spirit must have been present in that moment in a powerful way because, even though it likely meant a terrible death, Elisha said yes. “But, first,” he continued, “please let me go and kiss my mother and father goodbye and let me make some preparations for them, and then I will come and be your disciple.” And Elijah said, “Sure,” because, after all, he hadn’t really given Elisha a chance to say no, and it seemed only right that, before taking this man away from his family for good that he would let him tell them goodbye. The fact that he slaughtered the oxen and used the wood from the plow and yoke to fuel the fire suggests to us that he wasn’t planning on coming back. This was a farewell for good, and the honorable thing for the son to do was to go and take care of his parents before setting out on this new and permanent journey.

Who would begrudge Elisha that momentary pause to care for his parents? Wouldn’t we expect a holy prophet of God to obey the fifth commandment and honor his father and mother before accepting this new vocation? Who would criticize him for tending to his family before answering God’s call? Well, Jesus would.

To a would-be disciple, Jesus said, “Follow me.” But the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Another man came up to Jesus and said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me say farewell to those at my home,” which sounds like a familiar, reasonable request. But Jesus’ reply was dismissive and condemnatory: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” I don’t know if that man was a farmer, but that’s not the point. Jesus chose to invoke the image of Elijah calling Elisha to make a point about the urgency of God’s kingdom: If you’re not willing to drop absolutely everything and follow me, don’t bother; never mind. And, this morning, I’m curious whether we are in danger of hearing Jesus say to us those two terrible words: “Never mind.”

Why would Jesus be so harsh? Why would he be so inflexible? Why would he use the story of Elijah and Elisha to show us that that kind of answer to God’s call isn’t good enough? And why isn’t it good enough? It was good enough for the greatest prophet in Israel. Why is Jesus and his call to discipleship different? What make it so urgent that it can’t even wait for a farewell or a funeral? And, if it really us that urgent, what does that mean for us?

The hardest part about this urgency is that Jesus isn’t asking us to prioritize God’s kingdom over and above our own worldly desires. He’s not asking us to give up a self-indulgent vacation or a round of golf. That, perhaps, would be easy—at least understandable. Instead, Jesus is asking us to sacrifice good and godly things in order to follow him. An eldest son would have an obligation to bury his father. Only the man’s child could fulfill that role. Burial was a critical custom in the Jewish faith. There were rules about who could touch the corpse, and the son was honor-bound to carry out this duty for his father. If he didn’t do it, the dead man might not get a proper burial. Yet Jesus threw that holy obligation aside as if it were nothing. Likewise, he dismissed the man who asked permission to go and say farewell to his family. Why wouldn’t a follower be permitted—even encouraged—to go and take care of his family just as Elisha did? Jesus wants us to see that the kingdom of God will not wait even for these holy responsibilities. He shows us that there is an unparalleled, unsurpassed urgency to his ministry that calls into question even our most basic assumptions about what it means to be faithful to God.

Why? Because Jesus had set his face to go to Jerusalem, and there was nothing that could distract him from that. When the Samaritan village refused to receive him and James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven to consume it, Jesus couldn’t be bothered. He was focused on something else. When people asked if they could follow him, he was happy for them to join him on the trek to the holy city, but he wasn’t willing to wait on them to get their affairs in order. He couldn’t wait. Jerusalem couldn’t wait. Jesus knew what would happen when he got there. He knew that God would use that moment to break through into this world and establish his kingdom here on earth. Jesus knew that the events that would transpire in Jerusalem had the power to transform the whole world, and that was too important—too urgent—to be delayed.

Today, the world still needs transformation. The world needs God’s kingdom, and that kingdom is right around the corner. Jesus’ face is still set on that kingdom-goal, and he isn’t going to wait on us to get ready for it. It’s coming whether we’re ready or not, and, if we aren’t ready, Jesus is going to look at us and say, “Never mind.”

For the first few decades after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, his disciples believed that he would come back at any minute. They knew that the fulfillment of the kingdom, which Jesus had inaugurated, was near. But years went by. And Christians started dying. And persecutions came, and the suffering that Christians endured was terrible. And, still, Jesus did not come. And, as time went on, disciples of Jesus stopped expecting the kingdom to come at any minute. And, now, two thousand years later, we have forgotten what it means to believe in the urgency of God’s kingdom. Because of that, it’s easier now than ever to find a good and godly excuse to delay our answer to Jesus’ call, which means that now, more than ever, we are in danger of hearing Jesus say to us, “Never mind.”

This world we live in is desperate for transformation. Violence and greed and death are reigning in this place. Evil people with evil intentions have access to semi-automatic weapons with enormous firepower—the kinds of weapons that belong only on the battlefield. Mass shootings have become shockingly commonplace, and they will not stop until we do something about it. Men and women and children are being targeted for harassment and abuse and violence simply because their skin is darker than ours or because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity or because they are Muslim or because they are immigrants. Those of us with power and privilege can do something about that, but will we? Thousands of teenage girls who have run away from home are being exploited by human traffickers, who use them as prostitutes. Even right here in Alabama sixteen-year-olds, fourteen-year-olds, twelve-year-olds are working as sex slaves. What will we do about it? Although the rich are getting richer, poverty is running rampant. Here in Decatur, there are children who do not have enough to eat. This summer, the same boys and girls who sat next to our children and grandchildren in their classrooms are lining up at the CCC to get a wholesome meal. But what about breakfast and dinner? And what about the other five days of the week when the CCC doesn’t serve lunch? Is it too much to ask that every child and every adult in this town gets enough to eat every day of the week?

That is the community we live in. All of those things happen right here in our home. But those things don’t happen in the kingdom of God. They don’t happen when God is in charge. They don’t happen when the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection reign here on earth. The world is desperate for God’s kingdom. And Jesus came and lived and died and rose again to bring that kingdom here to earth, and what is our response when he asks us to follow him and be a part of that kingdom? What do we say when he asks us if we will be the agents of change that God will use to bring that kingdom here on earth? “I’m sorry, Jesus. Can it wait? Does it have to be today? You want to me to do something about it now?” And Jesus looks at us and shakes his head and says, “Never mind.”

If we are going to be disciples of Jesus, we have got to stop pretending that the kingdom of God will come to earth someday. It isn’t someday. It’s today—if we will let it. But it’s costly. And it’s urgent. And it isn’t going to wait. It might cost us our friends. It might cost us our families. It might cost us our comfortable place here in St. John’s Church. It might cost us our jobs. It might cost us our savings. It might even cost us our lives. But none of those things matters when the kingdom of God is on its way. Will you be a follower of Jesus? Will you stop hiding behind an eschatology of convenience that pretends that there will always be another day—another chance—to work for justice and peace and the dignity of every human being? Will you give your heart and your soul and your strength and your mind and your voice to the movement that is bringing God’s kingdom here on earth? In other words, will you follow Jesus as your Lord? He’s waiting. He’s waiting at that altar, and he’s waiting at that door. And he asking you to follow him—not tomorrow but today, right now. Will you go with him into God’s kingdom?

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Best God in the Whole World

In my sermon prep, I usually read the psalm and then move on. Sometimes there are clear resonances with another lesson or two ("I am the Good Shepherd" and Psalm 23), but, more often than not, in our worship the psalm serves as a liturgical element like a hymn or prayer, drawing the congregation together in an act of worship. Because of that, psalms rarely feature explicitly in my sermons. I doubt mention will be made of Psalm 16 this week, but, when I read it this morning and heard the psalmist pray, "But those who run after other gods shall have their troubles multiplied," a funny thought popped in my head: "Do we miss the days of polytheism?"

As a way of explanation, let me offer a brief sketch of how Judaism became a monotheistic faith. It started with Abraham, who in the Genesis account answered Yahweh's call to leave his home and go to the land that this God would show him. At that time, there were other gods being worshiped by other people--even, presumably, Abraham's kinsfolk--but this particular divinity, whose name is Yahweh (often abbreviated the LORD), spoke to Abraham, and Abraham listened. The rest of the Hebrew Bible is about the relationship between Abraham and his descendants and this particular God. But, as all the pages between Genesis 12 and Malachi attest, that wasn't a straightforward thing.

Anthropologically speaking, ancient cultures believed that gods resided in certain places and with certain peoples. If you lived in this area, you were protected by this god, whom you worshipped. Your neighbors might worship a different god, and, when you went out to do battle against them, it wasn't just a matchup between armies but also between divinities. In the earliest days, before the traditions and laws of Israel were codified, the descendants of Abraham were like their neighbors--monolatrous. They believed in the existence of other gods but had faith that their god--Yahweh--was the one who would protect and save them. If you have any doubts about that, flip through the psalter, which offers a glimpse at the oldest sacred texts in the Judeo-Christian tradition (e.g. "There is none like you among the gods, O Lord" Psalm 86:8). That sounds strange to us, but that's what it meant to be faithful in the ancient world--to believe that your particular god was the best god in the whole world.

Then, everything changed--and a lot more recently than you might think. Sometime during the Babylonian Exile (middle of the 6th century BC), Judaism became monotheistic. During that time of captivity in a far away land, a relationship with Israel's God was maintained not through cultic worship and festivals but through prayers (i.e., the psalms), historical teaching, dietary observances, and circumcision. This separation from the mechanics of worship forced God's people to think about their access to God in completely new ways. The content of their faith was held in contrast with that of their captors, who worshipped "false gods." Clarity was the gift of the Exile, and, when they returned to Palestine, they took with them a new sense of the uniqueness of Yahweh and left behind even the acknowledgment that other gods existed.

I wonder whether we wish for simpler times. In Psalm 16, the poet asserts his faithfulness to God, writing, "I have said to [Yahweh], 'You are my Lord, my good above all other.'" Critical of his enemies for their faithlessness, he writes, "But those who run after other gods shall have their troubles multiplied. Their libations of blood I will not offer, nor take the names of their gods upon my lips." His expression of steadfastness is cast as invocation only of Yahweh and worship only of him. As a contemporary Christian preacher, I often call people to steadfastness of faith, but I never think to exhort our congregation to abandon its worship of Baal.

Still, we worship false gods. They don't have names like they did in the Hebrew Bible--Amon, Asherah, Baal, Dagon, Molech. Instead, they are so much harder to pin down--image, success, happiness, control. "Money" is often labeled as the false god we worship, and money has a lot to do with it, but not worshipping this false god isn't as simple as being poor or giving money to charity. It's deeper than that. It's a recognition, as the psalmist says, that the Lord is "[our] good above all other." It is confidence that God alone "will not abandon [us]to the grave, nor let your holy one[s] see the Pit."

What is it that we believe will save us? And I don't mean "save us from the fires of hell." I mean "save us from today--from hunger, from fear, from disease, from calamity, from war, from distress." What are we counting on to save us? Back in the old days, when human power was fleeting, everyone was faithful to some sort of god. A divine power was your only hope. And faithfulness meant identifying the source of your salvation as the one, true God. Today, we all assume that there is only one God, but we still put our faith somewhere else. Maybe the prayer of the psalmist is more important now than ever.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Circumcision Omission

Finally a lectionary omission that I can live with! On Sunday we will ready the opening verse of Galatians 5 and then skip all the way down to verse 13, and I don't mind one bit. Sure, the preacher should take time to read the intervening text and understand the fullness of Paul's "becomes slaves to one another" argument, but I think it's perfectly fine to leave out the part about circumcision.

No, I'm not squeamish. I have no problem saying or hearing the word "circumcision" in church (even the six times that it is used in the omitted verses). In fact, I find it funny when Paul writes hyperbolically, "I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!" No, I think we can omit these verse because, in this case, the issue at hand (circumcision) isn't as important as the conclusion Paul reaches (freedom). In fact, taking that a step further, I think the particularities of the issue actually detract from the passage's teaching today.

Who cares about circumcision? I remember my mother speaking to me before I went to summer camp about boys whose penises might look different than mine, but I don't know of any Christian parent who debates the issue of whether to have their newborn son circumcised because of a ritual observance of the Jewish law. Unless you're in an interfaith marriage where you might be fighting with in-laws about whether circumcision is necessary as a sign of the covenant made with Abraham, you can pretty well skip these 11 verses. There are more important fish to fry in today's church.

Paul urges the Galatians to take their freedom in Christ seriously: "Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." He has circumcision in mind, but that doesn't mean we need to. The fact remains that, in Christ, we have been set free--not for self-indulgent behavior but for grace-actualized love for one another. We are not justified to God under the law of "thou shalt..." and "thou shalt not...," but, in Christ, we are free to act as Spirit-filled, Spirit-guided agents of God. That principle of grace is threatened in today's church, but it isn't circumcision that is threatening it.

What has become the sine qua non of a religious life? If Kevin Bacon taught us anything in Footloose, it's that rock music and dancing aren't the issue. Likewise, I don't hear a lot of people complaining about "mixed bathing" anymore. So what is it? What has replaced circumcision as the legalistic thing the contemporary church is fighting over? For what reason are we dismissing would-be Christians and Christian movements? Is it because they don't gather for worship in a pretty building? Is it because they meet for church on a day other than Sunday? Maybe it's because they don't believe in the personification of evil known as the Devil, or maybe it's because they do. Real wine or grape juice? KJV or NIV or NRSV? Seminary-educated clergy or Spirit-called, Spirit-taught ministers?

In our denomination, we seem to have mutually anathematized each other over the issue of human sexuality. If you support gay marriage, you must not believe in the bible and, thus, aren't a real Christian. And, if you refuse to support gay marriage, you must not believe in the inclusive ministry of Jesus and, thus, aren't a real Christian. What would Paul say to us? "For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another." Those are powerful words. They are spoken from a place of true freedom, which is to say effective vulnerability to others because of the invulnerability provided by Christ. Whatever our circumcision issue, we have forgotten what it means to love one another so fully as to become slaves to one another--to say to those with whom we vehemently disagree, "Whatever you want, master." We have been using our freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence. It's time to try mutual slavery and see if our shared freedom can become an inseparable bond of love.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016


I don't think I have ever seen the entire film Firestarter, which features a young Drew Barrymore as a child who is able to start fires with her mind. When I was a kid, it was too scary for me, and, by the time I was old enough to persevere through the whole thing, I had lost interest. When I was in high school, however, I discovered The Prodigy, a techno group who helped launch the "big beat genre." One of their songs is "Firestarter," and, if you're feeling a little lethargic or, perhaps, angry for no reason, it's worth a listen.

Drew Barrymore and The Prodigy have their own version of kicking up some flames, but Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 9:51-62) contains its own line about some "twisted firestarter[s]" that might get missed in most sermons (quote from the song, not the bible).

Luke 9 is a pivotal chapter in this gospel account. It starts with the sending out of the twelve, whom Jesus gives the "power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases." Pretty big stuff. Then, after they return, Jesus feeds the 5,000--an important story that is skipped in this year's lectionary. Right after that, Luke fits in Peter's confession of Jesus as the Christ, which initiates a remarkable shift in Jesus' ministry. He begins to predict his suffering, death, and resurrection and uses that prediction as a call to total discipleship. Then, there's the trip up the mountain with Peter, James, and John, who get to witness Jesus transfigured--his divinity shining through. And, when they come down, there is one more exorcism followed by a second passion prediction and its implication for discipleship ("who is the greatest?"). Then, as we begin Sunday's lesson, Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, and the rest of Luke will be a journey to the Paschal mystery of death and resurrection.

But, as soon as Jesus "set his face to go to Jerusalem," he and his disciples encountered some resistance. Luke tells us that he sent messengers ahead of him to prepare the way, but, when they came to a village of Samaria--practically the first stop between Galilee and Jerusalem--the people of that town would not receive him "because his face was set toward Jerusalem." In other words, Jesus was on his way to fulfill his destiny in the holy city that the Jews identified as the center of worship, but the Samaritans, who were dedicated to Mt. Gerazim, a rival hill where they believed the focus of divine-human transactions was to take place, wanted nothing to do with this Jerusalem-bound prophet. But the best part is the reaction of James and John, those "Sons of Thunder." They ask Jesus, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?"

Dang! Fire? Really? James and John are so in touch with their identity as disciples of Jesus that they feel confident that they have the power to call down a destroying rain of fire upon a village of rival Samaritans? And James and John are so out of touch with their identity as disciples of Jesus that they think that calling doing a destroying rain of fire on a village of Samaritans is an appropriate response? This is bizarre. Jesus, unsurprisingly, chastises them. And then the story moves on.

I don't think it's likely to get a lot of mention in any sermons on Sunday, including mine. Given the Track 2 OT reading from 1 Kings and Paul's exhortation to "be slaves to one another" in Galatians 5, the theme of the urgency of discipleship is more likely to come to the fore. But I'd like to stop long enough to marvel at the power that has been given to these disciples and the danger of using it in the wrong way. Surely there's a second sermon in there. (But, please, only preach one.) As we explore the theme of radical discipleship and its urgency, it's worth holding in our minds and in our hearts the power that is given to those who follow Jesus in faith and the danger that comes along with it. This is real stuff. It's powerful and humbling. No wonder Jesus takes it so seriously.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Going Off Script

Each week when I preach, I write out a whole text, which I publish here on the blog, but I don't bring it with me into the pulpit. I have found that, if I know well the biblical texts and the sermon that I have written, a few bullet points are enough to keep me on task. That way, I can connect with the congregation, react to them, listen for the Holy Spirit, and adapt the sermon as I go along. Sure, it's risky. Occasionally, I'll get to a point where I cannot remember what I intended to say next--a sign that I'm slavishly tied to the text--but eventually I find my way back. Worse, every once in a while I will say something I did not intend--something that, if given the chance to take it back, I would. Several months ago, when rattling off a list of empty, idolatrous practices, "going to church" popped out of my mouth, and I wanted to say, "Wait, I didn't mean that!" but it was too late. Sure enough, one person told me that was her favorite part of the sermon. (Sigh. Of course it was.)

Going off script can be dangerous. Preachers say things that they regret. Candidates make promises that they can't keep. Parents use words that they hope their children won't remember even though they know that they always do. And, in Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 9:51-62), Jesus makes a comparison that he surely did not intend. A would-be disciple approaches Jesus and says, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home," and Jesus responds, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

Um, Jesus? What were you thinking? Why didn't you stick to the script? We practiced this. I know that you are doing something special, and I know that you believe that there is an urgency to your movement, but you can't say that. You can't compare yourself with Elijah if you're going to call him out like that. You can't tell these people that the greatest prophet in Israel's history was wrong. As your messianic campaign manager, I'm pretty sure you're going to need to walk that back. Let me get with some people to formulate a strategy, and we'll come up with a plan. We can fix this.

But, of course, Jesus did mean it. Gospel accounts aren't transcriptions of Jesus' conversations. They have been filtered through the oral and written traditions, telling and retelling, writing and rewriting, always guided by the Holy Spirit, until what we have in Luke is surely what God is giving to God's people. Even if Jesus didn't mean it or, depending on your hermeneutical perspective, didn't say it, the gospel writer gives it to us as an intentional, provocative proclamation of Jesus. And its total shock-value shouldn't be lost on us.

In the Track 2 reading from 1 Kings 19, the Lord tells Elijah that he has selected Elisha to be "prophet in your place." When he finds him plowing behind a dozen oxen, Elijah throws his mantle over his successor as symbol of the selection and a sign of the beginning of the transfer of power and authority. In other words, the choice has been made. Elisha could not have missed the meaning of that act. He accepts this appointment, leaving the oxen and running after Elijah, but, before they continue on their journey, he asks Elijah to delay: "Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you." It's a reasonable request. Presumably Elisha had familial duties to uphold. Once he is given permission by his new master, he takes the oxen and slaughters them and boils their flesh with the wood from the yoke that held them together behind the plow--signs of the finality of this prophetic appointment--and gives the stew to the people. Then he leaves to follow Elijah.

And there's nothing wrong with that...unless you're preparing to follow Jesus. "Follow me," he says to someone, but that man asks leave to go and bury his dead father. "Let the dead bury the dead," Jesus says, offering a shocking reply that calls into question everything his contemporaries knew about filial obligations. Another offers to follow him but asks leave to go and say goodbye to his family, but, simultaneously invoking and questioning the tradition of Elijah and Elisha, Jesus replies, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." Can this be? Did he mean it?

Yes, Jesus meant it. Yes, it's difficult. Yes, it's shocking. Yes, it throws everything we think we know about duty and honor and family into question. And that's the point. Following Jesus can't be a secondary priority. The kingdom that he is ushering in doesn't have room for uncommitted participants. This week, as I prepare to preach, I'm looking for ways in which contemporary Christians like me find excuses to delay our commitment to the kingdom. What is our plow? And how does even the most logical, reasonable, honorable intention still get between us and the kingdom?

Thursday, June 16, 2016


In the story of the healing of the demon-possessed man in Geresa (Luke 8:26-39), there are two examples of evangelists--one bad and one good. The first is the group of swineherds, who witnessed Jesus set the demoniac free from his possession. And the second is the demon-possessed man himself once he had been set free from his affliction.

Luke tells us that the demons inside the man "begged Jesus to let them enter" a large herd of swine there on the hillside. Speaking from within the man, Legion, as the demons identified themselves, recognized that Jesus was the "Son of the Most High God," and, before Jesus even began to express his power over them, they knew that they would be defeated. Instead of asserting any power, they chose a defensive strategy, attempting, as Luke tells us, to avoid being send "back into the abyss." When Jesus gave them permission, they left the man and entered the pigs, which then rushed down the steep hill into the sea.

Watching this unfold were the swineherds--men who saw their livelihood drown in the water. "When they saw what happened," Luke writes, "they ran off and told it in the city and in the country." And, by the time the people from that area came out to see it for themselves, their minds were made up. They were afraid. They saw the man, sitting in his right mind, and they were filled with fear. Unable or unwilling to tolerate this disruptive presence in their midst, they agree--all of them--to ask Jesus to leave their territory. And immediately Jesus got into the boat and left.

But that wasn't the end of the story. We don't know what happened, but the story didn't end there. The once-demon-possessed man "begged" Jesus (note the use of the same word that he had used earlier) to let him become a disciple. "Let me follow you, Jesus!" the man might have pleaded. But Jesus said no. He would not let him. Some presume it is because of his Gentile identity--that this would have disrupted his ministry among his fellow Jews. Regardless, the result is the same. The man is not permitted to follow Jesus, but he is given a charge. "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you," Jesus said to the man, sending him away. "Go share news of this," Jesus told him. "Be my evangelist in this place."

He had his work cut out for him. Everyone in the town had turned against Jesus. The testimony of the swineherds had poisoned the well. They had made up their minds that Jesus was dangerous--that his presence among them was a reason to be afraid. But the man had another story to tell. The same Jesus--the same power that he represented--had given him back his life. In fact, Jesus had set the community free of this man's nuisance. I wonder how it went. I wonder whether anyone's heart softened. I wonder if the man had a wife and family. I wonder whether his rightmindedness convinced them. I wonder...

I am an evangelist. And, if you're reading this, you're probably a follower of Jesus, which means that you are an evangelist, too. We have good news to share--news of the power of God who has come to us and set us free from the oppression of sin and death and the devil and has put us in our right mind. That is liberating news for a world that is shackled by fear and hopelessness and frustration. But there are others who have a different message to tell. They have been hurt--not by Jesus but by a  misplaced religion that operates in his name. They tell of woundedness in the church. They speak of losing their time and money and spirit to those who wrongly promised them freedom and peace. They have been spiritually swindled by those who pretend to witness to the power of Jesus when, in fact, they are only preaching of themselves.

The power of Jesus has the power to set us free, but the powers of darkness work against it in insidious ways. They are often the ones with the proverbial microphone, espousing hate and greed and fear in the name of Jesus. When the world thinks of Christians, does it think of Jesus or of them? When people hear of "mission" and "evangelism" and "revival," does it think of freedom or oppression? We have much work to do, but it is good work, liberating work, holy work. And we do it not only in the name of Jesus but animated and empowered by his spirit.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Unpopular Opinion: Assisted Dying

For some, the subject of physician-assisted dying or physician-assisted suicide is clear and unequivocal. "Of course it should be legal," many would say. "Of course it should be outlawed," many others would claim. It is a highly emotional issue that provokes strong reactions. For some, the intellectual, philosophical, religious issue is inseparable from real life circumstances--a parent or a spouse who is struggling with a terminal condition or who has recently succumb to such an illness. Although, as a clergyperson, I am sensitive to those pastoral concerns, this is not an overly pastoral post. I am given the luxury of not facing those realities in my own family or parish--for now--and cannot assume to speak for those who do. Still, their voices are important to me, and I try not to ignore them.

Last week, California became the fourth state to legalize physician-assisted suicide, as it is known in this country. Coincidentally, that same day the students in the Advanced Degrees Program at the School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee were invited to a presentation and discussion on the subject of assisted dying. Our presenter was Bishop Jim White, Assistant Bishop of Auckland. Bishop White acknowledge to us that he had been asked to present on this topic when news broke that the bishops in New Zealand had issued a statement in opposition to legalized physician-assisted dying in their country. Perhaps ironically, however, Bishop White was the only bishop in New Zealand not to sign that statement. In his presentation, he gave a thorough and beautifully pastoral perspective on the subject, and I agreed with everything he said...except his conclusion. He is in support of physician-assisted dying, and I am opposed to it. But more on that in a minute.

Suicide still carries an unhelpful, unchristian stigma, and I think that stigma should end. That's why I prefer the term physician-assisted dying. People still ask me if those who kill themselves go to hell. They don't--at least not because of the way they died. People still ask me whether those who committed suicide can be buried from the church. They can, and I cannot think of a more important time for the ministrations of the church to be offered to the family and friends of one who has died. Parents and grandparents still ask me how they should tell their children and grandchildren about their family member's suicide. I say something like, "Be honest and open, avoid any sense of shame or guilt, and encourage them to talk with you or another person about it if they want to," but, as a parent, I also recognize how hard that is. In general, as Christians our aversion to death and talking about death undermines our proclamation of the gospel--that God's love in Jesus Christ is stronger than death--and those of us in leadership positions in the church (lay and ordained) need to do a better job of modeling our beliefs about death, including suicide, by talking about it.

Going a step further, no matter what one believes about suicide (physician-assisted or otherwise), we should be clear that there is no shame associated with how one dies. I believe that God loves us regardless of how we live or how we die. Despite what Jesus says about blaspheming the Holy Spirit, which has nothing to do with suicide, there is no one sin that God will not forgive. Suicide is almost always the result of mental illness like depression. It is, therefore, a manifestation of our brokenness, and God came to heal that brokenness--in this life and, more importantly and fully, in the next. There should be no shame attached to depression. There should be no shame associated with suicide. My opinion about physician-assisted dying has nothing to do with sin or guilt or shame.

In fact, when it comes to the political process, I am not opposed to physician-assisted dying. I am not persuaded by arguments that individuals will be pressured by their family members to take their own life because of financial reasons, nor am I persuaded by arguments that individuals who are not capable of making rational choices will be "choosing" to kill themselves. I trust that a process can be put in place to prevent that. On the other hand, I am persuaded that there are many people who would rather end their suffering and could benefit from the help of a physician. If someone is diagnosed as being in the end stages of a terminal illness that causes great pain and suffering both for the patient and for the patient's family, why wouldn't we let that person choose to die on her or his own terms? As Bishop White pointed out, many hospice care providers already provide morphine or similar drugs to relieve pain even though it speeds up the dying process. Are we really basing our laws on this issue around the pretense of one layer of intent? We could get bogged down debates over whether the patient must be the one to administer a fatal dose or whether, in the case of physical incapacity, we would allow a physician or family member to carry out the wishes of the patient. For me, those are still ancillary.

Politically speaking, when it comes to ending one's life, I am a Libertarian. Religiously speaking, however, I am opposed to physician-assisted dying because our faith has a different understanding of the value of life and the place of suffering in it. All life is sacred. Young or old, sick or well, barely breathing or fully thriving--all life is valuable to God. Over and over, the prayers of the psalmist remind us that God is with those who "walk through the valley of the shadow of death." Psalm 71 contains the confident cry of the aged to God, "Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent." Through the prophet Isaiah, God says to his people, "Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you" (46:3-4).

Likewise, we believe resolutely that God is present in our time of suffering. In Exodus, God declares, "I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings" (3:7). Paul writes, "[W]e rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Romans 5:3-5). Since the earliest days of Christianity, our tradition has encouraged us to embrace suffering and not run from it because we believe that pain in this life is temporary. We do not seek to escape it but to be delivered from it as God shepherds us through death and into the next life. Pain and suffering are not indicative of God's absence but are sure signs of his presence with us.

Assisted dying runs counter to these principles of the faith. If the church supports efforts to legalize assisted dying, we undermine our belief that all life is equally valuable. To suggest that those who have only six months left to live or who have otherwise been diagnosed with a terminal illness are right in ending their lives in a way that others aren't places greater value on the lives of those who are not expected to die in the short term--those who aren't afflicted with an illness. But that cannot be the case. A life has equal value to God and to God's church no matter how many days are ahead. Life itself is a terminal condition, and we do not measure its value on how long it will last. Likewise, all life--whether lived in comfort and ease or in struggle and pain--is of equal value to God and to God's church. Yes, our response should be to alleviate pain but not to end the life of those who suffer from it. Otherwise, we declare that a life with pain is not worth living--that suffering and struggle win out--but for Christians that cannot be further from the truth.

I do not blame those who choose to end their own lives. I do not blame the physicians who help them or the politicians who give them that right. If someone in my parish with a terminal illness came to me and asked me what I thought, I would tell them my understanding of the faith, but I would not hold them to it any more than I would ask someone to adopt my particular and quirky way of understanding how atonement works or how prayers are answered. This is my reading of the gospel. This is how it is lived out in my life. In my opinion, the church should not support assisted dying, but it should provide every pastoral support to those who are suffering and to those who choose to end their suffering.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Postponing Galatians 3

I remember when Paul's words about the egalitarian nature of life in Christ hit me for the first time. In Galatians 3, he writes, "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." I was a second-year seminarian and was writing a paper on feminist theology. I had been asked to read about the contributions of feminist theologians to our understanding of who Jesus is and what he represents. In my reading, I had discovered contemporary giants like Coakley and Ruether and Soskice. They articulated a vision of Jesus the Christ who brought us under the reign of God in a way that liberated us from our particular gender (or race or class). I don't remember whether any of them quoted Galatians 3, but the feminist vision of belonging to Christ set me free from my own patriarchy in a way I had never known before.

But, of course, it didn't. While that fiery, confident, and necessary genderless, raceless, and classless eschatology was full and powerful, I shut my books and turned in my paper and went back to my seminary dorm room where most of the students were white and male and economically advantaged. Most of my professors were white and male and economically advantaged. I was studying in a church that, at the time, had been ordaining women for less than ten years and that wouldn't ordain its first woman bishop for another ten years. Sure, Paul's vision of the kingdom of God (note the gender-specific language inherent in that term) was egalitarian, but the manifestation of that kingdom in which I lived and in which I still live is far from egalitarian.

Race matters. Class matters. Gender matters. Sexuality matters. It isn't supposed to, but it does. We don't want it to, but it does. Just ask the residents of Hale County, Alabama, where the population is overwhelmingly black and for generations has been shackled by the vicious cycle of poverty, poor education, and substandard healthcare. Just ask my daughter, who, despite all the privilege she enjoys, is still labeled as "bossy" by the parents watching her assert herself as a leader on the playground. Just ask the victims of the tragedy in Orlando, where people were targeted and murdered because of their sexual orientation.

In one of my classes this summer, we read an essay by Rowan Williams on racism. In it, he wrote some words that surprise me: "Liberation has something to do with the presenting and owning in public of this reality of shared life behind and beyond the roles defined by the power-holders; and this means an accentuation, not an erosion, of difference--which is why racial justice and racial equality do not begin with 'treating everyone alike'" (from "Nobody Knows Who I Am Till the Judgment Morning" in On Christian Theology, p. 281-82). In essence, that means that, for most of human history, those in power have been able to define those without it, and an end of that power-imbalance requires us to allow those without power to define themselves for themselves and for all of us. For those of us like me--people of privilege--to say to the world, "It's time for us to treat everyone the same," is to deny the sins of racism, classism, and sexism. For preachers like me to claim that Galatians 3 shows us that, in Christ, we are past all of these 'isms is to perpetuate the sins themselves.

In the gospel of Jesus Christ, Paul saw a radical reordering of society. He knew that access to God and participation in God's reign were not distributed on the basis of race, class, or gender. But he lived in a world in which all of those things still mattered, and we still live in that world today. We wait for that vision of God's egalitarian reign to be established here on earth. We believe that in Jesus such a reign is possible. But we cannot pretend that it is already here. It isn't. And it won't be until we stop pretending that it is.

Monday, June 13, 2016


Jesus has really been on a roll of late. Three weeks ago, as we began our journey through the Season after Pentecost in Year C of the lectionary, he healed the slave of a centurion, showing not only that he could cure at a distance but also that his saving power was to be shared with those who are not Jewish by birth. Then, he went to a town called Nain, where he gave a childless widow back her dead son, raising the corpse on its way to the grave. Yesterday, Jesus used a parable to show that a Pharisee's understanding of sin and hospitality were lacking, teaching us the power of forgiveness. Although the lectionary skips over the first half of it, Luke 8 contains powerful parables about the countercultural nature of God's kingdom, and the build up culminates with the miraculous stilling of the storm--a moment when all that Jesus has claimed is confirmed in this supernatural expression of divine power.

And then, this Sunday (Luke 8:26-39), he hits a bit of a roadblock. After the storm is made quiet, the disciples and Jesus land across the sea in the "country of the Gerasenes," which is to say in Gentile territory. We don't really know why Jesus came to this unfamiliar place. Perhaps it was an accident of the storm. Regardless, he doesn't have much time to set things in order. Luke tells us, "As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him." A quick survey of the passage lets us know that this demon-possessed man was infamous in that area. He didn't wear clothes. He didn't live in a house. Instead, he slept in the graveyard, which is to say that by Jewish standards he lived a notoriously unclean, ungodly life. He could not be contained by chains and shackles, but howled his way around the community, causing havoc.

Upon seeing Jesus, the man flings himself down on the ground at his feet and cries out as loudly as he can, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?" Throughout scripture (see Genesis, Daniel, etc.) that is a particularly Gentile way of referring to the God of Israel. There is recognition, then, in this demon-possessed man of who Jesus is and what he represents. After the exchange that follows, Jesus cast the "Legion" out into a herd of pigs that rush down the bank and drown themselves in the sea (the sea being the chaotic place where demons are expected to go). And the man, free of the demon, is found to be in his right mind, wearing clothes, sitting with Jesus and his disciples. And when the townspeople see it, they are afraid. They assemble together, and "all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear." And Jesus got back into the boat and left as quickly as he had arrived. I wonder what happened to the people whom he left.

Jesus takes a community from chaos to peace, and they reject him. Could it be that rational people when presented with the kingdom of God choose chaos over peace because they are afraid of what that peace represents?

Spouses of alcoholics often suffer breakdowns when their partners become sober. Perhaps without realizing it, they work to undermine their spouse's sobriety because the familiar chaos is less scary than the unknown peace that sobriety has brought. That makes absolutely no sense...unless you're the spouse of an alcoholic who for thirty years has defined herself as the one whose life revolves around a drunk husband. Friends, family, children, career, social life, church--it all fits into the chaotic world of a husband who drinks way too much. Even though no one will talk about it, everyone works around it. We all know that she suffers in that way, and our relationships with her (and him) reflect that truth. If he isn't drunk any more, who will talk with her late into the night--her husband? They haven't really spoken with each other in decades. But, now, he's got his life together. People are noticing. And, all of the sudden, the bags under her eyes aren't assumed to be the result of sleepless nights but of her age. Her own struggles are unspokenly assigned to her. And so she gives him a bottle of Jack Daniels to celebrate his one year of sobriety, only half-conscious of what the gift represents.

It happens. It really happens. It happened in Luke 8. And it happens in our own lives over and over.

Yesterday morning, we learned that a terrorist had entered a nightclub in Orlando and had shot many people. Yesterday afternoon, we learned that as many as 50 had died and that the perpetrator claimed an allegiance with the Islamic State. By last night, expression of sadness, sympathy, and outrage had flooded social media. And now all of us are quick to declare who, other than the terrorist, is to blame. Is it the gun lobby? Is it a president who is weak on terror? Is it a homophobic imam or an inherently violent religion? Is it those of us who decry gun violence, offering little more than our prayers for the victims and our disdain for the stalled political process? Is it you? Is it me?

I don't know who is to blame except people. We are to blame. There is a kingdom that God is bringing into this world in which there is no violence or hatred or blame. And, when presented with that kingdom, we reject it. Over and over again, we reject it because we are afraid of it. To any rational person, that doesn't make sense. Why would we turn our backs on peace? But to us, who are stuck in our irrationality, it makes perfect sense because peace and the change that it brings to our lives is threatening. It really is, and we cannot afford to ignore that fact. But, like a spouse in Al-Anon, we must be reminded daily that the threats of persistent chaos and hatred and violence are even more threatening than the change that peace represents. As a preacher of the gospel, I must do more to hold up the urgency of that kingdom. As people of God, we must invite the world to acknowledge the real cost of peace and encourage people to embrace it anyway.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Sin Has No Bell Curve

In Luke 7:36-8:3, when Jesus went to Simon the Pharisee's house for dinner, "a woman in the city, who was a sinner," learned that the rabbi was there, and she went to meet him. She wasn't invited over for the meal, but that didn't stop her. She had something she needed to do. In the middle of the meal, she found Jesus at the table and began to caress his feet. Moved with emotion, the woman wept enough that her tears began to bathe Jesus' feet. She took down her hair and dried them with the locks. Then she took the perfumed ointment and rubbed it on the rabbi's feet. It was, in all respects, a sensuous moment.

Yes, Luke introduces her as "a woman in the city, who was a sinner," but let's leave that alone for now. Just start with the fact that in that culture women didn't touch men, and men didn't touch women. Ever been to an orthodox synagogue? There's a reason men sit on one side and women sit on the other. Add on top of that that the woman used her hair to dry Jesus' feet--her hair, which, as Paul stresses in 1 Corinthians 6, deserves special attention. Ever seen a conservative Muslim woman wear the hijab? There's a reason their hair is covered. Finally, don't forget that we're talking about Jesus' feet. The washing of feet, as the Last Supper narrative makes clear, was a duty reserved for servants or slaves. Jesus' criticism of Simon isn't that the Pharisee didn't wash his feet--that would have been preposterous--but that Simon didn't give Jesus any water for his feet. The feet were dirty--literally and figuratively. They weren't touched in mixed company. A lowly servant would take care of that because, in most cultures, interactions with servants is assumed to be defined by an imbalance of station, which means that there would be no risk of sexual interaction. This, on the other hand, was something to see.

This woman's gesture was obscene. And she didn't care. She had to do it. She didn't care what happened to her. She didn't care what people thought of her. She had to do it. She was burdened by something that she knew Jesus could take away. Luke frames this story by introducing her as "a sinner." The word used to describe her is "ἁμαρτωλός," and Luke uses forms of that word 18 times in only 9 stories: the calling of Peter, who describes himself as a "sinful man," to describe the company Jesus eats with, when Jesus teaches people to love their enemies because even "sinners" love those who love them, in Sunday's gospel lesson about the woman, when Jesus question the sinfulness of those whom Pilate had killed, again to describe those who are accompanying Jesus, in the prayer of the tax collector, who called himself a sinner unworthy to lift up his eyes to heaven, to identify Zacchaeus in the eyes of the religious elites, and finally in Jesus' prediction of his death at the hands of "sinful men." Notice that in all of those stories "sinful" or "sinner" is used to distinguish an individual or individuals from the expectations of society. This wasn't an assumed title. It was a label given by humble people to themselves or by society to those whom they thought should be humble.

But are they any different than you or me? We are all sinners. Even the Pharisees in Jesus' day accepted that. The label, however, seems to belong only to certain individuals. But does it? Explaining to Simon this lavish, obscene gesture by the sinful woman, Jesus tells a parable about two men with debts--one small and one large. Simon sees right through the analogy and identifies quickly that the one who is forgiven the larger debt will love his master more. But is that how it works? Is sin proportional? Is our loving response proportional to the sins that have been forgiven?

I want to push back against this story--or at least a dominant interpretation of the story. I don't think the issue here is the size of the sins that are being forgiven but the willingness of God to forgive one who is defined by her sin. If Simon the Pharisee were to sin, there were specific remedies for that in the temple cult. But where would this woman even start? The label Luke gives her suggests to us that she cannot shake that title. She is a sinner who cannot simply show up at the temple, seek forgiveness, and start over. But Jesus offers her something else.

Jesus is the one who welcomes sinners. Jesus is the one who eats with them. He touches the unclean and, by so doing, makes them clean. He pronounces forgiveness of sins as if he were standing in the place of God. He has the power to transform this woman in a way that is denied her by the religious society in which she lives. Jesus shows us that sins are not quantifiable. In his reception of them, there is no difference between a Pharisee and a tax collector. "Those who are well have no need of a physician," he taught us.

We are all sinners. We are all defined by our sin. It makes no difference whether you are defined by society as a sinner or praised by society for your faithfulness. You're still exactly the same. The remarkable thing is that Jesus is just as welcoming of the former as the latter. That is the reason for her tears. That is the reason she offers herself in this humiliating gesture. Jesus has given her what no one else could--acceptance. For Jesus, it doesn't matter how sinful she is. For Jesus, we are all the same.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Learning from David

A few weeks ago, I wrapped up a six-week bible study on David. We read some of the big stories from David's life--his anointing by Samuel, his battle with Goliath, his affair with Bathsheba. I had never studied in succession these passages from 1 & 2 Samuel before, and it did me a lot of good to read them with a group of thoughtful, insightful, faithful students. I learned so much about the David story--less about what happened and more about connections between the stories. Over and over, the David narrative shows us that God is choosing what human beings do not have the sight to see.

On Sunday, those of us in RCL Track 2 will read a tiny snippet from one of many chapters in David's life (2 Samuel 11:26-12:10,13-15). It isn't really fair to read only this encounter between the prophet Nathan and King David. I think the lectionary selection (wrongly) presumes that the congregation will remember that "the wife of Uriah," who is introduced that obliquely at the beginning of this lesson, is Bathsheba. In Nathan's rebuke of David, we hear that David had indeed "struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife," but we get none of the lust, the conspiracy, or the faithfulness of Uriah despite David's attempts to get him unknowingly to take the unborn bastard as his own. We miss the fact that numerous soldiers of Israel had been killed during the cover-up, and we fail to see that David didn't even care. Multiple lives are taken so that the king can cover up his misdeed.

Even if you're not preaching on this passage, go back and read all of 2 Samuel 11-12. The story loses so much of its teaching power if we fail to recall the complete debasement of David and the remarkable faithfulness of the dead soldier. Without it, this lesson feels like God may be overreacting--coming down with great and lasting anger upon his chosen king. Even knowing the whole story, the death of the child is a terrible tragedy, which raises deep and unanswerable questions about God and punishment, but, without the whole story, the child's death is remarkably disproportionate and could distract the congregation from the rest of the service. Really, this lesson is quite perilous.

And still God forgives David.

Because our class immersed itself in the David story, we got to know him. We saw how God had chosen not the first or second or third etc. son of Jesse but the last one. We saw how the boy who didn't belong at the battle field was the child God chose to defeat the champion of the army of the Philistines. We saw how David fell in love with Jonathan--their souls were knit together upon first meeting--and how their friendship held them together even when Jonathan's father was trying to kill David. We saw how David remembered the love he shared with Jonathan even after his friend had died, restoring to his only surviving son all that Saul had possessed before David displaced him as king. Through it all, we saw how God had chosen David to be this leader. Like the people of Israel, we grew to have confidence in God's choice despite what might have been our own preferences. So, finally, when we get to the story of David's adultery and murder, we hear it not as a fatal blow to God's chosen but as a sign of real, human struggle for one of God's faithful people.

The encounter between the prophet and the king is a moment of clarity. David had become so drunk with power--living in a cedar house--that he had forgotten what it meant to be faithful to God. He had murdered people to satisfy his own lust. The most damning words of Nathan come not in the parable of rich and poor men but in the comparison he offers between David and Saul: "I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master's house, and your master's wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah." All of the sudden, David discovers that he has become his predecessor. All that was wrong with Saul had fallen onto him. Like looking into a mirror and seeing for the first time how unmanageable one's life has become, David woke up and knew he needed help. "I have sinned against the Lord," David said. And the time for renewal was begun.

This is a beautiful story, but the text we are given hides some of that. Go back and read more about David. Don't lose sight of this story's place in the whole David narrative. There's much more going on here than adultery and punishment. This isn't a story about God enacting vengeance upon a sinner. It's a story about deep and abiding faithfulness, moments of confusion, and moments of clarity. It's worth our attention.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Law of Averages

I have always loved baseball. My parents took me to see the Atlanta Braves at Fulton County Stadium back when they were even worse than they are this year. On summer nights, if we were driving anywhere in the southeast, we would scan the AM dial, searching for the clear sound of Skip Caray’s nasal voice and the sarcastic remarks he was sure to make. When I visited my grandparents’ house for a week each summer, I would lie in the bed next to my Grandpa and fall asleep while the Braves tried to eke out a win on the radio. As I got older, I fell in love with the Chicago Cubs and watched their afternoon broadcasts on WGN. After my junior year of college, I managed to secure a job on the ground crew at Wrigley Field. Still today, when I watch the Cubs play, I dream of heading to Chicago for another summer, riding each day into Wrigleyville on the Red Line to spend an afternoon in one of baseball’s holiest temples.

There are countless beautiful things about America’s pastime, but many of its enduring characteristics come from its incomparably long 162-game season. In college football, teams play only a dozen regular-season games, which means that every game is critical. Conversely, a baseball team endures a season that stretches on night after night for months and months, which means that a team can lose as many as six or seven or eight in a row and still contend for a World Series title. A championship team needs to be at its best more often than not, but, given enough games, the best teams usually end up on top. Sure, even the worst teams will win some spectacular games, giving their fans a thrill, but, teams that are in a long-term rebuilding phase are not likely to impress their fan base for very long. (Sorry, Braves fans.)

Similarly, a team that starts a season on a real hot streak may attain an unsustainable winning percentage of .750 for the first month of play, but eventually it will fall back from that meteoric pace and settle into a more realistic winning rate around .650 or, perhaps even .700. (The record for the most wins in a season is 116, which equals a winning percentage of .716.) A few years ago, Braves’ third baseman Chipper Jones flirted midseason with a batting average of .400, but the law of averages caught up with the career-.306-hitter, and he finished the 2008 season with a respectable .368 average (the 193rd best season of all time). Over the course of a season, the difference between batting .368 and .400 is only four additional hits per one hundred at-bats, which sounds easy enough, but baseball is a long game. There may be moments of real surprise, but, over time, the truth always comes out.

Doesn’t the same principle hold true in other aspects of our lives? A marriage built exclusively on a fiery romance is likely to fizzle out when both partners stop pretending to be the Romeo and Juliet they never were in the first place. The job you have hated for years can actually seem rewarding when you finish a big project or get back from a long vacation, but, eventually, you are as ready to quit as you have ever been. Ever kept a New Year’s resolution longer than a few weeks? Ever promised the preacher that you and your family are “definitely going to start coming to church again?” Ever told God that you are “going to try harder to be a good Christian” and that you “really mean it this time?”

Our journey with God is a long one. It begins even before we are born, when he knows us from our mother’s womb, and continues through this life and into the next. We cannot measure faithfulness in months or even years. Faithfulness is a decades-long process of learning and growing and sustaining. Each of us has a lifetime to deepen our spiritual practices, and habitual changes—like batting averages—do not take shape overnight. So how do we become the Christian that we want to be? How does a .275 hitter climb up to .300? One swing at a time.

Start with where you are. Quit pretending that you are something that you are not. What does your spiritual life look like right now? Unlike baseball players, no one keeps track of our statistics, so you must evaluate the quality of your own spiritual life. What is giving you joy? What causes you anxiety? What draws you closer to God? What makes God feel more distant? Again, start wherever you are, and then consider one small thing that you might do to change a weekly routine. Maybe it is as simple as five minutes of silence each day in the car before you head into work. Maybe it is as easy as reading a psalm before you hop in the shower. Whatever it is, pick something meaningful but simple—the kind of practice that within a week or two you could begin to do almost without thinking about it.
You may feel the urge to do more, but don’t try to do everything at once. Mountain-top experiences usually fade away. That kind of change, if enacted all at once, is nearly impossible to sustain. You cannot become Mother Teresa overnight, but five years of steady, incremental changes can be transformative. Think of your relationship with God in the longest terms. Yes, each day matters, but there are many, many days in a lifetime. Do not miss the opportunity to grow in your faith, but recognize that meaningful growth begins with small steps. We must shape our spiritual lives in tiny increments and watch how those minute steps accumulate in the long game.

This post is also the cover article from The View, the weekly parish newsletter for St. John's, Decatur. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn more about St. John's, click here.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Forgiveness When?

Although I'll head back to Decatur this Sunday for the Bishop's Visit (can't miss that!), I'm in Sewanee for the next three weeks taking classes. This is my first time here for the summer program, so I don't really know what I'm getting into, but I imagine it will involve a lot of reading, a fair amount of writing, and considerable conversation and debate with other student-priests over cups of coffee and glasses of beer. One of the topics that is always on my mind comes up in this Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 7 36-8:3). I want to know how forgiveness works.

Again this Sunday, Luke presents an encounter unlike any of the other gospel writers. The others have versions of a woman wiping Jesus' hair with her feet, but only Luke recalls this moment as taking place in a Pharisee's house. Likewise, only Luke tells us that the woman was "a woman in the city, who was a sinner." The contrast is intentional. Here, at the dinner table of a religious man defined in the community by his religiosity, kneels a street woman defined in the community by her sin. And, of course, Jesus is right in the middle of it all.

We recall how the story unfolds. The woman anoints Jesus' feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair. She kisses his feet and anoints them with perfumed ointment--perhaps the kind she saved for her best customers. The Pharisee is confused and angry, trying to understand how this ostensibly holy man sitting at his table would let this woman do this terrible thing. Jesus interrupts Simon's silent thoughts and tells a story about forgiveness. At the end, the answer is obvious: the one who is forgiven more loves more. And Jesus uses the parable as a lens for Simon to understand what has happened between Jesus and the mysterious woman.

And that's where all my questions start. The parable tells us that the two debtors are forgiven their two debts--one large and one small--and the implied response to that forgiveness are two expressions of love--one large and one small. Forgiveness first, love second. But the woman's devotion comes before Jesus' pronounces that she is forgiven. Is she trying to earn the forgiveness? Surely not. Perhaps she had confidence that Jesus would forgive her. Perhaps she had heard a rumor that this radical forgiveness-giver was dining nearby, and she ran and did all that she could, anticipating--knowing--that forgiveness would come. I like that better, but I also like it when all the pieces fall into place, and that won't happen here.

When it comes to God's forgiveness, I like to push the envelope. I like to take his unconditional love to its absolute end. Partly, that's because I am firmly rooted in a theology of God's impassibility, which is to say that God is not affected by the created order; God does not change; we do. God always loves because that is his nature. God always forgives because that is his nature. Any appearance of transaction--temple sacrifice, wiping of feet with tears and hair, even the cross itself--is for our benefit and not God's. (Yes, I know that creates lots of challenges for a theology of atonement, and, yes, eventually it comes out in the wash, but that's another post for another day.) I want to take this story in Luke, therefore, and recast it in an extreme way. I want to take the woman's forgiveness as an a priori fact and then let the rest play out.

Imagine that Jesus' forgiving nature is so complete and total that women like this prostitute know that they will be forgiven even before they ask. Consider how Jesus' radical, fringe-living reputation has secured him a band of followers that raise lots of eyebrows. Consider how this woman may have approached Jesus knowing already the fullness of her forgiveness and that the wiping of Jesus' feet is exactly like the debtor who shows greater love. And then imagine that that's how the Christian life looks.

We are not forgiven because we ask for forgiveness. God has already forgiven us. We ask to make it real to us. We ask to remember it. God's love was never in doubt. Going to church or saying our prayers shouldn't be an attempt to "get right with God." Instead, they should be moments when we bathe Jesus' feet with our tears of gratitude and wipe them with our hair. Jesus' final words to her--"your faith has saved you"--doesn't represent a transaction that has happened in the moment. They point to a faith that brought her into the room in the first place. So come to the feet of Jesus knowing that you are already forgiven. Let your tears of thanksgiving flow. Offer yourself with a spirit of overwhelmed gratitude like that of the forgiven debtor. You have already been forgiven. This isn't the time for penitence. It's the time for thanksgiving.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Good News for the Gorilla Pit Mom Inside Us

June 5, 2016 – The 3rd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 5C
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Her name is Michelle Gregg. But most of us don’t know that because most of us don’t care who she is—only what she has done. To the world, Ms. Gregg will forever be known as the “Gorilla Pit Mom.” Some call her “the worst mother of all time.” Others label her “Harambe’s murderer.” A few sympathetic parents call her “the unluckiest mom in the world.” The truth is that she lost track of her three-year-old boy long enough for him to fall into the silverback gorilla habitat at the Cincinnati Zoo. Worried that the animal might hurt or even kill the boy, zookeepers shot Harambe, and the world is outraged.

I don’t know what your reaction to that story has been. I don’t know what you think about the outcome. And I’m not asking you to feel any particular way about the tragedy. You can blame whomever you want to blame. But we have to stop pretending that that would never happen to us. It doesn’t matter who the mother is. It doesn’t matter who the father is. It doesn’t matter whether that three-year-old is well-behaved or a total hellion. That doesn’t matter because the hard truth is that none of us would do any better. Quit sharing hateful posts on Facebook. Stop telling people that today’s parents aren’t attentive enough to their children. Quit shaking your head in disgust because you think that today’s kids don’t know how to behave like you and yours did a few decades ago. You and your kids aren’t any different.

How many of us have ever taken our eyes off the road to read that text message even though our children or grandchildren were riding in the back? Has anyone ever buckled the kids into the car even though you had a margarita or two at the cheap Mexican restaurant where they begged you to take them for dinner? Ever looked up at the grocery store or the baseball field or the playground and felt that overwhelming panic that comes when you realize that you have no idea where one of your kids is? Ever had the police knock on your door in the middle of the night to tell you that they found your third-grader out exploring the city? We’ve got to stop pretending that the gorilla pit would never happen on our watch. It can. It will. It does.

What’s even harder than that is to stop pretending that the only reason it hasn’t happened is luck. News flash: it has happened. It is happening. The only difference is that there weren’t video cameras to record the moment when your kid fell into the pit. There isn’t a parent in this world who hasn’t lost control of his or her kids. I heard a podcast the other day in which a would-be father said, “A willingness to have a child is a willingness to embrace a future that you cannot control.”[1] That’s exactly right, but parenthood is just one way of discovering that universal truth. We aren’t in charge. No matter how hard we try, we won’t do a good enough job. Sooner or later, in one way or another, we all learn that our very best just isn’t good enough. The question is what do we do about it?

Could it be that the answer is so ridiculous that it isn’t contained in any parenting textbook, isn’t taught in any prenatal class, isn’t espoused by any pediatrician, and isn’t followed by any preschool? Could the answer be so illogical, so unpredictable, and so incredible that no one on earth could ever make it up? The apostle Paul thought so.

“I want you to know, brothers and sisters,” Paul wrote in his Letter to the Galatians, “that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” For Paul, this wasn’t a minor point. All the way through chapters 1 & 2, he stresses over and over that he didn’t learn the gospel from any human being but got it straight from Jesus. Why was this so important? Partly, it was because some rivals had started preaching a false gospel to the Galatians, and Paul wanted to be clear that the message he had taught them had come with the authority of Jesus himself. But it was also more than that. Paul had experienced the life-changing power of the unadulterated gospel, and he knew firsthand that the gospel was a truth so wonderfully strange that no human being could ever have made it up. The good news of Jesus had literally knocked him off his horse and caused him to see that everything he thought he knew about being faithful to God—every instinct he had ever had about what God wanted him to do with his life—was completely wrong.

“You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism,” he explained to them. “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” Devoted to his faith, committed to the pure religion of God’s people, Paul made it his life’s work to persecute those who proclaimed Jesus as Lord. He ravaged the church, doing everything in his power to destroy it. But God had a different plan. As Paul wrote, “God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles.” How could this be? How could it be possible that the arch-persecutor of the church had become the chief-apostle to the Gentiles? How could the one who, in the name of God, had sent Christians to their deaths for following Jesus now be proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to anyone who would listen? Because the gospel of grace had totally and completely turned his life around in a way that not even Paul could have ever seen coming.

Grace is the foundation of our faith. It is the way God works. It is the way God invites us to live. It is God’s totally unconditional, unmerited, unearned favor. It is God’s eternal “Yes!” spoken directly to you no matter who you are or what you have done. It is God’s absolutely free gift of love, and it is nearly impossible to believe because who can believe that what we do doesn’t matter? Who can accept that no matter what—whether we succeed or fail or even if we don’t try at all—the result is exactly the same? Everything we know about the universe tells us that there are consequences for our actions and our inactions. Every instinct in our heart and mind and soul tells us that whoever it is up there that made us wants us to be good. We grow up learning from the very beginning that our parents and teachers and little league coaches want us to try our best. And that’s exactly why the gospel of Jesus Christ could not have come from a human being—because the gospel tells us that the sum total of human effort—what we do or don’t do—isn’t worth squat. And, that, my friends, is the only possible answer to the reality that our very best will never be good enough—well, that and hopelessness or damnation, and, given the choice, I’ll take the gospel.

That’s the human condition. No matter how good you are, you’ll never be good enough. No matter how diligent you are, something will always get away from you. No matter how much you want to be the perfect mom, the perfect dad, the perfect spouse, the perfect child, the perfect priest, the perfect person, you can’t, and you won’t. Pretty soon your limitations will catch up with you. (Psst! They already have!) But the good news is that God has set us free from our failures. And, even more importantly than that, God has set us free from the illusion that there was ever anything we could do about it in the first place. When Jesus Christ revealed himself to Paul, Paul discovered that there was nothing he could ever do to satisfy God, but he also discovered that God didn’t care because, in Christ, God had already made him 100%, without-a-doubt, undeniably right with God.
The shocking, unbelievable truth of the gospel is that, even though we are destined to screw up and fall short, God loves us anyway—exactly how we are with no conditions and without exception. That is the good news spoken to the Gorilla Pit Mom within each of us. We will mess up. Even our very best isn’t good enough. But in Jesus Christ, God gives us his best, and God’s best is all that matters.

[1] Radiolab. “Update: 23 Weeks 6 Days.” 23 March 2016.